The Algerian popular protest movement “Hirak” (“movement” in Arabic), brought a glimpse of freedom online, but also an aggressive wave of “fake news” and misinformation on social media platforms. With few means to face or solve the problem, the battle against the spread of misinformation ends.
The protest movement began on February 22, 2019, when then-president Abdelaziz Buteflika announced his candidacy for a fifth term. Afterwards, Buteflika abandoned his plans to run for president again and, after 20 years in power, resigned on April 3. However, Algerians have continued to take the streets to protest against corruption, unemployment and the country's political elite, even after the presidential elections on December 12, which protesters consider a ploy designed to keep the old regime in the power.
Nassim, an Algerian activist who lives in France and asked not to reveal his last name, created Fake News DZ with some friends after noticing an unusual increase in social media activity in Algeria and a wave of widely spread false stories. The page had more than 135,000 followers at the beginning of January 2020. Nassim told Global Voices a story of ‘false news’ that went viral:
For me, the most surreal fake news we debunked was not really political; an Algerian NASA engineer participated in the “send your name to Mars” NASA program which is accessible to all and suggested “Hirak Algeria” instead of his name. A journalist or many misunderstood the engineer's tweet and wrote that the next NASA spaceship to Mars will be named “Hirak Algeria”.
Fake news spread like wildfire even on some “trusted” media. A famous TV channel even made a video describing this as one of the biggest accomplishments ever. Months later I still find people believing in this story.
For me, the most surreal false news we denied was not really political: an Algerian engineer from NASA participated in the program “send your name to Mars”, which was accessible to everyone and suggested “Hirak Algeria” instead of his name. A journalist or many misunderstood the engineer's tweet and wrote that NASA's next spacecraft to Mars will be called “Hirak Algeria.”
Fake news spread like a wildfire even in “reliable” media. A famous television channel even made a video that described this as one of the greatest achievements in history. Months later I still find people who believe that story.
However, other cases of misinformation were more serious as they addressed the protest movement and its activists.
As the presidential elections of December 12 approached, government supporters turned to social media to attack anti-government activists. They attacked the protesters and subjected them to conspiracy theories, such as accusing them of working for foreign governments, secret services or receiving payment to spread instability and riots in the country.
Twitter bots and trolleys
While Twitter is a powerful information tool, it can also be used to influence public opinion and silence opponents with robot armies.
The number of Twitter users in Algeria is around 450,000. The platform is mainly used by journalists, some soccer players and national entities such as ministries and public entities. However, compared to other platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, Twitter is not widely used in Algeria. There are 21 million Facebook users in a country of 43 million people.
However, since the Hiraks began, hundreds of new Twitter accounts have been created, mostly trolls and bots in favor of the Government.
For example, according to analysts, in September 2019, 723 accounts were created and 474 were created in just two days. Then, were created 190 accounts in October and 72 in November, which is quite unusual, according to Marc Owen Jones, associate professor of Studies on the Middle East and Digital Humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha.
8 / The sample was incredibly skewed. Since 2008, the average number of accounts created per month in the sample was just 44. However, September saw this number rise to an incredible 723 accounts! That's 12%. 12% of accounts in the sample were created this month – since 2008! pic.twitter.com/H3EpQ23vCx
– Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) September 28, 2019
8 / The sample was incredibly skewed. Since 2008, the average number of accounts created per month in the sample was only 44. However, in September this number increased to an incredible 723 accounts! That is 12%. 12% of the accounts in the sample were created this month – since 2008!
On September 28, Owen Jones published a Twitter thread that analyzed a sample of 20,000 tweets from some 5769 accounts tweeted with the tags #NotInMyName (Not in my name) and #AlgeriaVotes (Algeria votes), who opposed calls to boycott the elections and urged people to vote. According to your analysis, the activities of these accounts point to “clear evidence of a disinformation campaign”.
The thread concluded that at least 8% of the accounts that encouraged people to vote in the sample were bots.
13 / So yeah, at least 8% of those tweeting for Algerians to go to the elections are probably bots and / or trolls. Stay vigilant Hopefully @TwitterSafety will suspend them soon. PM if you want the data.
– Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) September 28, 2019
13 / So yes, at least 8% of those who tweet for the Algerians to go to the elections are probably bots or trolleys. Keep alert. Hopefully, Twitter Safety will suspend them soon. Tell me if you want the data.
Twitter suspended Some accounts after they were reported. Consequently, suspended users created new accounts later and contacted their followers.
#WeAreAllZeghmati (We are all Zeghmati) is another example of a Twitter tag launched by government supporters to reinforce the argument of the existence of online campaigns against protest or in favor of the system in Algeria.
On November 3, security forces attacked magistrates who made a national strike in protest against a new restructuring. The images The attack became viral and internet users criticized Justice Minister Belkacem Zeghmati. The National Union of Magistrates also requested the resignation of the minister. A few hours later, #WeAreAllZeghmati it was a trend on Twitter in Algeria, to support the minister and the judicial system. The tag is spread widely for newly created accounts.
Beyond the question of being bots or not, there is an important aspect to consider about the number and manipulation of social media accounts in Algeria. The trend of trolls is on both sides. People who were willing to vote were persecuted on behalf of Hirak and vice versa. The exchanges are sometimes loaded with abuse and rudeness, which gives no positive added value to any debate.
The presidential elections held on December 12 were widely followed and commented on in Algeria, even by those who were against the elections or believed that the process was fraudulent. The elections were held despite having been rejected by the popular movement and the mass demonstrations that took place in Algiers and in many other cities on election day. Misinformation was also very common, and activists and journalists denied several false images and stories, including a image with Photoshop which showed the coach of the Algerian football team voting in the elections, and another image which showed an old man attacked by protesters opposed to the elections to prevent him from casting his vote in a voting center in Lyon, France. The latter was denied by Fake News DZ, which traced the image to a press report published on July 19 about an Egyptian tourist who was attacked by Romanian police inside an airplane. It was also denied a 2017 filming used by state television with alleged long lines of voters on election day.
On December 13, the Algerian Independent Election Supervision Authority announced the victory of independent candidate Abdelmadjid Tebboune, former prime minister and ally of Bouteflika. Tebboune won more than 58% of the votes, eliminating the need for a second round.
Although the elections are over, the future of digital platforms and the battle against misinformation remains vague, especially as protests against the ruling elite in Algeria continue to gain momentum.
This article is part of a series of publications that examine interference on digital rights through methods such as disruption of broadcaster networks and misinformation during key political events in seven African countries: Algeria, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tunisia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. The project is funded by the African Fund for Digital Collaborative Rights in International Information and Communications Technology Policy for Eastern and Southern Africa (CIPESA).