Digital democracy Tunisia

Tackling disinformation and hate speech in the MENA region

In the context of widely spread online disinformation, manipulation, and hate speech in the digital world, Democracy Reporting International (DRI) started a new project to monitor social media in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. 

The project was designed to complement DRI’s ongoing efforts in the field of social media monitoring. The past projects aimed at strengthening the capacity of local communities to monitor social media during the elections, raising awareness against hate speech, as well as gathering evidence of online disinformation in different countries.

Despite the covid-19 pandemic, the new regional project kicked off on 23 June with the first online training sessions. The second and third sessions were held on 24 June and 7 July, respectively. Representatives from DRI and its partners from Tunisia, Sudan, Lebanon, and Jordan, participated in the online training.

The sessions discussed three specific topics: “Disinformation and Hate Speech in the MENA Region”, “Introduction to DRI Social Media Monitoring methodology”, and “Overview of Tools and Techniques”. Participants were introduced to the different tools to monitor the digital sphere and safeguard the democratic process in their societies.

Picture of the second day of the online training session, held on 24 June 2021.

Wafaa Heikal, DRI Social Media Analyst, said that “Each partner will identify and combat disinformation and hate speech narratives in their context, the region is facing different challenges with the spread of false information around elections or health misinformation about Covid-19 and vaccination, or online gender-based harassment campaigns.” Moreover, she added that people are increasingly more dependent on social media to obtain information.

But on social media, she warned, there is also hate speech against minorities and marginalized groups in society. “It is the responsibility of large tech companies such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google to manage content posted on their platforms. Not only in English, but also in other languages like Arabic,” added Heikal.

According to Heikal, policies are also useful to prevent algorithms from being manipulated to target a particular audience. Especially when amplifiers such as advertisements or robots can be used to amplify a certain voice and affect the public discourse, which can benefit a particular party or political group.

After the training sessions, the regional kick-off meeting was organised online on 28 July. All partners were asked to prepare their own projects that would be suitable for their respective countries. Six partners were chosen to implement the projects, Mourakiboun and the Institute of Press and Information Sciences (IPSI) from Tunisia, Sudia from Sudan, Mahart from Lebanon, and Fatabayanno and Al Hayat Center from Jordan.

Picture of the online regional kick-off meeting, held on 28 July 2021.

Heikal said that many challenges are still facing internet users in the MENA region, with some governments deliberately cutting off internet access during times of elections. “For example, in Iraq, Sudan, and Jordan. This practice has been going on for years, and a clear violation of digital rights of the people,” she explained.

“And rumours or disinformation may be amplified by social media algorithms, spreading and creating opinions on important topics like the covid-19 vaccines that are based on lies or misrepresented facts.”

Photo by Su San Lee on Unsplash 

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