What Benin can learn from the role of the Influence Industry in West Africa

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In this article, author Qemal Affnagon examines the reported role of telecom group MTN in political campaigns across Africa as well as exploring the evolving political context in Benin, which could become a setting ripe for interference by the influence industry.

Established in South Africa nearly three decades ago, the MTN group appears today as a symbol of Africa's economic success. Over time, the company has successfully expanded to become an international operator in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and has been involved in complex politico-financial deals. Founded as a mobile network operator in 1994, MTN has been ranked among the most successful companies in Africa. Step by step, the Johannesburg-based multinational has achieved strong performances and acquisitions: today the MTN group offers fintech (financial technology) services, a unique messaging platform, business solutions and an API marketplace, in addition to their sister company Bayobab, which is developing a fibre optics network and communication platforms. As of December 2022, the mobile network branch of the group, MTN, recorded more than 289 million subscribers, making it Africa’s largest mobile network company, operating in seventeen countries across Africa.

The company has also drawn criticism as the speed of its growth has been marked by suspicions of tax evasion, conflicts of interest, and corruption. In recent years, MTN’s reported role in the Zambian elections of 2014 has also been called into question. During the 2014 electoral poll, the Zambian ruling party sent text messages through the MTN centre to millions of mobile phone users, though the company denied any involvement. In Uganda, MTN also allegedly shared personal data of its ten million subscribers with the ruling party, to enable the party to try and influence political choice via mobile phones ahead of the 2016 presidential elections. The same pattern appeared to emerge in Ghana, where MTN reportedly used SMS messages to campaign in 2020 on behalf of Akufo-Addo, who has served as President since 2017.

Though these tactics have yet to be seen at large in Benin, the trends suggest they will be soon. In this article we explore the potential influence of MTN’s role in Benin’s politics. To do this analysis, we draw on MTN’s role in elections in neighbouring countries, as well as their work and the context within Benin.

In the present data-driven era, technology firms such as MTN act as intermediaries between political parties and citizens, often to the profit of the firm.

Political candidates sending SMS messages to mobile phones of potential supporters in Africa is becoming an increasingly common campaigning tactic – even to supporters that have not opted to receive these communications. Through text messages, politicians can communicate a ‘light’ version of their message or a call to action across the small mobile phone screen. In the present data-driven era, technology firms such as MTN act as intermediaries between political parties and citizens, often to the profit of the firm. Firms such as MTN can provide various services including the provision of phone numbers, profiling services, and communication strategy advice. Additionally, multi-service telecommunication companies like MTN might be able to financially benefit from their collection and maintenance of data that no other firms or groups are able to directly access. Due to this, they would be able to generate and grow significant revenue across Africa, which can make even greater data collection interesting to the company.

Early in 2022, data from the GSMA showed that there were just under 11.6 million cellular mobile connections in Benin, a country with a total population of around 12.6 million. Telecoms enjoy an unparalleled reach across the country. In such a market, companies like MTN are able to collect large amounts of data about their subscribers, including demographics, location, network usage, device details and currency. If the data provides insights that helps a company better understand its customers, the data can also open the exploration of new revenue streams.

Micro-targeting is most often used to describe the technique of applying individual users’ personal data to draw up personality profiles or to break large amounts of collected data into various audiences and tailor messages accordingly. Political micro-targeting can be summarized as applying the principles of micro-targeting to a political or cause-based field. Instead of promoting a product or service, the ads are used to try to formulate political influence. Services available through mobile phone technology can collect data such as demographics, location, financial data, and messaging apps. In Benin, MTN has “seven million subscribers and close to four million mobile money customers.” In a context where formal banking services are scarce, mobile money allows subscribers to virtually wire money to each other and cash out with a local representative. Meeting the mobile money needs of unbanked populations is a huge opportunity for telecommunications companies, as the system works as an electronic wallet between phones, often through registered phone numbers. At an individual level this data might not be valuable, but on a large scale it can help identify behavioral patterns and determine which user profiles might be influenced by which messages.

