Like jeans and pickup trucks before, social media misinformation has become the latest and greatest American export. A new report by Privacy International says that Harris Media, a Texas-based political communications firm that helped boost Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Benghazi paranoia, and German far-right politicians, found its most recent client in Kenya, where an October presidential election flared into deadly violence.
Harris rose to prominence last year for helping the Trump campaign, at least briefly, in its efforts to sway voters with images of violent immigrants and other largely imaginary menaces. Privacy International now says the company used the same playbook in Kenya, where “paid advertisements for two mysterious, anonymous sites in particular started to dominate Google searches for dozens of election-related terms in the months leading up to the vote.” The anonymous sites, which gave the appearance of being grassroots efforts, were in fact built by Americans at Harris, the watchdog group says in its report.
Harris Media did not return a request for comment.
Harris also used ads tied to Google search terms and social media to spread divisive, and at times untruthful, messages designed to be inflammatory. One Harris-created video made on behalf of Kenyan presidential incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta claimed that opposition candidate Raila Odinga would order “whole tribes and communities removed from their homes” if he were elected, which Privacy International notes is “an explicit reference to Kenya’s violent past” of tribal animosity and violence.
Privacy International says connecting the Kenyan astroturf campaign to Harris Media wasn’t so difficult:
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. These include the websites for the Republican Party of Texas, pro-fracking and oil industry lobbies, and a Benghazi attack conspiracy theory site, among others. The Real Raila’s Google Analytics tag (UA-46042337) is shared with several known Harris Media campaigns. A tag is a piece of data-collecting code assigned to a website by its creator to collect visitor behaviour information. The Uhuru for Us site (UA-51987218) also shares its tag with 39 other conservative websites, several of which are publicly attributed to Harris Media.
Three Harris Media staff, including Josh Canter, its vice president for content production, an account director, and a designer worked on The Real Raila site, authoring blog content, mostly republishing lightly-sourced characterisations of Odinga as a dangerous, racist xenophobe with promoting his tribe and family as his primary political aim. The Uhuru For Us Twitter account still appears linked to a Harris Media email address. Created in March 2017, its first follower was Kenyatta’s Digital Media Strategist
Privacy International Executive Director Gus Hosein added that there are questions the report leaves unanswered: “How was targeting done for Harris Media’s Kenyan campaigns and using what kind of personal data? Did the factors used to target messages include tribal affiliation or other politically sensitive criteria, which would be a particularly irresponsible and divisive strategy?”