My fake news whodunnit: Caught up in a Senegal fake news scam

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George Wafula/BBC

I stepped out of a dance class in North London on a sunny day last January to find a string of missed calls from African phone numbers.

I had no idea what this was about – so I checked my inbox and Facebook and Twitter – there were hundreds of messages all asking me the same thing – was I “Michelle Damsen”, the author of a mysterious news story at the centre of a media storm in Senegal?

“A corruption scandal is shaking my country and your name has been mentioned.”

“We are very worried since we have seen an article supposed to be written by you.”

“I am a Senegalese journalist and I definitely need to talk to you!”

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George Wafula/BBC

They all wanted to know if I had written an article titled “The challenges of exploiting natural resources in Africa”, which appeared on an obscure Ghanaian news website, Modern Ghana, on 9 January 2019.

The story accused Senegalese opposition presidential candidate Ousmane Sonko of taking a massive bribe from a European oil company and was authored by “Michelle Damsen”, a name just two letters off my own – Michelle Madsen.

This was just a few weeks ahead of the Senegalese presidential election and Mr Sonko was one of the main challengers to President Macky Sall.

As a freelance investigative journalist with a background in uncovering corruption in the resource industry in West Africa, I have written several stories about Senegal and oil companies.

I had even written a story about Mr Sonko after he published a book accusing Senegal’s president’s brother, Aliou Sall, of corruption – allegations he has denied.

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George Wafula/BBC

I knew I hadn’t written the Modern Ghana story though, and told all the journalists who got in touch with me the same. But I was shaken by some of the details in the news stories which came out in Senegal and how quickly the story had been linked to me.

One written in Press Afrik even named me directly, saying I had written the story. Another appearing on news site Seneweb mentioned Frank Timis, the UK-based businessman with operations in Senegal and close links to President Sall’s brother, who I and a team of independent journalists had just got funding to investigate.

The funding came from a journalism project in the Netherlands, one of the funders of which is Oxfam.

This is why I was spooked when Oxfam was mentioned in “official” documents which appeared in some of the news stories. They had UK oil firm Tullow Oil’s logo stamped in the middle and named Ousmane Sonko.

Tullow Oil and Mr Sonko denied all the allegations and these documents were quickly shown to be fakes by fact checkers. Oxfam told me they didn’t take any funding from the oil industry, but that they had paid Mr Sonko for training in the past. This seed of truth might have made the story more believable to some.

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After I told journalists from fact-checking site Africa Check and the AFP news agency that I had not written the Modern Ghana article, Senegalese newspapers put out stories saying that the claims were false.

The whole media storm had lasted less than 48 hours. In that time my name had been splashed across headlines in Dakar and one publication had even gone onto my Facebook page and pulled out a photo of me at a wedding to illustrate their story.

I wanted to find out who “Michelle Damsen” was and how the fake article had spread like wildfire across Senegal.

I contacted the head of Modern Ghana, Bright Owusu, who said that the article had appeared on the opinion page of the website, which carries views from Ghana and elsewhere in Africa.

Owusu said that the author of the Modern Ghana article had been very eager to get the story published, and had even called up Modern Ghana and offered them money to publish it. Owusu said that Modern Ghana never takes money for opinion pieces, but does charge up to $100 (£80) an article for press releases to be published on the site.

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George Wafula/BBC

The person that called, Owusu said, was a man with an African-sounding accent.

With the metadata from emails sent by the author to Owusu and the phone number, I worked with “Orange”, a programmer and digital investigator at Reckon Digital, to try and track the author of the piece.

“Orange” traced the phone number back to a cell phone in the US, which had been registered to a “Baba Aidara”.

I was shocked – Baba Aidara is a Senegalese journalist living in the US and a vocal adversary of the Senegalese government. He also happens to be one of my best contacts.

I spoke to Aidara, who denied that the story came from him. He said he thought he was hacked, and he suspected the Senegalese government.

Image caption

Michelle visited some of the websites which published the story, including Seneweb who later retracted it

Journalists that I spoke to in Senegal said that there had been a “fake news war” in the run up to the 2019 election, with fake news stories coming from all sides.

But many said they suspected that the story had come from President Sall’s campaign team, which included a communications taskforce run by a number of digital communications experts who had worked on presidential campaigns before.

I tried to speak to Mr Sall’s campaign team and spokespeople from his party, the APR, but no-one would give me an interview or respond to my questions.

I did manage to get an interview with Mr Sonko, though, who said that he had never received any money from Tullow Oil and that the government had “set itself the task to effectively discredit” him.

Image caption

At Senegal’s National Assembly in Dakar, Michelle waited to speak to the politician smeared by “Michelle Damsen”

“Orange”, the forensic investigator, told me that it was possible that Aidara’s phone could have been hacked and he could have been framed.

Aidara said that the only people who could have gained from the publication of the Modern Ghana piece were the Senegalese government or oil companies who had been the target of his journalism.

A year on, and I still don’t know who “Michelle Damsen” is, maybe I never will. Whoever went to all that effort to hide their traces, whoever sent round the fake documents, is probably safe from being exposed – no-one is investigating this apart from me.

It looks like a lot of effort for a media storm which lasted just a couple of days. After all, most of the stories have been retracted and redacted. But the stain remains – and that’s what’s so effective and dangerous about the spread of fake news at any time, but especially in the run-up to an election.

And it’s worth bearing in mind that the next time “Michelle Damsen” takes to the keyboard, the story and its impact could have a far wider reach.

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George Wafula/BBC

The Documentary: My fake news whodunnit is broadcast on the BBC World Service on 14 June and is available as a podcast.

Additional reporting by Flora Carmichael

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