Trump-linked media firm targeted Raila with attack adverts

Nasa leader Raila Odinga. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Nasa leader Raila Odinga. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

A Texas-based political media company that has worked for Donald Trump generated online attack campaigns against Raila Odinga in the run-up to the August presidential vote, a new report finds.

Harris Media, described in the report as “a far-right American digital media company,” is linked to two anonymous sites: ‘The Real Raila’ and ‘Uhuru for Us,’ states the report issued Wednesday by London-based Privacy International, which says it is committed to fighting for privacy rights worldwide.

The online campaigns that either targeted Mr Odinga or touted President Kenyatta’s accomplishments were conducted on behalf of the president’s re-election campaign, Privacy International states.

Harris Media has not publicly acknowledged its work in Kenya, and the company has not responded to queries by Privacy International and news organisations regarding its role in the presidential race between Mr Odinga and Mr Kenyatta.

Raphael Tuju, Jubilee Party secretary-general, “claims no knowledge of the Real Raila site,” the report says.

Privacy International states, however, that “the digital trail from both of the Kenyan digital campaigns leads firmly back to the Austin, Texas outfit.”

“The Real Raila and another site which links back to ‘Uhuru for Us’, ‘Candidates for Kenya,’ share an IP address with Harris Media’s own website and over 30 conservative campaigns,” the report says.

The ‘Uhuru For Us’ Twitter account, created in March of this year, still appears linked to a Harris Media email address, the report points out.

The Harris Media staff members, including Josh Canter, its vice president for content production, worked on the Real Raila site, the report asserts.

The site mostly republished “lightly-sourced characterisations of Mr Odinga as a dangerous, racist xenophobe, with promoting his tribe and family as his primary political aim,” the report says.

Incendiary claims made on the Real Raila site included the contention that the Nasa leader, if elected, would “remove whole tribes,” the report notes.

Harris Media, which has also done work for far-right political parties in Europe as well as for Mr Trump’s presidential campaign, crafts its messages by deriving information on how individuals in a particular country use their social media accounts, the report says.

“Harris Media’s Real Raila and Uhuru for Us campaigns relied on ad words in Google search and apparently targeted advertising on a range of social media platforms,” Privacy International explains.

These practices carry risks to personal privacy in a country such as Kenya that has no data-protection laws, the report observes.

Privacy International adds that it did not uncover how Harris Media devised the targeting for its online campaigns in Kenya.

Such inability to specify how the adverts were targeted “raises serious concerns about accountability and transparency,” the group states. “It leaves unanswered important questions as to how such data will be stored, who will have access to it, and what it will be used for.”

As ads for the Real Raila and Uhuru for Us flooded Twitter, Facebook and YouTube accounts throughout Kenya, it was commonly believed that the British data mining firm Cambridge Analytica was behind them, the report recounts.

“It was clear that whoever sponsored them had a lot of money to spend,” Privacy International notes.

Cambridge Analytica did discretely work for President Kenyatta during his re-election campaign, the report says.

That firm “gathered survey data on Kenyans to aid the campaign and managed the president’s image,” Privacy International states, attributing its allegation to current and former Cambridge Analytica employees.

“It is not alleged here that Cambridge Analytica was involved in Harris Media’s campaigns for Kenyatta,” the Privacy International report emphasises.

It adds that a Cambridge Analytica spokesman stated that the firm has no relationship with Harris Media or the ‘Real Raila’ or ‘Uhuru for Us’ campaigns.

Cambridge Analytica was not involved in any negative political content in Kenya, the spokesman told Privacy International.