Trump-Tied Media Company Spread Fake News and Online Attacks in Kenya's Presidential Election, Report Finds

It sounds all too familiar: a smear campaign against a presidential candidate suddenly swarming social media right before voters head to the polls.

It happened this year in Kenya—and the company that led the attacks had ties to the campaign for President Donald Trump.

Harris Media, a Texas-based, far-right media company, created websites to manipulate search and social media results in favor of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta ahead of the country's August vote, a report released Thursday by Privacy International found.

Harris Media created one online campaign named “The Real Raila” to attack Raila Odinga, Kenyatta’s rival candidate. A second campaign called “Uhuru for Us” sought to highlight the incumbent leader’s accomplishments. Both were intended to dominate Google results with the intention of swinging public opinion in Kenyatta's favor, the report said. 

The media company reportedly used ad words in Google searches to disseminate targeted advertising through social media platforms. The ads contained inflammatory claims against Odinga, arguing that his administration “would remove whole tribes,” while the Real Raila website republished dubious reports characterizing Odinga as a racist and xenophobe. 

The report added that Harris Media tapped into Kenya’s troubled past by choosing imagery and videos that depicted ethnic violence. Kenya's politics have been tainted by tribal tensions since its independence in 1963.

Kenya Supporter of Kenya's opposition party National Super Alliance (NASA) react near a red cross vehicle carrying an injured man during a demonstration in Nairobi on November 28. The country is currently in a political brinkmanship that could lead to further chaos. ALEX MCBRIDE/AFP/Getty Images

It is unknown how Harris Media targeted specific ads and the type of data used for the campaigns. Privacy International could not determine whether Harris Media used tribal affiliations or political inclinations to achieve its goals.

The company has led similar campaigns in the past. The Trump campaign hired Harris Media to spearhead its digital operations during the GOP primaries in an “undefined role,” but the arrangement ended quickly after founder Vincent Harris leaked the news of his own hiring, according to Politico. “Harris Media was engaged as [a] subcontractor to do various project work for Trump’s digital agency of record. Nothing more or less,” Harris wrote in a now-deleted tweet last year.

The Kenya campaigns took place at a time when the country underwent media suppression and intimidation. Kenyans could not get enough reports about the presidential election on traditional media and preferred getting news from social media, but some of the information disseminated on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were considered "fake news."  

In July, the National Integration and Cohesion Commission flagged a possible risk of violence during the Kenya elections. Following the vote on August 8, police action led to the deaths of 33 people in Nairobi. Although the Supreme Court annulled the election results due to several irregularities, the election commission in October proclaimed Kenyatta as the winner. But the opposition led by Odinga adamantly rejects the decision. The current political gridlock has raised fears about threats to the country's stability and safety.

Harris Media has worked with right-leaning party Likud in Israel and the far-right party Alternative for Germany, and also allied itself with UKIP, the United Kingdom independence party that promoted the Brexit campaign in 2016, according to The Washington Post.  The company also has teamed with other U.S. conservative politicians such as Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz. 

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