visual showing some of the data available for micro-targeting

While micro-targeting proliferates across Africa, most Internet users are not aware of the practice and have no idea who is purchasing their data or how to ensure their privacy. This situation raises privacy issues as well as broader issues, such as consumer protection, since this industry tends to be opaque. A consequential harm arises when predictions based on this accumulation of data are intentionally used to diminish citizens’ future options – through targeting or spreading false or misleading information – thereby undermining their civil liberties. The digital landscape is still developing in Benin. Though a large majority of the population is connected via mobile networks, there were an estimated 3.6 million Internet users in Benin in early 2022. In Meta’s advertising resources published early in 2022, data indicates that Facebook had 1.30 million users in Benin. Facebook’s advertisement reach during the same period was equivalent to 35.5 percent of the local Internet user base in Benin.

To limit the power of these firms and to develop legal frameworks to guide the new technologies, in 2009, Benin enacted the Data Protection Act, which was revamped in 2018 as part of a larger project called the Benin Digital Code. The Digital Code has been largely driven by the current government’s efforts for digital transformation. This code has so far supported the limitation of such large companies collecting more data on their citizens. In 2016, MTN Benin submitted a request to expand their data intake by asking to collect the biometric data of its customers. Biometric data refers to the measurement and analysis of physical or behavioral characteristics such as voice, fingerprints, retinal pattern and facial thermogram. The Beninese National Commission for Information and Liberties (CNIL, now known as ADAP) ultimately rejected the request, deciding that the collection and processing of demographic data relating to surname, first name, address, age, sex, professional status, date and place of birth was sufficient for the MTN’s purposes and that “as a private company whose activity consists in offering telecommunication services, MTN cannot collect biometric data.” While this legal battle led to limitations, the company’s desire to collect and profit from more data on citizens in Benin is clear, and their efforts are unlikely to stop from this push-back.

For a period of time after transitioning to democracy in 1991, Benin was counted among the most stable democracies in sub-Saharan Africa. When current president Patrice Talon took office in 2016, Benin was seen by the international community as a democratic leader in West Africa. Before his political career, with businesses in the key cotton sector and running Cotonou's port, a regional maritime hub, Talon was ranked among the wealthiest individuals in sub-Saharan Africa. While campaigning for the presidency, Talon pledged to serve one term, however, since then he has served two terms and through major reforms has shown interest in concentrating power in the president’s office.

President Talon’s reforms have included several large-scale changes to the electoral system, including a special court and new electoral codes and laws, which critics argue have become a tool used to eliminate legitimate opposition. The electoral code changes include a 1,500 percent increase in the fees required for parliamentary candidates to run. This reform, and others, prevented any opposition parties from running in the 2019 legislative elections. In the 2020 local elections, all but one opposition party was either blocked from running or boycotted the election. In April 2021, Patrice Talon won reelection as president with 86 percent of the vote. Leading up to the election, Benin authorities had disqualified, arrested, or forced into exile the major opposition candidates, leaving only two opponents, which critics of the government suggested were sponsored by the ruling party. These tactics can be exacerbated by digital influence techniques, including micro-targeting messages to dissuade certain groups from voting and spreading misinformation and negative campaigns on other candidates. These types of campaigns have already been seen across the African continent and the world. In 2023, “Team Jorge,” an international though unregistered firm, was revealed to have reportedly run successful negative digital campaigns, with tactics including spreading disinformation, in 27 elections around the world, two-thirds of which were in African countries.

...there are reasons to suspect that, like Nigeria and Kenya, efforts to undermine election-related information integrity may also happen in Benin.

