Monday, April 12, 2021

Twitter suspends Pamilerin, other Nigerian influencers for trending hashtags to free Colombian money launderer

Prior to his arrest, Mr Saab was accused by Washington of orchestrating deals to exchange Venezuelan gold for Iranian gasoline.

• April 6, 2021

Twitter Inc has suspended the accounts of popular Nigerian social media influencer, Pamilerin and others over their alleged involvement in a campaign seeking the release of a Colombian citizen, Alex Saab accused of running illicit fuel and gold racket.

Mr Saab was detained June 12, last year for alleged corruption by Interpol and security operatives on a U.S. arrest warrant after his private jet travelling from Venezuela to Iran made a fuel stopover in Cape Verde.

Prior to his arrest, Mr Saab was accused by Washington of orchestrating deals to exchange Venezuelan gold for Iranian gasoline.

American authorities had requested that the suspect be extradited to their country for money laundering charges, hoping he would provide necessary information on Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The U.S. accused him of helping Mr Maduro import petrol from Iran and export illegally mined Venezuelan gold to Turkey and the United Arab Emirates while channelling money through several companies in Panama, Hong Kong and elsewhere, Financial Times reported.

In its reaction to the arrest, Venezuela identified Mr Saab, an ally of the President as its diplomat on a “humanitarian mission” to Iran, an argument Cape Verde’s Barlavento Court of Appeal rejected.

“This fact, in violation of international law and norms, clearly corresponds with the actions of aggression and siege against the Venezuelan people, undertaken by the government of the United States with the aim of abruptly affecting and interrupting efforts on behalf of the Bolivarian government, aimed at guaranteeing the right to food, health and other basic rights of the Venezuelan people,” the government said in a statement on June 13.

Last month, the Ecowas Court in Abuja ruled that Mr Saab should not be extradited to the U.S., saying he should be paid $200,000 in damages because his arrest by Interpol was illegal as there was no red notice issued before it. His lawyer Femi Falana continued to argue the case, but the Supreme Court of Cape Verde disregarded Ecowas Court’s ruling, saying Mr Saab should be extradited to the U.S. to face charges.

However, a recent report published by Financial Times citing an intelligence report, said the government of Venezuela was accused of contracting social media influencers on Twitter to warn Cape Verde against extraditing Mr Saab to the U.S.

According to the report sent to the outlet, over half a million Twitter posts related to Alex Saab were analysed.

The Maduro regime, it concluded, “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”.

The intelligence report examined 547,000 tweets related to Saab’s case published in Africa and South America from October 2020 to February 2021, the outlet said.

The intelligence report concluded that “Our analysis suggests that there has been an increasing effort, organised (at least in part) by the Maduro regime . . . to direct pressure towards the government of Cabo Verde regarding the judicial decisions issued in Saab’s extradition case.”

According to the study, some Twitter accounts were set up in October, last year, with their owners tweeting extensively about Mr Saab, while other accounts, 86, were set up between December and February, publishing identical content about the case.

Some of the funds released for public relations appeared to have entered Nigeria through specialists who worked with social media influencers and some Nigerian media outlets, The Gazette found.

Over the past 24 hours, several accounts have been removed in alleged connection to the scandalous job for Mr Saab. Some media outlets that also reported last November that Mr Saab was a victim caught in the U.S.-Venezuela crossfire had deleted their posts.

A known Nigerian social activist Pamilerin Adegoke, tweeting as @UnclePamilerin, had his Twitter handle suspended overnight with its 487,000 followers. Hundreds of Nigerian accounts were also suspended overnight, although there are reports that many of them had no involvement with the manipulated hashtag for Mr Saab.

Findings by The Gazette showed the accounts have been suspended for violating Twitter rules, although it was not clear if the action was connected to the campaign.

A spokesperson for Twitter said in an e-mail to The Gazette that the accounts breached the company’s rules.

“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.

“As a result of these behaviours, we’ve suspended more than 1,500 accounts associated with these hashtags and our investigations continue,” the company said.

Some of the accounts were suspended on a temporary basis as part of this action. The official also confirmed that @UnclePamilerin has now been reinstated.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include Twitter’s response to The Gazette.

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