As Tunisian voters go to the polls to cast their ballots for president this weekend, the North African country finds itself sorting through a messy information environment where a candidate owns his own TV network and fact-checkers cannot always be separated from political partisans. Saturday’s runoff culminates an expedited election cycle to select the country’s new head of state, following the death of President Beji Caid Essebsi at the age of 92 this summer.
Not unlike electorates in Europe and the United States, Tunisians find themselves choosing between unorthodox candidates. On the one hand is Nabil Karoui, a television mogul who until October 9 was in jail on tax evasion charges; on the other is Kaïs Saïed, a socially conservative law professor who has developed a massive online following despite not being particularly well-known previously.
The runoff is the culmination of an election campaign that initially featured more than two dozen candidates, including current Prime Minister Youssef Chahed. Following the first round of voting in September, election monitors from the Carter Center were generally positive about the process but expressed concerns about the impact of social media on the campaign.
The media maven
While Nabil Karoui has made headlines outside of Tunisia because of his recent incarceration, he is a well-known media mogul in Tunisia. After building a successful PR business with his brother, he launched his own television network, Nessma TV, in 2007 with support from Italian politician and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. Nessma TV runs both entertainment and news programming, and Karoui has used it effectively as a platform to promote himself over the years, particularly in relation to his charity work.
Karoui was arrested in August on tax evasion charges following a 2016 investigative report by the Tunisian corruption monitoring outlet I Watch. As noted by HuffPost Maghreb, Karoui’s Nessma TV denounced his arrest on air, declaring that Karoui had been detained by Prime Minister Chahed’s “political police.” In an interview with Nessma TV, Karoui adviser Oussema Khlifi declared, “They kidnapped him and did not want to tell us where they were taking him. They told us that they had received orders. Youssef Chahed’s police kidnapped a candidate in the presidential election.”
The connections between Karoui’s media empire and his campaign are murky. For example, the first Twitter user to follow his official account was Drira Mohamed, whose profile describes him as a project manager for Nessma TV. Additionally, Mohamed was the first user to follow a second Twitter account called Team Karoui. The DFRLab reached out to Mohamed for comment but has not received a reply.
The popular professor
Presidential candidate Kaïs Saïed, meanwhile, is a bit of a social media curiosity. While he has become a meme for his alleged inability to display emotions — some media outlets have nicknamed him “robocop” for his monotone delivery, and one YouTube video with more than 40,000 views is nothing but a one-hour loop of him talking — Saïed has developed an enormous following on social media, with more than 350,000 people following his Facebook fan page, and countless fan pages created in support of him. One Facebook group supporting Saïed even organized a boycott against a Tunisian news outlet’s social media presence because it argued they were not giving him enough coverage; the outlet lost more than 1 million followers in less than 48 hours.
Some of that online surge came from the 350,000 members of the Tunisian Youth Movement Facebook page, which had endorsed Saïed. The Tunisian Youth Movement abruptly withdrew its support of Saïed, however, causing his campaign to issue a statement that they were never actually affiliated with each other in the first place.
Suspicions about the origins of certain Facebook pages should not be rooted merely in general skepticism, as Tunisia already has an inauspicious track record for pages not being what they seem to be. In May, the DFRLab reported on the Israeli cyber influence company Archimedes Group and its efforts to sway Tunisian political opinion through the creation of fake Facebook pages. Archimedes targeted Tunisia, among a number of other countries, with pages purporting to call out disinformation and root out corruption. In reality, they were part of a carefully orchestrated campaign to undermine the Tunisian political establishment, in particular Prime Minister Chahed. They were eventually taken down by Facebook.
As the DFRLab noted in May, one particular page, Stop à la désinformation et aux mensonges en Tunisie (“Stop disinformation and lies in Tunisia”), posed as a media watchdog group countering Tunisian disinformation. In fact, it existed to spread disinformation under the guise of fact-checking.
Enter the fact-checkers
One of the most consistent sources of fact-checking the election is Agence France-Presse and its AFP Factuel service, which employs a global team of around 50 people working in nine languages. They began Arabic-language fact-checking in February and started conducting fact-checking in French for Francophone North Africa countries in September.
