No less than 446 pages, 96 groups and more than 200 Instagram accounts have been deleted by Facebook these days. What do they have in common? All were administered on the social network by a digital marketing company called URéputation, belonging to the Franco-Tunisian businessman Lotfi Bel Hadj, in violation of Facebook’s charter on foreign interference. Indeed, the majority of publications aimed to weigh, at the cost of infox, on elections in French-speaking Africa by supporting for example candidates such as the Comorian Azali Assoumani, the Ivorian Henri Konan Bédié, the Tunisian Nabil Karoui or even the Togolese Faure Gnassingbé. It is thanks to an investigation opened in September 2019 by the American laboratory Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) that Facebook has been alerted.
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Fake local media accounts
According to the authors of the survey, the Tunisian company URéputation always proceeds in the same way. It creates in various countries so-called local information sites to disseminate content that is initially harmless and “attractive”, on “tourism”, “links with the diaspora” and recently on “the fight against the coronavirus”, before changing your tone and embarking on political propaganda. These groups have thus created a “misleading” audience, deplored Facebook in a press release. According to the American social media giant, these pages and groups, which reached almost 4 million Internet users in total, violated its charter against foreign interference.
Contacted Monday by AFP, the target company, UReputation, did not wish to comment.
Maghreb Info, Guinée Actu, Revue Afrique, L’Observateur togolais or Le Moronien: according to a survey by the American research laboratory Digital Forensic Research lab (DFRLab) published over the weekend, UReputation launched pages wrongly presented as local news sites.
In reality, these local pseudo-media had no independent editorial staff, and DFRLab indicated that it had established links between these publications and UReputation collaborators, paid according to this laboratory for disseminating information mixed with biased or false content.
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Influencing Elections in Francophone Africa
According to the same source, publications, including misleading polls, supported Comorian President Azali Assoumani, former Ivorian President Henri Konan Bédié, campaigning for the October elections, Tunisian media magnate Nabil Karoui, candidate defeated in the presidential election in late 2019, or the Togolese president Faure Gnassingbé, re-elected in February.
“It seems to have been motivated by financial gain, because there is no ideological continuity that emerges from the content,” said DFRLab, an offshoot of the American think tank Atlantic Council.
UReputation, based in Tunis, presents itself as a “digital intelligence” and “cyber influence” agency with 75 employees. It is headed, according to sector sources, by the Franco-Tunisian businessman Lotfi Bel Hadj, who is notably present in Africa in carbon offsetting.
Author of an essay on the economy of halal, The halal Bible, he was also very active in the defense of the Swiss Islamologist Tariq Ramadan when he was charged with rape. The structure also manages the French-speaking information site for Muslims based in Europe, Muslim Post, which covers general news.