Fact-checking the Tunisian elections

Fact-checking the Tunisian elections
New forms of technology are being used to check facts in the run-up to the second round of the presidential elections.
4 min read
21 December, 2014
Tunisians are voting in the second round of presidential elections [Anadolu]
Statement: In Tunisia, there are 750,000 unemployed.

Verdict: "Totalement faux" (flashes in red). Totally false.

The initial statement was made by Tunisian presidential hopeful Beji Caid Essebsi in an interview with the Le Maghreb newspaper. According to the Tunisian website Birrasmi, however, the correct number is actually no more than 620,000. In a country of less than 11 million, that is asignificant difference.

As Tunisians head to the polls, and having already gone through parliamentary and a first round of presidential elections, they have suffered  a lot of campaigning by
     It's a good sign that Tunisians are trying to use technology to promote new values.

- Farah Samti, journalist
politicians seeking to win their vote.

Birrasmi has offered Tunisians a way by which to evaluate politicians' claims, however. The site meticulously fact-checks the statements and claims of Tunisian presidential candidates, rating them as totally true, or totally false, or maybe somewhere in between. The user is then provided with an explanation as to why Birrasmi rated the statement in the way they did.

Politicians coming out with statements that are, perhaps, liberal with the truth, is not a particularly rare thing in politics. Yet, in a transitioning democracy with a very tense and polarised political scene, Cahiers de la Liberté, the Paris-based Tunisian organisation behind Birrasmi, stress the importance of providing Tunisians with a resource that helps them sift through the political noise.

"Politicians were throwing accusations around, and a lot of rumours and false claims were propogated," Cahiers de la Liberte said in an email to al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"We observed that citizens rarely had the time or opportunity to check these claims, and were pushed to absorb them and form opinions that were not always consistent with the reality."

Birrasmi has received tens of thousands of hits in the few weeks it has been running, and has over one hundred facts for visitors to sift through.

It's not the only civil-society led initiative that is using innovative ways to cover the Tunisian elections.

Gov Tunisie released a mobile phone application where users can rate politicians and find out more information about them. Marsad Tunisie allows Tunisians to access in-depth information about the budget, their local council, and the newly elected parliament.

I-Watch, a youth led organisation established following the Tunisian revolution against former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, is even using the internet as a tool for observing the elections – using their "e-observation" platform over 1,000 observers trained by I-Watch will monitor elections throughout the country and file reports through their phones.

The organisation's past projects have included "Jomaa Meter", a website that kept an eye on the former government of Mehdi Jomaa, and "BillKamcha", which encouraged Tunisians to report corruption which would then be collated into a crowd map. They even released a rap video for that campaign.

"I do believe I-Watch is making a difference," said the organisation’s treasurer, Meriam Meddeb.

"We have different initiatives in which we had our recommendations taken into consideration by the government … And the YouTube videos explain what are the consequences of corruption in a simple way."

Oumayma Ben Abdallah, who works for an NGO in Tunisia, has used Marsad Tunisie website to learn more about Tunisia's new members of parliament.

"I consider it one of the most reliable sources for NGOs, journalists and simple citizens who are looking for more informational about Tunisian politicians," Ben Abdallah said.

Ben Abdallah also regarded Marsad, and the other websites and initiatives, as a positive sign of change in Tunisia.

"I believe that these websites are a strong indicator of the access to information culture and accountability after the Tunisian revolution, despite existing challenges."

However, there are concerns over whether these websites are only targeting a certain segment of Tunisian society, namely the elite.

Farah Samti, a journalist based in Tunis, certainly thinks so.

"Not all citizens have smart phones and know how to use apps. Not all citizens have access to the internet and can check out websites to form a well-informed opinion," Samti said.

Yet, overall, Samti, does think the initiatives are positive.

"It's a good sign that Tunisians are trying to use technology to promote new values they didn't have before the revolution. It takes a long time and a lot of effort to build a new democracy-based culture," she said.

"But it's doable, and Tunisians have proved so, given the progress made during the past few years," she added.