Fake social media accounts threaten Uganda’s virtual campaigns – Experts

Fake social media accounts
With the campaigns for 2021 Uganda's general election taking progress, researchers and tech gurus are more worried than ever that bots and fake social media accounts will interfere. The fake social media accounts have become more sophisticated and harder to detect

Kampala, Uganda | URN | A simple search for Uganda’s presidential candidates on different social media platforms shows multiple accounts featuring identical photos and names, biodata and description.

But many of these are parody accounts created to imitate the style or character of the original ones. But they are usually ironic in manner while others are fake accounts impersonating a given person.

The most trending parody account today is that of independent presidential candidate John Katumba, a 24-year old who is challenging President Yoweri Museveni for the top seat. There are more than five accounts with his name and profile picture, yet only one of them is managed by him or his handlers.

Katumba says many of the accounts created in his name are misrepresenting his ideas. One of them is @JohnKatumbaOfficial which released figures indicating that the candidate was leading the presidential race with 75 per cent. The other is a Facebook post showing that the candidate is crying out to the Electoral Commission [EC] about his inability to feed security personnel attached to him.

“Electoral Commission Uganda come and pick your police guards, they are going to die of hunger,” reads the post which could have been inspired by some of the interviews with the presidential candidate.

Such accounts have hoodwinked not only the general public but even some media houses and government officials who have been seen quoting or  reacting to them. On Tuesday 10th, November 2020, Gender Minister Frank Tumwebaze retweeted with a quote responding to one of the parodies attributed to candidate John Katumba.

Katumba has not been on Twitter until Monday 9th, November 2020 when he opened a handle named @RealKatumbaJohn. According to Marvin Konde, one of his campaign team members, all the accounts attributed to Katumba are ‘fake’. “We are seeing the accounts trending but none of them belongs to our candidate,” he said.

Although the information shared on the parody accounts is appealing to the public due to its satirical format, communication experts have warned of the likely misinformation that may surge as Uganda holds virtual campaigns in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr Gerald Walulya, an expert in political communication from the Department of Journalism and Communication at Makerere University shares that parodies are covertly spreading false information to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.

Walulya says some voters are using information shared by the parodies to judge the candidates and observes a need for the public to verify the information they are being fed on and ensure that it is coming from the right source.

How to identify parody accounts?  

Besides Katumba, there are other parodies created in the names of Yoweri Museveni, Robert Kyagulanyi, Norbert Mao and Henry Tumukunde. However, not many candidates have got their accounts verified even though Facebook and Twitter have created various tools to help in the verification of accounts.

Norbert Mao, John Katumba, and Henry Tumukunde are running unverified accounts as seen by the absence of blue tick. Dr Sara Namusoga, a social media expert says that when an account is not verified, it makes it difficult for other social media users to identify the right account in the event that parodies are created.

She however adds that it requires a human element to detect parodies. One can start by comparing the content shared on the different accounts attributed to a given individual, followers, and basics like when the account was created or started posting on a given topic.

The social media expert also adds that individuals can also look at other elements like spellings citing a parody account attributed to president Museveni @Yoweri k Museveni which was recently used to congratulate Donald Trump over ‘winning U.S. election’.

Without paying attention, someone could believe that the account belongs to President Museveni because it bears his profile picture and the same name. However, the initial letter k in the account is of a lower case yet the president uses an upper case (Yoweri K Museveni).

Why do people create parody accounts? 

Dr Namusoga points out that parodies can be geared towards mimicking a given person. However, she says that many people create such accounts to attract traffic and maybe influence trends online.

Read Also: How social media is disrupting legal practice in Uganda

She adds that parodies can be created by people unknown to the real account holder mostly to bridge a communication gap when the mimicked person has a slim online appearance.

However, the social media guru explains that there is a strong possibility of someone creating parodies as his own media strategy to draw attention and online traffic since the more someone trends on such networks, the more he or she is known to the public.