The stakes for Tunisia and the Arab world in the disinformation debate are high

Concern is rising in Tunisia over the confusion of the public as it deals with a relentless flow of unchecked allegations and blatant fabrications.
Saturday 24/08/2019
The head of Tunisia's Independent High Authority for elections (ISIE) Nabil Baffoun (C) speaks during a press conference, August 14, 2019. (dpa)
The head of Tunisia's Independent High Authority for elections (ISIE) Nabil Baffoun (C) speaks during a press conference, August 14, 2019. (dpa)

Tunisian elections are shedding interesting light on the uses and abuses of social media in the treatment of political issues, especially in electoral contexts.

All over social media, the unfettered discussion of contentious issues within the election context is giving way to controversial allegations, unsubstantiated rumours and accusations of inaccurate and misleading statements.

The use of sponsored posts on Facebook has drawn the scrutiny of the Tunisian Independent High Authority for Elections, which wants to know if such posts violate the country’s electoral regulations, including the strict ban on foreign campaign financing.

The issue of foreign interference in Tunisia’s social media arose last May when Facebook announced that it closed Facebook and Instagram accounts aimed at influencing public opinion and elections in several countries, including Tunisia.

Fake pages were managed by the Archimedes Group, a Tel Aviv-based international lobbying firm, which boasts of an ability to “change reality” and of “winning campaigns worldwide.”  Among the pages dedicated to Tunisia, one was titled, ironically, “Stop Disinformation and Lies in Tunisia.”

Concern is rising in Tunisia over the confusion of the public as it deals with a relentless flow of unchecked allegations and blatant fabrications. One of the leading news websites in Tunisia said it would dedicate a special page to the checking of information.

It is the first Tunisian news outlet to join the International Fact-Checking Network, which advocates for “nonpartisan and transparent fact-checking” as “a powerful instrument of accountability journalism.” This is a welcome initiative by media professionals who should exercise their right to vetting information and ensuring its accuracy.

The debate in Tunisia is and should be of direct concern to the Arab world as the region is not impervious to the swirling currents of disinformation and incitement that are sweeping the global communication landscape.

At the opposite, the Arab public continues to be a target of extremist narratives, conspiracy theories and distorted information.

The problem is obviously global; so are the remedies to be considered.

The Global Disinformation Index, a nonprofit organisation that works on disinformation, which it defines as inaccurate information spread “purposefully and/or maliciously,” sees a diversity of actors involved. These include political operators, businesses and states. It said it is wary these “darkest forces in our society” are determined “to exploit the openness and connectedness that the Internet and social media has given us to spread division, fear and mistrust.”

“Disinformation has been used as a tool to weaponise mass influence and disseminate propaganda. It has brought extreme fallout for economies, politics and societies around the globe,” the index warned.

Social media operators are shouldering part of the burden in addressing the problem but that is not believed to be enough. Last March, Facebook purged accounts linked to disinformation campaigns connected to Iran, Russia, Macedonia and Kosovo. Iran has been caught by many investigators researching global social media interference.

In a statement last July, Twitter’s Head of Site Integrity Yoel Roth said Facebook eliminated “more than 2,800 inauthentic accounts originating in Iran.”

“These accounts employed a range of false personas to target conversations about political and social issues in Iran and globally,” Roth said.

In a separate statement, Facebook said it “removed 51 Facebook accounts, 36 Pages, seven Groups and three Instagram accounts involved in coordinated inauthentic behaviour that originated in Iran.”

Disinformation is also big business. The Global Disinformation Index said advertising on extremist and disinformation websites is the source of about $235 million of income each year.

CNN reported: “That means the people behind websites propagating hate or false information don’t just have an ideological influence — they can also make big money from advertisers.”

Websites in question include major platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube but also fringe sites and discussion portals such as 4chan, 8chan and Gab. 8chan was used by white nationalist extremists in the terrorist attack of Christchurch, New Zealand last March or the more recent bloody attack in El Paso, Texas.

While US and European decision makers and legislators discuss initiatives aimed at curtailing the use by unscrupulous operators and extremists of online platforms to disseminate false claims and hate messages, the Arab world should not be far behind.

Truth and tolerance deserve to be shielded from abuse. This imperative does not, however, justify governments’ temptation to over-regulate or unjustifiably restrict the free exchange of ideas. It is time for the Arab world to get more actively involved in the debate.

6