As an alleged money launderer who worked with the Venezuelan government and is fighting an extradition order to the United States, Alex Saab has some unlikely allies.
Since mid-January, #freealexsaab has been a rallying cry among Nigerians on Twitter, thanks to a broad influence operation with connections to 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 effort to sway public opinion and court proceedings in Nigeria and Cape Verde, the African island nation where Saab is currently under house arrest.
Saab is a Colombian businessman whom a Florida court charged with money laundering in 2019, following related charges in Colombia two months prior. He is also alleged to have helped the government of Nicolás Maduro evade sanctions via fuel and gold trading. While traveling from Venezuela to Iran in June 2020, officials in Cape Verde arrested Saab when his plane stopped to get refueled. Saab denies all charges. His lawyers say his detention violates international law because Venezuela named him a “special envoy,” which provided 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 using Twitter to argue his case, violating the platform’s rules in the process.
In response to an investigation by BuzzFeed News and the Digital Africa Research Lab (DigiAfricaLab), Twitter suspended more than 1,500 accounts this week for manipulating the #freealexsaab hashtag. That includes almost all of the 40 accounts BuzzFeed News and DigiAfricaLab connected to the paid campaign, as well as a prominent Nigerian influencer with more than 1.5 million followers who offered to pay people who engaged with her tweets about Saab.
Twitter also suspended the accounts of three Nigerian journalists who work for the newspapers the Cable and the Nigerian Tribune, and whose supportive tweets about Saab tagged an account, @Fernand47588665, that sources and an internal campaign document say was used to track the campaign. The reporters all told BuzzFeed News they did not receive payment to show support for Saab.
The findings expose how Twitter trending topics continue to be affected by global manipulation campaigns and illustrate how professional marketing firms are frequently implicated in social media influence operations. The campaign also provides a window into Nigeria’s booming shady Twitter influencer industry, in which people often accept money to promote brands, causes, and hashtags without disclosing they are part of paid campaigns.
“Engaging in platform manipulation — regardless of the intent — is a violation of the Twitter Rules. This includes gaming hashtags, artificially boosting content, or paying for fake engagement,” a company spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “As a result of these behaviors, we’ve suspended more than 1,500 accounts associated with these hashtags and our investigations continue.”
“The influencer industry has quickly become a hotbed of fraud and discourse manipulation.”
Rosemary Ajayi, a researcher at the Digital Africa Research Lab, said the Saab campaign shows how common it has become for Twitter hashtags and discussions in Nigeria to be manipulated by influencers.
“The influencer industry has quickly become a hotbed of fraud and discourse manipulation,” Ajayi said. “Whether you’re looking to promote a new album or a church event or settle the score with an adversary, many PR firms and consultants operating within the Nigerian influencer ecosystem will recruit influencers to deliver this for a fee, no questions asked.”
Beginning in January, a small group of Nigerian influencers and human rights advocates received a Saab campaign briefing document produced on the letterhead of Digital Good Governance for Africa (DIGA).
DIGA is a UK nonprofit led by Dr. Naji Makarem, a professor of international development at University College London, and Christian Elemele, a Nigerian expat and social entrepreneur who previously studied at UCL. Founded in 2019, it is currently working on a project to bring digital voting to Nigeria for the country’s 2023 elections.
The document outlined a social media campaign that would recruit influencers in Nigeria, Ghana, and Senegal to tweet in support of Saab and help generate public outcry about his case. It said participating influencers were expected to post twice per week for the initial one-month campaign, from January 18 to February 18.
“The influencer is expected to use the hashtags #FreeAlexSaab and tag prominent Nigerians, Ghanians and Sengalese handles from government, business, celebrities, activists etc. which will be provided to the influencer,” the five-page document reads.
It instructed influencers to engage with replies to their posts about Saab and to tag the @wakandanomics Twitter account if they needed additional information. That account does not list a full name but used a photo of Elemele as its avatar. Elemele is also the cofounder of a nonprofit called Wakanda Social Enterprise.
Elemele and Makarem did not respond to multiple emails or to a detailed list of questions from BuzzFeed News. After BuzzFeed News reached out, Elemele’s photo was removed from the @wakandanomics account.
By January 20, the hashtag #freealexsaab was gathering steam on Twitter, thanks to Nigerian accounts that often tweeted the same articles and images, tagged the same accounts, interacted with one another, and expressed unwavering support for Saab. The tweets intensified in March as the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, based in Abuja, Nigeria, prepared to rule on his case. It decided in Saab’s favor, but the case continues in Cape Verde.
Five sources with knowledge of the Saab campaign said that 40 Nigerian influencers, which have more than a million followers in total, were recruited to participate by at least two employees of Alpha Reach, a PR firm run by Japheth “JJ” Omojuwa. Omojuwa, a prominent Nigerian Twitter influencer with 1 million followers, was listed in the DIGA document as one of the people the campaign hoped to recruit.
Omojuwa told BuzzFeed News that “a friend in the UK” connected to the Saab campaign contacted him, and that he declined to participate — aside from posting a few supportive tweets.
“I said to this person in confidence that I support the mission and would be happy to retweet a couple articles, but I would not personally be part of it,” he said. Omojuwa cited his “strong relationship” with the US Embassy in Nigeria as a reason why he did not want to be seen as advocating for Saab’s release. But he said it was “possible” employees at his firm worked on it.
“I don’t think I can start to have a conversation about whether Alpha is involved. If they are, there have definitely been some form of nondisclosure [agreements],” Omojuwa said.
He later issued a statement to emphasize that “Alpha Reach as an organisation was not involved in this campaign.”
