Tunisia elections: access to data crucial to monitor social media and disinformation attempts

Author: Hervé de Baillenx, DRI North Africa Representative

Facebook is the social network that Tunisians use most today. It boasts more users than there are registered voters in the country. During last year’s municipal elections, it was by far Tunisians’ primary source of information on the campaign. In recent years, several scandals and controversies have however shown how Facebook could be used by political actors to influence opinion ahead of elections. Given its prominent place in Tunisian’s information landscape, it is crucial to monitor political discourse on Facebook during the pre-electoral and electoral periods.

DRI’s partner ATIDE discovered worrying trends which suggest that a large part of the political campaigning that takes place on Facebook is conducted by undeclared political actors, undetected by monitoring bodies such as ISIE or HAICA, independent bodies supervising elections and audio-visual content, and unconstrained by the rules that govern political discourse and political spending during election campaigns. Some appear to operate in networks, sharing content in a coordinated manner. The use of more extreme and negative language in these pages may contribute to political polarisation, expose voters to hate speech and undermine efforts are policy-centred campaigning. This lack of transparency is in breach of Tunisia’s electoral rules. Unsupervised spending on Facebook renders futile ISIE’s attempts at monitoring campaign spending.

For the duration of the Tunisian presidential and legislative campaigns, DRI will continue to provide technical support to its partner ATIDE to monitor the content of official and unofficial political pages, to observe the differences of discourse between the two types of political actors, particularly when it comes to hateful or discriminatory speech, to monitor the behaviour or page networks, and to observe political spending on Facebook.

Effective monitoring requires technical tools. Much of this work relied on the Netvizz application, which extracts data from Facebook for research purposes. However, since Netvizz’s closure, more manual work is needed to compensate for the application. It is also dependent on securing full access to an easily exploitable Ads library, whose algorithm is trained to recognised sponsored political messaging in the Tunisian context, without which one cannot document the full size of paid campaigning on Facebook. When the transparency of the electoral process is at stake, we deplore that Facebook does not grant better access to its data to researchers, civil society and electoral observation bodies and call for such access without delay.

These are only some of the findings you can read in a report on social media monitoring between 15 May and 15 July 2019 published by ATIDE on 19 September. You can read the full report in English here.

Read the Arabic version here: http://bit.ly/2mOLWz0


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