From anonymous avatars to foreign PR companies, the spread of fake news has become an inescapable part of the political landscape.
The small town of M’batto in south-central Côte d’Ivoire knows the dangers of fake news better than most. One day in November 2020, residents there awoke to news that they were at the epicentre of world-changing events. The nation had held a contentious presidential election just days earlier, and now social media was awash with stories of massacres in M’batto. Some said the violence was on the scale of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
This news had knock-on effects. Prominent opposition politicians like former prime minister Guillaume Soro called for the world to take note. Meanwhile, the gruesome stories almost certainly contributed to ethnic violence elsewhere in Côte d’Ivoire in which more than 50 people were killed.
There was a kernel of truth to the M’batto news. Members of the Agni ethnic community there had burned shops and vehicles belonging to Malinke people, the ethnic group to which the newly re-elected President Alassane Ouattara belongs. The violence was indeed worrying, leading to six deaths and forty injuries. However, it was far from genocidal.
The story of M’batto underscores the growing prevalence of fake news in Côte d’Ivoire. As explored in a recent report produced with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), misinformation and disinformation played an influential role in the presidential elections.
Most of it was instigated by members of political parties, including both those in President Ouattara’s Rally of Houphouetists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) and those affiliated with opposition figures such as former presidents Henri Konan Bédié and Laurent Gbagbo. All Côte d’Ivoire’s main political parties now have teams specialising in digital reputations and used cyber activists to promote their parties and policies around the elections.
“Fake news is a political weapon in Côte d’Ivoire,” said one of the Ivoirian journalists interviewed for the CDD report. “It is very, very, very politicised… Around the elections, everyone was using fake news to destabilise their opponents.”
As the case of M’batto showed, this misinformation can have far-reaching consequences.
“Fake information was everywhere and was spread in the hope of making people scared,” said a female Ivoirian citizen interviewed for the CDD report. “We all went back to our villages because we were too scared to go and vote because of the fear of attack or violence. It definitely pushed a lot of people not to vote.”
Highly politicised fake news is, of course, not unique to Côte d’Ivoire. However, its prevalence is particularly worrying in a country that has struggled to foster reconciliation since it emerged from a nine-year civil war in 2011. That conflict saw the southern-led government fight groups traditionally hailing from the north, such as the Malinke and Senoufo ethnic groups, that complained of marginalisation and exclusion. After years of low-level war, the country held long-delayed elections in 2010 that saw Ouattara, a northerner, defeat then President Gbagbo. The incumbent’s refusal to step down prompted months of heavy fighting that only ended in April 2011 when pro-Ouattara forces, supported by French troops, removed Gbagbo.
Over a decade later, feelings of exclusion among different parts of society remain prominent. Much of the fake news in 2020 claimed to show how one ethnic group is being unfairly targeted at the expense of another.
“There is a strong possibility that fake news is caused by the post-conflict political context,” said an Ivorian voter interviewed in the report. “Among every level of society, people use fake news to find and destroy the image of others. They use fake news to try to control the situation and advance their own interests.”
How did fake news become so prevalent?
Although rumours have long travelled through word of mouth in Côte d’Ivoire, the explosion of social media and internet accessibility has boosted their spread. Between January 2020 and January 2021, the number of internet users in the country increased by 2.5% and active social media users by 20.4%.
This growth has, in turn, contributed to the expanding range of fake news actors. This includes the rise of online “avatars”, one of the more unique features of the Ivoirian ecosystem. Many of these anonymous social media accounts have huge followings and have been responsible for the spread of false information.
The most famous avatar goes by the name “Chris Yapi” and has around 600,000 followers on its main Facebook account. It is generally believed to be connected to opposition figure Guillaume Soro and shares a range of content. Some of it is seemingly insider information on government activities, which lends credibility to the account and boosts its following. But some of its output is more clearly fake and seems designed to stir up political tensions.
Following the death of Prime Minister Hamed Bakayoko in March 2021, for instance, Chris Yapi propagated the idea that President Ouattara’s brother, Téné Birahima, had killed him with poison. In the absence of public information about the 56-year-old’s passing, this rumour spread widely. Although there was no substance to it, a diplomatic communications specialist said this misinformation made it difficult for Birahima to do his new job as defence minister given the ill-feeling towards him among many Ivoirians.
Another example of a well-known avatar is “Succès”. In May 2021, this account spread a video on Facebook purporting to show horrific attacks against Ivoirian migrants in Niger. The clip was actually from Nigeria and had nothing to do with Ivoirians or Nigeriens. Yet it spread widely and incited retaliatory violence against Nigeriens in Côte d’Ivoire, leaving at least one person dead.
It is unclear who is behind some of these avatars, but sometimes, the politicians behind accounts that spread fake news are well-known. In the lead up to the 2020 presidential election, for example, opposition leader Bédié engaged the Tunisian PR company UReputation to boost his party’s following. The firm set up Facebook groups that appeared harmless and attracted a wide audience as they shared information related to tourism, the diaspora, and the fight against Covid-19. But the groups then quickly changed tone and spread political propaganda, reaching an estimated 4 million internet users before Facebook shut them down.
What is the response?
As internet access continues to expand and social media accounts multiply, cracking down on fake news in Côte d’Ivoire is likely to prove incredibly challenging.
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This is further complicated by the fact that the government has allegedly used the pretext of fake news to target opponents in the past. In February 2017, for example, security forces arrested six journalists, including three media owners, for reportedly spreading false information. The government claimed that reports of a mutiny published by those arrested were intended to incite a revolt in the armed forces. It is not clear whether the government was correct in its assertions, but the fact that officials typically pursue these kinds of cases in the fight against misinformation has led to concerns that the crackdown on fake news is politicised.
Another challenge stems from the sensationalist nature of much fake news. It will always be difficult for fact-checking organisations to match the fast spread and sharing appeal of this content. After-the fact efforts to counter fake news are likely to find it difficult to make much of a difference. Instead, attempts to improve information education and help people better understand when stories are real or fake would be a much more productive method of preventing fake news from escalating. Attempts by the government to communicate more clearly, quickly, and truthfully would also go a long way to prevent fake news causing as much damage as it did in the 2020 presidential election and its aftermath.
Jessica Moody is a PhD candidate in the War Studies Department at King’s College London. Her research focuses on post-conflict peacebuilding, demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration, and transitional justice processes in Cote d’Ivoire. She is also a freelance political risk and peacebuilding consultant and has worked with the United States Institute of Peace, the Economist Intelligence Unit and IHS Markit.