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The run-up to the 2019 presidential elections has seen unprecedented amounts of fake news and smear campaigns against all the candidates, but none have been quite as bizarre as the campaign involving a Belgian singer, an English journalist and a cache of poorly faked documents which rocked Dakar.
On 10 January an article appeared on news website Modern Ghana headlined 'The challenges of exploiting natural resources in Africa', apparently authored by 'Michelle Damsen'. The article accused Ousmane Sonko, a presidential candidate and anti-resource corruption campaigner who is a favourite among Senegal's youth, of receiving money from Tullow Oil in return for oil contracts should he be elected.
As soon as the article was on the Modern Ghana website it was 'picked up' and elaborated on in Senegalese news outlets including DakarActu, Seneweb, L'Observateur and Les Echos (the last two have the same name but no connection to two famous and respectable French news media houses). The Senegalese press follow-ups produced crudely forged documents purportedly signed by Tullow's chief financial officer Les Wood and supposedly proving Tullow had paid $195,000 to Sonko.
Senegalese journalists told Africa Confidential that the documents were sent via an anonymous email to most Senegalese newsrooms, including a photo of 'Michelle Damsen', but which was later identified as Belgian singer Lara Fabian.
When no evidence of a Damsen could be found online, Senegalese journalists made a connection to United Kingdom-based investigative journalist Michelle Madsen, and started calling her up to quiz her about Sonko. Madsen issued a statement denying any connection to the article.
Sonko and Tullow both called the story 'fake news'. Tullow Oil tweeted: 'The documents are obviously fake. They have not been signed, do not have Tullow's letterhead and are written in poor English. Tullow does not have any office, person or licence in Senegal and never makes political donations.'
When Madsen enquired with Modern Ghana about the how the article came to its website, it contacted 'Damsen'. 'Damsen', who turned out, from phone conversations, to be male, replied saying that he would provide documents proving the allegations against Sonko. That was the last they heard from him. Modern Ghana, however, has chosen to protect the real identity of 'Damsen' by concealing his or her email address and phone number. A partial image of the phone number shows it has a Washington DC area code.
Modern Ghana removed the story from its website. By this time, however, the story had already spread far and wide. Analysts said the methods are typical of sophisticated disinformation specialists such as certain Russian and Israeli political consultancies and also bear the hallmarks of Russian anti-European Union or anti-Ukrainian 'fake news'.
The editor of the French language section of the respected Africa Check, Samba Dialimpa Badji, which researches 'fake news' and investigates the veracity of claims made in African media, looked into the affair. He said that it was clear Senegal was being subjected to disinformation and fake news, which were going to play a role in the presidential election, and the 'Damsen' story was a prime example.
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