NAIROBI - Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, has been used to attract millions of Kenyans to fake companies who are after their personal information. Kenyan journalist Odanga Madung exposed the series of frauds the US tech giant was unable to stop.
In Kenya, scammers use sponsored Facebook posts and advertisements to attract users to fake businesses that operate under the name of real ones. Then, they rob Facebook users of their unique ID that is used in Kenya for official activities like registering a SIM card, opening a bank account, and obtaining government services.
Kenyan data journalist Odanga Madung carried out an investigation looking into how scammers weaponize Facebook's ecosystem.
By closely monitoring a cohort of 49 Facebook pages - which had amassed a following of over 240,000 people - he was able to uncover the ways in which lack of oversight on Facebook's advertising business allowed it to receive money in exchange for potentially exposing millions of Kenyans to fake jobs and loans scams.
Furthermore, the project exposes the challenge to regulate big tech firms in a sub-Saharan Africa context. It sheds light on the ways in which African countries like Kenya get caught off guard when algorithms are weaponized against their citizens and the resultant harm that is caused.
Madung relied on multiple processes to identify and monitor these Facebook accounts. “I had four primary sources of identification: Facebook's graph search, a tool called CrowdTangle, public data from fact-checkers, and Facebook's newsfeed.
In the process of investigating the scam, he also realized that Facebook’s recommendation algorithm was showing to him advertisements from the scammers. “Many journalists use ad blockers when browsing these sites, but often you find that it makes you miss out on crucial information when you do,” he says.
One of the challenges of this investigation was to identify any of the scammers who were running this scheme. “It was not possible because they had covered their tracks pretty well,” says Madung. He used various forensic tools to try and identify them. Another challenge was to reach out to fraud victims. “Most felt embarrassed about what had happened (to them) and therefore it took some effort trying to get them to open up about their experience,” he adds.
Madung hopes that his story will kickstart a conversation about holding big tech accountable in Kenya and countries in Sub Saharan Africa.
“Reporting this story made me realise just how unregulated their sphere of influence is and just what kind of harm is being done. Hopefully, more journalists will be able to critically cover their activities in the region and enlighten citizens as to their digital rights,” he says.
Scammers Are Using Facebook To Prey On People In Kenya - BuzzFeed News, 21 August 2020