This past week saw the escalation of a purge on perceived rebels in Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta’s ruling Jubilee Party.
Although the main battleground has been Parliament, where senators loyal to Deputy President William Ruto have been ejected from House leadership positions, the altercations on social media platforms have just been as intense.
Alphonce Shiundu, the Kenya country editor of the fact-checking organisation Africa Check, says most of the online attacks posted in recent weeks targeted the Ruto faction, some of them getting personal.
On Thursday, fake front pages of two local dailies—with portraits of Mr Ruto and an MP known to be close to him placed under negative headlines—were circulated on social media.
The deputy president’s wife Rachel Ruto was also the target of a malicious fake newspaper front page early in the week.
Politicians in the pro-Kenyatta faction also found themselves on the receiving end, with a fake notice of a motion linked with Kieni MP Kanini Kega depicting them as scheming to impeach the deputy president.
Mr Kega denied the existence of the motion, as did the National Assembly Clerk at whose office a genuine notice would have been filed.
Mr Shiundu says the online political wars mirror the toxic messaging attributed to the disgraced British consulting firm Cambridge Analytica during the 2017 election.
In 2018, Cambridge Analytica confirmed that it had been hired by the Kenyatta campaign to write and deploy a communication strategy smearing Raila Odinga, the rival candidate, as violent and dangerous.
“While in other African countries we largely see fake content around miracle cures for Covid-19, in Kenya much of the false content in recent weeks has been political,” said Mr Shiundu.
Push for BBI
The online political duels could intensify as President Kenyatta and Mr Odinga plan to renew their push for constitutional reforms through the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI), culminating in a referendum later in the year.
Both leaders have said they expect public rallies popularising the BBI to resume upon the easing of the current social distancing rules. The suspension of gatherings was enforced in March as part of public health guidelines.
Suspicions arising from the BBI process are at the centre of the falling-out between President Kenyatta and Mr Ruto, who won the past two elections as presidential candidate and running mate respectively.
Mr Ruto’s allies in the ruling party accuse the president of reneging on a gentleman’s agreement to support his deputy’s candidacy in 2022.
While President Kenyatta appears to be having his way in Parliament, the race remains wide open.