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US think tank: Tunisia firm influenced elections in Africa

Tunisians cast their vote at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Tunis, Tunisia on 6 October 2019 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]
A woman casts her vote at a polling station during the parliamentary elections in Tunis, Tunisia on 6 October 2019 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

An investigation by a US think tank has claimed that an extensive online campaign by a firm based in Tunisia has been used to influence a number of presidential elections in Africa.

The investigation, which was conducted and published by US-based think tank Atlantic Council, claims Tunisian digital communications company UReputation conducted an organised campaign that sought to influence the elections within the North African country and other African states by attempting to change public opinion and sentiment.

A branch of the Atlantic Council named the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) launched the investigation in September last year, discovering that UReputation had subtly supported and drove Tunisian presidential candidate's Nabil Karoui's 2019 campaign, Faure Gnassingbe's 2020 bid in Togo, and Henri Konan Bedie's current campaign in Ivory Coast.

Operation Carthage, as the disinformation campaign was called, used online social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to target the countries' voters.

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In May, Facebook reported that it removed a significant number of accounts over violations of its policy on foreign interference, and on 5 June it announced that it had removed over 900 entities affiliated with Operation Carthage.

This was a result of their use of "fake accounts to masquerade as locals in countries they targeted, post and like their own content, drive people to off-platform sites, and manage Groups and Pages posing as independent news entities."

Facebook added: "Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to a Tunisia-based PR firm UReputation."

Overall, Operation Carthage was found to have spent over $330,000 on Facebook adverts to support its continent-wide campaign since its launch in August 2019.

On its website, UReputation acknowledges its role as a communications agency which specialises in "digital intelligence and cyber influence". This work includes "sending targeted messages to specific categories of recipients to influence their perception of a brand or personality".

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An example of one of these contacts and the effect he had on the influence of an election was that of Tunisian-French businessman Lotfi Ben Hadj – an avid supporter of the Tunisian presidential candidate Nabil Karoui last year – who used the operation to drive support for Karoui and got him to the runoff stage before he lost in October.

The revelation of Operation Carthage and the Tunisian firm's influence of the election processes in African states comes as other Middle Eastern governments and their democratic processes have been under the influences of disinformation campaigns, with Facebook at the forefront of the controversy. Last month, the social media giant announced that it dismantled a disinformation campaign by the Iranian authorities which used its state broadcaster to operate hundreds of fake social media accounts. Facebook has also been accused in recent months of having a severely anti-Palestine stance, with pro-Israel trolls gaining influence over the social media network.

AfricaAsia & AmericasNewsTunisiaUS
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