Colombian businessman, ally of the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, and alleged money launderer hunted by the United States, Alex Nain Saab Moran has been held in the small Cape Verde archipelago off the African coast as a battle plays out between US prosecutors who seek his extradition, and the Venezuelan government who has tried to claim him as a Venezuelan diplomat, though Saab is Colombian, and had never been recognized or claimed as a diplomat before his capture.
Cape Verde government officials have said that Saab should be extradited, but a West African court has said that he should be freed. His fate has been appealed to the Cape Verde Courts, and while that procedure rolls forward, a groundswell of discontent, crying “Free Alex Saab” has popped up on Twitter, with an apparent epicenter in West Africa, where few people would have ever heard of Alex Saab; a Colombian of Lebanese ancestry.
BuzzFeed News teamed up with the Digital Africa Research Lab to look into the surprising support coming from Nigeria on Twitter with the #FreeAlexSaab hashtag. According to the journalists, the operation was masterminded by a Nigerian PR firm and a British nonprofit called Digital Good Governance for Africa. According to the BuzzFeed report, this organized “AstroTurf” (US political slang for fake grassroots organizing) campaign paid influencers to tweet support for Alex Saab in an attempt to influence the judicial process in Cape Verde and broader public opinion.
When #FreeAlexSaab started trending on Twitter, the scam quickly unraveled.
Twitter subsequently suspended over 1,500 twitter accounts, including a Nigerian influencer with a large following who is alleged to have paid for positive tweets about Alex Saab. Supposed legitimate journalists for the Nigerian Tribune and TheCable also had their accounts suspended, as they not only tweeted support for Alex Saab, but tagged Twitter account @Fernand47588665, which the investigators said was used to verify tweets for compensation.
Buzzfeed reports that Nigerian human rights activists and social media influencers received a document from Digital Good Governance for Africa, led by professor Naji Makarem, a lecturer at University College in London, and Nigerian expatriate Christian Elemele with instructions to recruit West African Influencers to gin up support for Saab.
“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,” read the document.
The report goes on to say that Nigerian PR firm Alpha Reach employees recruited 40 Nigerian influencers with over a million total followers to participate in the scam. When investigators reached Alpha Reach head Japheth Omojuwa, he responded “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,” Omojuwa said, before eventually issuing a statement to the effect that his organization was not involved, though also saying that it was possible firm employees worked on the campaign.
BuzzFeed did not go so far as to accuse the Venezuelan or any other government for backing or participating in the operation, however the British paper Financial Times did, saying that it obtained an intelligence document concluding the Venezuelan regime “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.”
Twitter Shares Blame
The whole incident is not terribly surprising. Venezuela wants Alex Saab protected not only because he has been very valuable as a proxy for Maduro and making deals to get what the Venezuelan government wants, but the Maduro regime also fears what secrets he might cough up once US prosecutors get their hands on him. It should be said that Saab is also facing charges of fraud, corruption & money laundering in his own country of Colombia, where Colombian prosecutors have already seized several of his luxury properties.
Twitter has become the vehicle of choice for troll farms, influence peddlers, and fake accounts of all types as well as generalized nastiness—largely due to the anonymity it affords, and the ease at which fake or bot-controlled accounts can be set up with no verification. The very structure of Twitter makes it easy to buy influence and fabricate false outrage. The company seems reluctant to address this issue, which must be dealt with at the structural level, not the individual account level. Until then, troll farms from Nigeria to Russia to North Korea to Arizona.