Ajayi said Alpha Reach employees participated in the campaign by tweeting about Saab and engaging with the influencers they helped to recruit and pay.
“They retweeted each other and developed threads around each other’s tweets using replies and quote-retweets,” she said. “They also shared news articles and attempted to draw in unsuspecting subject matter experts by tagging their handles and asking questions.”
Two Nigerian Twitter influencers who asked not to be named 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 set of accounts in their tweets. Influencers were typically paid between $6.50 to $15 for their work, though some received more, according to sources.
The influencers said participants were added to a WhatsApp group where they received direction about what to post and which tweets to engage with and tag. The campaign brief produced by DIGA said each influencer should “be added to a whatsapp group to better synchronise the timing of tweets.”
Another influencer said an Alpha Reach employee told them to tag accounts, including those of Venezuelan political leaders. “What was mentioned was that person’s would be monitoring accounts participating for retweets and amplification,” the influencer said.
One of those accounts is @Fernand47588665. The account was created in January, has no profile picture and fewer than 10 followers, and rarely tweets. Yet by late March it has been tagged in more than 5,000 tweets about Saab. Two influencers and one person familiar with the paid campaign said participants were instructed to tag the @Fernand47588665 account in their Saab tweets to help the campaign track the effort.
“That Fernand account was the [primary] account that must be tagged,” said one influencer, who added that it “felt fishy.” They also said they were told to tag Venezuelan accounts, including those belonging to prominent politicians in the Maduro government.
“It’s highly unlikely that Nigerians would have come across this account without it being presented to them,” Ajayi said.
That’s backed up by the campaign brief, which said, “The Influencer is also expected to tag @Fernand47588665 on twitter to aid monitoring.”
Twitter has temporarily restricted the @Fernand47588665 account owing to its “unusual activity.”
Both influencers who were paid to participate said they believed their tweets were relayed to people in Venezuela. They said suspicious Spanish-language accounts and those belonging to people in Venezuela engaged with their tweets via retweets, likes, and replies.
“I dunno why all of a sudden I was getting spammed by lots of bot Spanish accounts,” one influencer said.
Networks of suspicious accounts, some of which tweeted in Spanish, were also part of an earlier phase of the campaign to free Saab, according to the Financial Times. The paper obtained a copy of an “intelligence” analysis from an unnamed source that concluded the Maduro government “and/or its proxies (witting or unwitting) are involved in a coordinated campaign to influence both the government of Cabo Verde and its population to obstruct Alex Saab’s extradition.”
BuzzFeed News and DigiAfricaLab have not seen evidence of involvement by the Venezuelan government or its proxies, and those involved in the campaign said they do not know who funded the effort. A Twitter spokesperson said the company publicly discloses when it removes accounts that were part of state-linked operations, which it has not done in this case as of now.
The report obtained by FT said that, beginning in October, a group of accounts “tweeted extensively about Saab” for a few weeks and then stopped. A second network of 86 accounts sprang up in December. As of January, “the primer driver of that increase appears to be the deployment of Nigeria-based social media influencers,” according to the report.
Along with the people who said they were recruited and paid by Alpha Reach employees, other prominent Nigerian influencers also tweeted in support of Saab. Two influencers with roughly 2 million followers between them sent tweets in March offering to pay people if they amplified a tweet about Saab or replied with the #freealexsaab hashtag.
On March 23, Nigerian Twitter influencer Pamilerin Adegoke, who has roughly half a million followers, sent a tweet asking people to “engage my next post.” In a subsequent tweet, he asked people to sign an online petition for Saab. That tweet tagged @Fernand47588665 as well as Maduro. Adegoke later tweeted screenshots allegedly showing two payments of roughly $10 to two people. He then deleted the tweet that asked people to engage.
Adegoke told BuzzFeed News that an unnamed friend asked him to tweet in support of Saab. He said he paid people to engage with his Saab tweet “to drive traffic to the post for more people to see it, basically,” but claimed he was not paid to participate.
Twitter briefly suspended his account on Monday, after inquiries from BuzzFeed News. This is at least the second time Twitter has taken action against Adegoke. In 2019, it banned his verified account, @ThePamilerin.
Also on March 23, Tonto Dikeh, a Nigerian actor and influencer with 1.5 million followers, tweeted, “I want to give someone who urgently needs money N25,000. Pls tell me what you will like to buy if I gift this to you. Pls add #FreeAlexSaab to your replies and you may be my next winner.”
An hour later, she asked people to sign an online petition in support of Saab and offered to send money to followers if 100 people signed it.
The tweets were deleted soon after they were posted, a pattern that Dikeh’s account has shown going back years, according to Ajayi.
She said Dikeh and Adegoke “are both well-known for their involvement in paid influencer campaigns and have a history, going back a few years, of openly offering giveaways as a means of manipulating the platform.”
Reached on WhatsApp, Dikeh said she didn’t know anything about the Saab tweets and neither did her social media manager. “I don’t know anything about this. Free Alex Saab? Who is that?” she said, and suggested someone may have hacked her account.
Her account was suspended on Tuesday.
Ajayi said the account suspensions, many of which are temporary, do not address the widespread manipulation of Twitter by influencers in Nigeria, an issue that takes on more urgency with elections coming in 2023.
“These actors provide a highly sought-after service and some earn millions of Naira every month. It will require more than artificial intelligence and account suspensions to stop this,” she said. “It’s going to take a paradigm shift.” ●
Jeremy Singer-Vine contributed reporting to this story.
Added updated information about what the influencers were paid.
Correction: Tonto Dikeh’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.