Mozilla Fellow Odanga Madung
Mozilla Fellow Odanga Madung

This is a profile of Odanga Madung, a Mozilla Fellow in the Tech and Society Fellowship program.

As a Mozilla Fellow, Odanga Madung has exposed a flourishing disinformation industry in Kenya, and pushed social media platforms to confront it. But Madung’s fellowship almost didn’t happen.

Madung, an independent data journalist and entrepreneur based in Nairobi, heard about the Foundation’s work from previous fellow and friend Berhan Taye. When he applied in 2019, he was not accepted. However, he tried again and made it as part of the first ever cohort of Tech and Society Fellows.

It’s determination. It’s very important,” he chuckles when reminiscing about that time.

That determination has also proved important for civil society in Kenya: Madung has instigated research and advocacy across the country, and also fueled changes at the Big Tech companies thousands of miles away.

Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Madung is among the 10 selected fellows in this program who come from five different countries. The Tech and Society Fellowship is a partnership between Mozilla and the Ford Foundation. Formed in 2020, the 24-month fellowship focuses on supporting “bright minds and big ideas in the tech-and-society space, with special attention paid to the Global South”.

A naturally curious person, which he says is his superpower, Madung is an independent journalist and co-founder of Odipo Dev, a data consultancy with clients around East Africa. With a BSc in Actuarial Science Madung has always had a keen interest in the power of data and how it impacts the world. He has assisted newsrooms around Kenya to set up data and investigative desks through a fellowship with Code for Africa and was also a fellow with the DW Academy working on data journalism and visualization work on Air Quality in Kenya.

Tech and Society fellows are embedded in host organizations and work to research and find solutions relevant to their shared interests. Madung was paired with the Poverty Eradication Network (PEN), a civil society organization in Nairobi that “collaborates directly with citizens and organizations to promote active participation in local governance.” PEN focuses on issues of accountability and transparency, promotion of people focused planning and budgeting, and advocating for an enabling environment for civil society actors.

Madung says he believes he was paired with PEN due to their shared interest in what civic health means in the Kenyan context.

“That in many ways informs the kind of work that I have done in terms of understanding what links to Kenyan freedom they have and where technology intersects with that freedom,” he says.

Much of Madung’s work has sought to uncover some of the ways in which social media impacts political discourse and therefore influences society.

“This idea that you can just build a social network platform from your cozy office in Silicon Valley or Beijing and have it spread around the world without it having any consequence on society is wrong. It’s a pipe dream. It’s one thing to have algorithms that decide the next cat meme that’s going to appear in front of you — but having an algorithm that shapes how people have conversations about culture and politics is a very different case that needs to be treated very differently,” Madung says.

“This idea that you can just build a social network platform from your cozy office in Silicon Valley or Beijing and have it spread around the world without it having any consequence on society is wrong. It’s a pipe dream."

Odanga Madung, Mozilla Fellow

Easily manipulated algorithms, Madung says, require more interrogation because of the great impact they have on influencing culture, political discourse and decision making. He says it is imperative that AI practitioners take that into account. During the course of his fellowship, Madung has found that some of the most harmful things spread by algorithms include propaganda, hate speech and incitement. Madung has produced research reports on how disinformation was used to attack Kenyan journalists, judges, and other members of civil society; to discredit the Pandora papers; to sway conversations on reproductive health rights via Twitter; and to spread election disinformation on TikTok. While the social network has taken action by adding to its staff complement and removing a couple hundred accounts from its platform, these are simply “cosmetic measures” and more needs to be done.

“I’m still not satisfied with what they have done. What they need to change is fundamentally how they operate; their algorithms, business models, and policies. They need to address the various problematic issues we’ve identified and look at how they approach enforcement, because right now we are witnessing a clear case of neglect.”

With tech companies mostly working in a space that has little to no legal framework governing their operations, Madung says the onus really is on them to make sure that their platforms are prepared for the challenges they present. They cannot simply rely on users to do that work for them.

“If an American company comes and puts up a coal factory outside your house and billows smoke right into your living room, is it your job to keep the windows closed so the smoke doesn’t come into your house? Or is it up to the company to ensure they do not release any smoke?” he asks.

Other than ensuring that PEN is able to continue the work he has started without him, rather than setting out on future research with a predetermined goal, Madung monitors disinformation in real time in the pursuit of remaining relevant.

To drum home his point on the connection between technology and communities, Madung says if he had to give advice to people working in technology it would be: “Spend less time with the technology and more time with the people. Tech doesn’t exist in isolation. It is a nice thing but you have to spend time within the context of the communities and societies you are working with.”

This is part of a series focused on the Mozilla Fellows in Tech and Society, a program supported by the Ford Foundation that focuses on supporting strategic engagement at the intersection of technology and lived experiences of communities located in the global majority.