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Côte d’Ivoire presidential election: On the web, anything goes

By Vincent Duhem, in Abidjan
Posted on Thursday, 29 October 2020 17:53

A resident signs to collect her voting card ahead of the October 31 presidential election in Abidjan, Ivory Coast 14 October 2020. REUTERS/Luc Gnago

As the presidential election campaign draws to a close in Côte d’Ivoire, an information war pitting the ruling party against the opposition is escalating on social media.

He’s likely one of the most widely known and controversial avatars in Côte d’Ivoire. For several months now, “Chris Yapi” has been dumping supposedly compromising information about Alassane Ouattara and those within his political and security entourage on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

He is at times awfully well informed (to the extent that he has seriously alarmed several ministers), often wide of the mark, and sometimes somewhere between the two. Thanks to his catchy phrases and skilful showmanship, the mysterious Chris Yapi has quickly made a name for himself.

Currently, he is followed by several hundred thousand people. His posts are discussed at the highest level of government, in the cabinet office, in the luxurious lounges of Abidjan’s five-star hotels and in the corridors of chanceries.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: How much influence does Soro exert despite his exile?

Everyone is asking the same question: who is behind this now famous alias? Every last one of the Ivorian president’s rivals – even the former foreign minister Marcel Amon Tanoh and ex-vice president Daniel Kablan Duncan – are under suspicion. Nevertheless, several Ivorian and French security sources see the hand of Guillaume Soro.

Though the former national assembly president denies the assertion, his close associates – including his French communications adviser, Patricia Balme – don’t hold back when it comes to sharing Yapi’s posts. “It’s part of his strategy aimed at sowing seeds of doubt and division at the centre of government,” said a person close to Ouattara.

Information war

Yapi’s “success” has inspired copycats. Accounts featuring similar posts, but ones highly critical of the opposition this time around, have been popping up. As the presidential election nears, with the first round to be held on 31 October, an information war is escalating and playing out primarily on social media.

According to reporter and blogger Daouda Coulibaly, “social media sites have become a powerful communication tool today. The Ivorian electorate is very young and uses social media a lot more than in the past. Politicians are aware of this fact and have invested energy into every platform.”

The communications agencies representing Côte d’Ivoire’s main parties now have teams specialising in digital reputations. With the help of algorithms, they and create hashtags and try to make an event or watchword trend on Twitter. The goal is to shape their candidate’s image and torpedo that of the candidate’s rivals – because on the web, anything goes.

The opposition gets ahead of the social media curve

Dozens of people, some of whom are associated with the communications agency Voodoo, are tasked with getting the word out for the Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) and Ouattara. “We have a variety of different activists: moderates with in-depth expertise, those in charge of reinvigorating the campaign and even a few activists who initiate rumours to test the waters,” said a communications adviser close to the government.

The efforts suffer from a lack of organisation. Each minister has a little group of activists and runs a small operation for personal purposes,” said a source, admitting that the opposition has gotten ahead of the game in that it made social media sites its main communication channel.

Trendsetter Soro adopted Twitter very early on and his activists continue to have the largest presence on the site. The Democratic Party of Côte d’Ivoire (PDCI) launched a Facebook page featuring its PDCI-TV channel, which boasts a wide audience. Accounts tied to Henri Konan Bédié’s party have also flourished, like that of Kyria Doukoure, whose activism led prime minister Hamed Bakayoko to threaten to file a complaint.

A troubling fake news epidemic

But the line between wanting to influence the debate and spreading disinformation is razor thin. Facebook refers to disinformation campaigns as “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. This kind of activity seeks to manipulate the public debate by creating multiple accounts, using bots and rolling out advertising. In early August, the US tech giant stepped up its monitoring of coordinated inauthentic behaviour, particularly with regard to page and post sponsorship. According to our sources, sponsorship campaigns linked to Bédié’s official page were recently blocked without explanation.

Back in May, the social network had already taken the precaution of shutting down several pages affiliated with the PDCI, some of which were managed by Ureputation, a Tunis-based firm headed by the businessman Lotfi Bel Hadj and tasked with the communications of the former president’s party. Taken aback by the swiftness of Facebook’s action and maintaining that it complies with all regulations, Ureputation filed a complaint against the social media leader.

READ MORE Côte d’Ivoire: Where is civil society ahead of the presidential election?

Political manipulation on social media also reveals a more general trend. Recently, at a time when many Ivorians fear the onset of a new crisis, Abidjan has turned into the country’s rumour capital. The dissemination of fake news on Twitter and Facebook, as well as in WhatsApp groups, has reached a troubling level. “Urgent. For unknown reasons, a general round-up is taking place across the country starting at 8 pm. Whether you have ID or not, you are advised to stay home,” read, for instance, a widely disseminated and shared post on Monday, 26 October.

“There is a lot of abuse today. Verbal abuse and hate speech have become commonplace,” Coulibaly said. “It’s less and less acceptable to have differing views. You’re expected to take a side and align yourself with a camp.”

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