2021-04-10 03:58:45 Nigerian Influencers Are Being Paid To Tweet About Alex Saab
Nigerian Influencers Are Being Paid To Tweet About Alex Saab
Alex Saab has some unlikely allies as an alleged money launderer who worked with the Venezuelan government and is fighting extradition to the United States.
#FreeAlexSaab has been a rallying cry among Nigerians on Twitter since mid-January, thanks to a broad influence operation involving employees of a Nigerian PR firm and a UK-based nonprofit called Digital Good Governance for Africa. The campaign paid influencers to tweet about Saab in an attempt to influence public opinion and court proceedings in Nigeria and Cape Verde, the African island nation where Saab is currently detained.
Saab is a Colombian businessman who was charged with money laundering by a Florida court in 2019, following similar charges in Colombia two months earlier. He is also accused of assisting Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuelan government in evading sanctions through fuel and gold trading. While traveling from Venezuela to Iran in June 2020, Saab was arrested in Cape Verde when his plane stopped to refuel. He denies all of the charges. His lawyers claim that his detention is illegal under international law because Venezuela designated him as a “special envoy,” granting him diplomatic immunity, and because the Interpol red notice calling for his arrest was issued after he was detained in Cape Verde.
In addition to legal maneuvers, Saab’s supporters have been arguing his case on Twitter, breaking the platform’s rules in the process.
Twitter suspended over 1,500 accounts this week for manipulating the #FreeAlexSaab hashtag in response to an investigation by BuzzFeed News and the Digital Africa Research Lab (DigiAfricaLab). This includes nearly all 40 accounts linked to the paid campaign by BuzzFeed News and DigiAfricaLab, as well as a prominent Nigerian influencer with over 1.5 million followers who offered to pay people who engaged with her Saab-related tweets.
Twitter also suspended the accounts of three Nigerian journalists: a Nigerian Tribune reporter and a freelance contributor to TheCable. Their positive tweets about Saab were tagged by an account, @Fernand47588665, which was used to track the campaign, according to sources and an internal campaign document. The reporters all told BuzzFeed News that they were not paid to show their support for Saab, and TheCable stated that it did not participate in the Saab campaign.
The findings show how global manipulation campaigns continue to affect Twitter’s trending topics and how professional marketing firms are frequently involved in social media influence operations. The campaign also offers a glimpse into Nigeria’s thriving, shady Twitter influencer industry, in which people frequently accept money to promote brands, causes, and hashtags without disclosing that they are part of paid campaigns.
“Regardless of intent, engaging in platform manipulation is a violation of the Twitter Rules.” This includes “gaming hashtags, artificially boosting content, or paying for fake engagement,” according to a company spokesperson. “As a result of these actions, we have suspended over 1,500 accounts associated with these hashtags, and our investigations are ongoing.”
“The influencer industry has rapidly evolved into a hotbed of fraud and discourse manipulation.”
According to Rosemary Ajayi, a researcher at the Digital Africa Research Lab, the Saab campaign demonstrates how common it has become for influencers to manipulate Twitter hashtags and discussions in Nigeria.
“The influencer industry has quickly turned into a hotbed of fraud and discourse manipulation,” Ajayi said. “Whether you want to promote a new album, a church event, or settle a score with an adversary, many PR firms and consultants operating within the Nigerian influencer ecosystem will recruit influencers to do so for a fee, no questions asked.”
Beginning in January, a small group of Nigerian influencers and human rights advocates received a briefing document on the Saab campaign produced on the letterhead of Digital Good Governance for Africa (DIGA).
DIGA is a UK nonprofit founded by Naji Makarem, a University College London professor of international development, and Christian Elemele, a Nigerian expat and social entrepreneur who previously studied at UCL. It was founded in 2019 and is currently working on a project to bring digital voting to Nigeria in time for the country’s elections in 2023.
The document outlined a social media campaign in which influencers from Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal would tweet in support of Saab and help generate public outrage about his case. It stated that participating influencers were expected to post twice per week during the initial one-month campaign, which ran from January 18 to February 18.
“The influencer is expected to use the hashtags #FreeAlexSaab and tag prominent Nigerians, Ghanaians, and Senegalese handles from government, business, celebrities, activists, and so on,” according to the five-page document.