“Fact-checking and the fight against misinformation are an editorial priority at AFP,” explained Tunis-based AFP journalist Salsabil Chellali in an interview with the DFRLab. “This work is even more important during an election period, when the future of a country is at stake. False information circulating around the elections is not trivial and tends to influence voters’ votes. In a country like Tunisia, where democratic mechanisms have made significant progress, massive amounts of misinformation can affect the very foundations of democracy, crystallize tensions, or provoke hatred.”
According to Chellali, disinformation in Tunisia’s electoral process is taking several forms. In some cases, she says, it is a matter of news sites sharing unconfirmed information too quickly, so it is not necessarily malicious. She adds, however, that some pages are intentionally spreading false information, so that “it is difficult to grasp the purpose or scope.” She cites a recent case in which a fake page masqueraded as the private radio station, Mosaïque FM, using the station’s logo and other branding. It was eventually removed by Facebook.
“However,” Chellali continues, “it’s clear that there’s also a desire for [spreading] misinformation on the part of certain actors that can be difficult to identify, though it’s organized more or less in a coordinated way.” This has manifested itself in a number of forms, she says, including fake polls, forged electoral posters asserting nonexistent political alliances, and unfounded rumors that pop up at critical moments of the campaign.
For example, a screenshot of a fake poll allegedly from the French firm Sigma circulated on Facebook and WhatsApp. The fake poll showed Karoui coming in first during the initial voting round, followed by Prime Minister Chahed. The director of the Sigma polling firm denounced the fake poll results, while the French government declared, “This poll is obviously false and fabricated to influence public opinion.”
AFP Factuel is not the only fact-checking service monitoring the campaign. For example, Business News TN has launched BN Check, while Tunisia’s press agency recently announced the launch of two fact-checking sites, factchecking.watania1.tn and tunisiacheknews.com. At the time of writing, Watania1 had started publishing fact-checks, while TunisiaChek had not.
The mystery of Fake News Checking
There is another Tunisian fact-checking site worth noting, but in some ways, it raises more questions than it answers. Fake News Checking, launched in August, describes itself as “a band of five citizens” that wish to remain anonymous. It goes on to emphasize that they “are not Tunisian media journalists” and might occasionally make mistakes, but it goes on to “challenge” readers to find “a partisan side to our articles.”
On its surface, the site does not appear particularly partisan, debunking rumors about both candidates as well as former candidates during the first round of voting. But one of the founders of the site has identified himself publicly, and he is not exactly neutral. Moëz Bhar is a Tunisian journalist who writes primarily about sub-Saharan Africa on two sites, revue-afrique.com and afrika-news.com. He was recently interviewed by BBC Arabic about his work on Fake News Checking and has been open about his involvement on his Twitter feed.
In a subsequent interview with the DFRLab, Bhar described the importance of fact-checking in an election. “The presidential campaign has provoked a large wave of false information,” he said. “For it to take place in a calmer atmosphere, it’s important to try to unravel the false from the true… Our big problem: we don’t know who owns the media.”
When asked about the people running the site, Bhar would not reveal any of their names, describing themselves as “five friends completely separate from any sectors of activity; we are not part of any political party or any organization or company.”
While the identity of Bhar’s partners remains obscure, his politics are not. Bhar repeatedly acknowledged his support for Karoui on his Facebook page, which was recently suspended for suspicious activity. He has also been critical of Karoui’s arrest on Twitter.
Bhar insists that his personal politics do not impact the fact-checking site. “My personal opinions never interfere with what we do and post on our website,” he insists. “The proof is there with all our fact-checks.”
Fake News Checking is emblematic of many of the challenges when it comes to sorting out disinformation in Tunisia. While it presents itself as neutral and not run by journalists, the Tunisian journalist who admits to being involved in it is openly political, favoring one of the two presidential candidates. And despite the enormous popularity of Facebook in Tunisia, it can be hard to prove who is behind some of the largest accounts supporting each candidate. Combine that with a relatively obscure constitutional lawyer who somehow mobilized countless supporters online and a media mogul defended by his own TV network while he sat in jail, and you have a recipe for a messy, confused, and potentially highly misleading information environment.