In Senegal, shortly before the presidential elections, the media pick up a piece of news that accuses the most infringing opposition candidate of receiving money from a British oil company. Almost in parallel, a spooky video says that the opposition candidate in Nigeria had bought peace with Boko Haram in exchange for land and oil. In Zimbabwe, in the weeks leading up to the elections of July 2018 a hoax came to affirm that the main opposition thought to include in his government the former first lady. And almost two years ago, coinciding with the presidential elections in Kenya, they appeared websites that reproduced the appearance of prestigious media such as CNN or the BBC and they were real disinformation organs. Africa follows the course of time: false news has been gaining prominence in the last elections in the African continent and concern about its ability to destabilize.
The most recent Senegalese case shows how these hoaxes and rumors go beyond social networks and instant messaging services, and reach the media to smear everything like a slimy tide, in one of the most critical moments for social stability. In the middle of January several Senegalese newspapers published that Ousmane Sonko, one of the candidates of the opposition to the presidential elections scheduled for the end of February, had received $ 195,000 from a British oil company. Curiously, Sonko faced the electoral race as the most renewing candidate, the one of young people, the scourge of corruption and the one that demanded to review the contracts with foreign companies so that the exploitation of the black gold would leave the benefits in Senegal. The news turned out to be as false as elaborate.
WhatsApp and the social networks unrestrainedly spread an alleged French DNI of the outgoing president, questioning the nationality of the candidate; or the video of a social campaign in which famous Senegalese supported the fight against violence against women and which had been manipulated including a request for a vote for the president; or the document of a supposed program, from which nobody later took responsibility. Many of them were hoaxes with artisanal or even sloppy visual supports, but also some cases of complex constructions. In the story about Sonko, the unknown drivers came to invent a foreign journalist who proposed a content to a Ghanaian newspaper and that, from the press of the country of the Gulf of Guinea, came to the Senegalese newspapers. That is, an elaborate disinformation strategy.
AfricaCheck It is the most consolidated independent information verification organization in the continent and has an office in Dakar, the Senegalese capital. Samba Dialimpa Badji He leads that delegation and assures us that the scenario has been exceptional. "We have found that false information has occupied an important position in these elections, even before the start of the campaign.
We have found statements or fully fabricated documents to discredit political adversaries, "explains the veteran journalist. "Since the year 2000 I cover elections and this is the first campaign in which we have to pay so much attention to everything that everyone writes, including conventional media," he adds. "We can not be sure of the direct impact on the outcome of the elections, but they have it on the perception of the candidates if that information is not contrasted, especially among undecided voters," he says.
For Badji it is clear that the campaign teams have turned manipulation into an instrument of political communication, from manipulated figures to false videos, "all kinds of communication products manufactured", and on the part of all candidates there is a "strategy" Well lubricated. " The editor-in-chief of AfricaCheck in Dakar warns that in the case of the Senegalese elections "the entire media ecosystem is threatened".
The former director of the journalism school of the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar (CESTI), Ibrahim Sarr, also considers that this may be one of the most serious impacts for Senegalese society. "It would be interesting to know how the credibility of the media has been after these elections with so much presence of false information," says Sarr recalling how, in other elections, independent media had been the guarantors and the symbol of good health of the democracy of the country.
Valdez Onanina is a journalist of Cameroonian origin who has been working in the Dakar office of AfricaCheck for three years and says categorically that since he was involved in verification "I have never seen so many false news concentrated in a specific period, so much density". "This election campaign is destined to be that of all the records of disinformation and false news. Between 2012 (the previous presidential) and today the number of users of social networks has skyrocketed. There are more than 50 percent of Senegalese on the Internet. People are very connected and everything that has to do with manipulation is also triggered, because it happens, above all, on the Internet, "says Onanina.
The delegate of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in West Africa, Assane Diagne, is also a veteran of the verification of information and warns that "a campaign with so much presence of false information is an unprecedented fact since the independence of Senegal." Diagne draws attention to the fact that this phenomenon of hoaxes is often associated with hate speech. "Good information has been submerged in the tide of false information and in this current the voter does not know what is false and what is true. In addition, false information is sexy and they are more viral than the real ones, "laments the RSF delegate. "The manipulation and false information exist since people make politics, the difference with the Internet is the ability to spread them," recalls Diagne.
The experience of these Senegalese elections shows that WhatsApp has been the main ally of this spread of rumors. "Through WhatsApp, hoaxes are distributed faster," he explains. Cheikh Fall, a reference of Senegalese cyberactivism, "because they come from a known sender". As an example, Fall shows the number of messages sent to him by his own mother. "She is an authentic sentinel, warning messages arrive and she only thinks of alerting the people she wants, that is why she shares them. Sometimes he gets angry when I do not open them, because he says they are important, "the cyber-activist jokes.
The Senegalese society tries to learn from a phenomenon that largely takes advantage of the Internet explosion in African countries in recent years and the innocence and lack of user experience. Mamadou Ndiaye, CESTI head of studies, considers that users are increasingly distrustful and points out that the verification of data, the factcheck has been introduced into the curriculum. Samba Dialimpa Badji himself applauds that some users do small simple exercises of verification of the messages that are transmitted in the networks and that alert of the possible hoaxes to platforms like AfricaCheck or AFP Factuel, which also has a delegate in Dakar. "Taking into account the size of the challenge, we do what we can and we would like to be able to do more and, above all, that there were more actors who had this routine of verification of information," says Badji.
Onanina recalls that this verification activity is a "claim of accountability to the leaders". "There are governments that can not stand the criticism and that is dangerous for democracy but it is important that they know that there is a medium they should fear," he says. Assane Diagne warns that "verification is a reaction to false news, but it is not enough to combat them". And as a recipe he recommends the extension of that practice: "We would need that in each medium there was a verification cell. Politicians are less willing to spread false information if they know they are being verified, because that exposes them. " And it adds a second dimension: "Between all of us we have to introduce, in society, education in the use of media, from schools to our own media. The citizens have to know some basic things to avoid being manipulated, because in Africa neither the authorities, nor the citizens, nor the press were prepared for the brilliant evolution of the Internet ".