It instructed influencers to respond to comments on their Saab posts and to tag the @wakandanomics Twitter account if they needed more information. That account does not have a full name, but it has an Elemele photo as its avatar. Elemele is also the cofounder of Wakanda Social Enterprise, a non-profit organization.
Elemele and Makarem did not respond to multiple emails or a detailed list of BuzzFeed News questions. Elemele’s photo was removed from the @wakandanomics account after BuzzFeed News contacted them.
By the 20th of January, the hashtag #FreeAlexSaab was gaining traction on Twitter, thanks to Nigerian accounts that frequently tweeted the same articles and images, tagged the same accounts, interacted with one another, and expressed unwavering support for Saab. The tweets became more frequent in March, as the Economic Community of West African States’ Court of Justice, based in Abuja, Nigeria, prepared to rule on his case. It ruled in favor of Saab, but the case is still being heard in Cape Verde.
According to five sources with knowledge of the Saab campaign, at least two employees of Alpha Reach, a PR firm run by Japheth “JJ” Omojuwa, recruited 40 Nigerian influencers with a total of more than a million followers to participate. Omojuwa, a prominent Nigerian influencer with 1 million Twitter followers, was listed as one of the people the campaign hoped to recruit in the DIGA document.
Omojuwa told BuzzFeed News that “a friend in the UK” connected to the Saab campaign contacted him, and that he declined to participate — other than to post a few supportive tweets.
“I told this person in confidence that I support the mission and would be happy to retweet a couple of articles, but I would not be personally involved,” he said. Omojuwa said he didn’t want to be seen as advocating for Saab’s release because of his “strong relationship” with the US Embassy in Nigeria, but he did say it was “possible” that employees at his firm worked on it.
“I don’t think I can even begin to discuss whether Alpha is involved. If they are, there has to be some kind of nondisclosure [agreement] in place,” Omojuwa said.
Later, he issued a statement emphasizing that “Alpha Reach as an organization was not involved in this campaign.”
According to Ajayi, Alpha Reach employees took part in the campaign by tweeting about Saab and engaging with the influencers they helped to recruit and pay.
“They retweeted each other and used replies and quote-retweets to create threads around each other’s tweets,” she explained. “They also shared news articles and attempted to entice unsuspecting subject matter experts by tagging them and asking questions.”
Two Nigerian Twitter influencers who did not want to be identified for fear of repercussions told BuzzFeed News and DigiAfricaLab that Alpha Reach employees paid them to tweet about Saab, share specific content and hashtags, and tag a specific set of accounts in their tweets. According to sources, influencers were typically paid between $6.50 and $15 per hour for their work.
Participants, according to the influencers, were added to a WhatsApp group where they were given instructions on what to post and which tweets to engage with and tag. According to the campaign brief, each influencer should “be added to a whatsapp group to better synchronize the timing of tweets.”
Another influencer claimed that an Alpha Reach employee instructed them to tag accounts, including those of Venezuelan politicians. “It was mentioned that [people] would be monitoring accounts participating in retweets and amplification,” the influencer explained.
@Fernand47588665 is one of those accounts. The account was created in January, lacks a profile picture, has fewer than ten followers, and tweets infrequently. Nonetheless, by late March, it had been mentioned in over 5,000 tweets about Saab. Participants were instructed to tag the @Fernand47588665 account in their Saab tweets, according to two influencers and one person familiar with the paid campaign.
“That Fernand account was the [primary] account that needed to be tagged,” one influencer explained, adding that it “felt fishy.” They also claimed they were instructed to tag Venezuelan accounts, including those of prominent politicians in the Maduro administration.
“It is extremely unlikely that Nigerians would have come across this account if it had not been presented to them,” Ajayi said.
The campaign brief backs this up, saying, “The Influencer is also expected to tag @Fernand47588665 on Twitter to aid monitoring.”
Because of its “unusual activity,” Twitter has temporarily restricted the @Fernand47588665 account.
Both influencers who were paid to participate claimed that their tweets were relayed to Venezuelans. They claimed that suspicious Spanish-language accounts and those belonging to Venezuelans interacted with their tweets through retweets, likes, and replies.
“I’m not sure why I was suddenly getting spammed by a lot of bot Spanish accounts,” one influencer explained.