• Sober political and social discussion on Kenyan Twitter is being overrun by obscenity
They are young, ambitious, seekers of fame and unafraid of scandal. They swarm and set trends on social media. When one of them is attacked, the swarm swirls around the attacker, forcing a retreat.
Welcome to the world of Twitter locusts. Mostly in their twenties or early thirties, this new species is taking the local Twitter scene by storm. Kenyan Twitter, long known as the platform of sober political and social discussion, is seemingly ravaged by locusts. Critics say the locusts are “bringing Facebook and Instagram habits to Twitter”, but are they?
Data shows there is a large increase in Kenyans active on Twitter over the past year. Statcounter, an online platform that analyses web traffic, shows Twitter’s share of social media users in Kenya doubled in size from 10.9 per cent in May 2019 to 23.8 per cent in May 2020.
On the other hand, Facebook’s share of social media users in Kenya dropped from 62.3 per cent in May 2019 to 37.1 per cent in May 2020. So much is the increase in Twitter users that a local, notorious blogger lamented that Twitter has been “infiltrated by newbies posting lewd photos”. Another blogger who specialises in advice on masculinity wrote that the newcomers, who he describes as “degenerates”, have “invaded noble Twitter” like a locust plague.
Among the Twitter newcomers is Janet Atienno, who admits to being a locust. She joined Twitter in March and already has over 12,000 followers drawn to her suggestive content and relationship humour. Janet attributes her success to the lockdown.
“Many youths joined Twitter this year out of idleness,” she says. However, it is not all about breaking boredom. Janet says Twitter is turning out to be a good platform for marketing and finding jobs. “We like supporting each other even if the content does not make sense,” she quips.
Crucially, there is a business angle to being a Twitter locust. “Some of us get paid when we push a tag,” says Janet, without revealing further information about her business. The bigger the following, the more attractive a social media influencer gets in the eyes of marketing agencies, or so it seems.
HOW THEY GAIN FOLLOWERS
“Most young people on social media love consuming obscene content,” says Dennis Kiplimo, a social media marketer. “Those who engage in such content, or share the same, often find their accounts rapidly growing. This is the reason you will find their timelines full of nudity,” he says.
“Regardless of what you do on social media, bad publicity can be good for you because it pushes up your number of followers,” explains Nahashon Kimemia, a social media commentator. “With those numbers, you can market yourself for product placement and other kind of stuff.”
Aspiring influencers take advantage of “follow trains”, where Twitter users follow and engage with each other’s content. However, follow trains are not a completely bad idea for anybody wanting to have a bigger audience. “It does not matter why you need followers. It may be about pushing your personal agenda, marketing your business or having fun, but take advantage of follow trains if you need followers,” he urges.
It remains to be seen how much influence locusts have in Kenya, but the fact that their identities are hidden behind pseudonyms is a worrying development. Anonymity and a large following is a potent mix because it carries the temptation of posting anything with no fear of real-life consequences. The worst that can happen is for the account to get shut down.
There is strong evidence that some of the social media accounts showing women in suggestive poses are actually run by men wanting to rack up a huge number of followers. With a large following, the social media account can be sold to people or companies that don’t want to build an audience from scratch.
Locust accounts have a lot in common with “bots”, which are software programmes that amplify the impact of online content by sharing, liking, posting comments or voting. Tactics of locusts and bots differ slightly, but the overall objective is to manipulate public opinion.
DANGER TO SOCIETY
In other parts of the world, social media locusts are exploited to sway public opinion in a direction favourable to whoever is paying. Just as companies pay to trend on social media, politicians also pay to trend positively, or to have their opponents trend negatively.
This behaviour poisons political debate on social media and helps disseminate fake news. The US and Pakistan have seen political debate amplified, hijacked or hushed up by “locust swarms” working for money.
Governments across the world have proposed measures to officially register everybody opening a social media account, but such proposals have been criticised as a threat to freedom of speech. In the long term, social media registration tied to one’s official identity documents could become a reality.
BECOMING A GOOD INFLUENCER
Lots of people want to become genuine social media influencers helping companies sell products. How can it be done without turning into a locust?
Both Kiplimo and Kimemia say building a credible personal brand takes years of hard work, persistence and identifying a target audience. Kiplimo, who joined Twitter in 2016, says becoming an influencer is not only about having a huge number of followers. It is about building a personal brand on social media platforms, the ability to create original content and drive engagement towards a certain product or topic.
“A brand simply means your identity on social media platforms, what you want your followers to know you for, be it health, politics, tech and many other areas,” he explains. “You can't just wake up one day and because you have a huge following, then you are an influencer.”