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Algeria protests: how disinformation spread on social media

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Algeria protests: how disinformation spread on social media

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Amid months of anti-government demonstrations, an online information battle is taking place in Algeria. Protesters are trying to scare off annoying trolls – dubbed “electronic flies”.

The interim president of the North African country recently announced that elections will take place in December .

It is the latest twist in a year of political drama that began in February and led to the resignation of the country’s long-term president in April.

But protesters wanting new reforms continue to take to the streets – and the struggle for the country’s future has been particularly violent on social media, which has been flooded with misinformation and fake news.

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What exactly is going on in Algeria?

On February 22, thousands of Algerians protested President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to run for a fifth term. He has held the presidency since 1999.

The unrest took the regime by surprise.

“We have not seen such protests since the 1990s,” said Dalia Ghanem, a resident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Algeria protests: how disinformation spread on social media

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Media caption: Half of Algeria’s population is under 30 years old.

In an attempt to control the spread of information about the protests, Internet access has been disrupted in various parts of the country, according to NetBlocks , an organization that monitors freedom on the Internet.

Under pressure, Bouteflika resigned in April, but that was not enough to stem the protesters’ anger at “le pouvoir” – the “powers that are” – the clique of ruling party generals, businessmen and politicians. for years surrounded the president.

“Then began a second phase of the cyber war,” says Raouf Farrah, one of the founders of the Young Activists Collective, one of the movements involved in the protests. He argues that protesters’ opponents reacted by “engaging trolls, fake news, fake information, fake accounts.”

Learn more about the Algerian protests:

What are ‘electronic flies’?

Protesters use the term “electronic flies” to describe troll accounts throwing pro-government or pro-establishment messages.

Protest slogans were written about them and their actions were reported by local media.

 The Young Activists Collective Facebook page has been one of its many targets. “You’ll see trolls commenting negatively on our page and (calling) the move … all possible names,” says Farrah.

He says the accounts used by these “electronic flies” generally share a number of characteristics of coordinated activity: they were created after protests began, have fewer than 100 friends, and tend to repeat the same comments in a number of posts.

“They just make that annoying noise and try to deflect the debate,” says Carolyn Lamboley of BBC Monitoring, which analyzes “electronic flies.” “It’s just to create some kind of ‘pollution’.”

The BBC Trending has identified accounts that fit this pattern of behavior. But it is unclear whether the people who run these accounts are acting on their own initiative or if they are part of an organized campaign.

Hear more about this story on the BBC World Service Trend Podcast: Download Now

What are the “electronic flies” circling about?

Comments and posts published by “electronic flies” seem to focus on a small number of topics, mainly intended to undermine the protest movement.

One is the “conspiracy angle,” Lamboley says: “This idea that there is foreign sponsorship behind the protests, that they can be somehow pushed or sponsored by outside powers.” France, as Algeria’s former colonial power, is often “an easy scapegoat,” she says.

Many other comments published by the “electronic flies” suggest that there is still widespread popular support for Bouteflika and the army.

“Sometimes it’s really weird stuff like ‘Long live the army,'” says Lamboley. “And that phrase is copied and pasted twelve times in a message so it doesn’t look like (normal) human behavior.”

Other messages provoke tensions between the various ethnic groups in Algeria.

And the fake news?

At the same time that electronic flies emerged, a large number of fake news surfaced online and spread rapidly on social media.

“It has become a venue for protesters and authorities because many Algerians basically get their information from Facebook,” says Omar Al-Ghazzi, assistant professor of media and communication at the London School of Economics.

In the midst of this climate of political uncertainty, a Facebook page was created to expose false news about Algeria: False News DZ .

“When the protests began, me and some friends of mine saw that there was an increase in fake news published,” says Nassim, one of the creators of the page.

Nassim is a Paris-based Algerian IT expert, and despite a lack of journalism training, he says breaking up fake news in his spare time can be quite an easy job – “as easy as doing a Google search.”

Algeria protests: how disinformation spread on social media

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Media caption A brief history of fake news

Since the page was created in April, Fake News DZ (“.dz” is the top-level domain of the Internet in Algeria) says it has exposed over 300 fake news. Many were anti-protest. Among them were reports that the demonstration was no longer needed and that Algeria was thriving after the president’s departure.

Nassim says most of the fake political news comes from the anti-protest side or appears to have been designed “to create some divisions among protesters.” However, other stories suggest that some protest supporters have also adopted misinformation tactics.

“During the summer, when the protests were less massive … we saw some people sharing photos of the protests saying ‘That’s what happened today.’ But they were old pictures of old protests, “Nassim told the BBC Trending.

What do the Algerians make of this?

Several opposition politicians have condemned the use of fake news and electronic flies against the protest movement, suggesting that the political establishment may be to blame for these tactics.

There is no solid evidence to suggest that the government or army is directly involved in any disinformation campaign. Neither the Algerian Embassy in the United Kingdom nor the Algerian Ministry of Communications responded to the BBC’s requests to comment on this story.

The ruling party politicians sometimes accuse the Algerian media of engaging in “misinformation attempts”. Algeria currently ranks 141 on the World Press Freedom Index , issued annually by the Reporters Without Borders group.

Algeria protests: how disinformation spread on social media

Media playback is not supported on your device.

A fact checker’s guide to preventing fake news

A Facebook spokesman told BBC Trending: “We don’t want our platform to be used to manipulate people and we work aggressively to combat the spread of misinformation.”

The company noted that it removes pages and profiles that are being used in a coordinated way to spread misinformation. Over a three-month period earlier this year, the site toppled 2.2 billion fake profiles.

Did you like this piece? Listen to the “Algerian Misinformation Battle”.

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