Home to forty-two distinct ethnic groups, the Republic of Benin is steeped in rich and diverse cultural traditions. In Benin, society functions largely through a system based on a confederation of groups with ethnic and linguistic characteristics. It is possible that religious and ethnic features of candidates can be used as means of influence within electoral campaigns. This strategy has precedent in the region. For example, by spreading rumors and false information through social networks and targeted text messages, Cambridge Analytica was able to execute a campaign of ethnic fear-mongering in Nigeria and Kenya. Like Kenyans and Nigerians, Beninese broadly grow up in an ethnically heterogeneous society but form close relationships with their co-ethnic neighbors. Though Benin does not have ethnic parties, it is possible that Beninese may vote for a co-ethnic when one appears on the ballot. Thus, there are reasons to suspect that, like Nigeria and Kenya, efforts to undermine election-related information integrity may also happen in Benin. It would therefore be beneficial for a political party to have data on the ethnicity of users or communities as an industry is emerging around ethno-nationalist or religious rhetoric in targeted political advertisements.

In general, MTN claims to not have any affiliation with any political party or organization in any country. However, in addition to the examples from Zambia, Ghana and Uganda already cited, ahead of the 2015 General Elections in Nigeria, mobile recharge cards bearing the logos of various political organizations were circulated in some parts of the country. Though the mobile operator dissociated itself from the political cards, the branded MTN phone service cards were distributed for free in different parts of Nigeria.

map of the African continent showing countries that have had media reports of telecom data in political elections

In Benin, voters generally have interests in particular policy fields, for example economy or energy. With micro-targeting potentially enabled by data collected from telecoms, political parties can target voters with information within these preferred policy fields. By using these methods, some political actors may also feel the need to ignore certain groups of voters, whom they may consider not relevant on their agenda. As a political campaign technique, it can decrease political participation in certain cases, for instance when a political message deliberately evokes a feeling of social pressure or when a campaign tries to leverage feelings of fear on individuals.

On the public opinion side, micro-targeting could make it difficult to find out which issues candidates find most important and which they least care about. For instance, an elected official may have trouble interpreting their mandate when a large range of issues are covered during a campaign. For ordinary citizens, micro-targeting may also threaten their privacy, as users’ activities on the Internet may expose personal information, thus the preservation of their privacy is important. In light of the above, political micro-targeting could have a negative impact on the functioning of the electoral system in a country like Benin.

Leveraging their large customer base, telecoms like the MTN Group are part of an evolving environment where content, culture and politics are highly interconnected. This situation is aiding data-driven technologies in becoming an important tool in modern political campaigns, as has already been seen across the African continent. Within this framework, access to large amounts of data enables mass messaging while micro-targeting practices allows political entities to broadly disseminate their ads. In Benin, where MTN has been a catalyst to the country’s economic growth and development – particularly with regards to their role in mobile money within the country – this growing risk of the influence industry can have several societal implications, as their data collection could enable ever-more sophisticated voter influencing techniques. Benin civil society, election monitors and the media should therefore proactively learn from their regional neighbors and report any violations to ensure that the laws are equally applied at all levels of society, particularly because the effects of micro-targeting on democratic processes are pernicious. In addition, regulatory and data protection authorities should set clear rules and issue fines to limit the possible future reach and influence of micro-targeting.

Suggested Readings

Personal Data and the Influence Industry in Nigerian Elections: A Report by Tactical Tech and Center for Development and Democracy

Kenya: Data and Digital Election Campaigning: A Report by Grace Mutung’u and Tactical Tech

Data & Politics Virtual Round-table: Sub-Saharan Africa Event Report by the Tactical Tech Data and Politics team

Geotargeting: The Political Value of Your Location: Explainer by the Tactical Tech Data and Politics team

About the Author

Qemal Affagnon, PhD is the head of the West Africa division of Internet Sans Frontières. At the intersection of privacy and digital technologies, his work focuses on creating channels of collaboration between different set of actors of the internet. He works for the promotion of digital rights, and has authored several academic articles which provide a contribution in understanding the use and impact of technology in African congregational life. His research has appeared in the Algerian Journal of Political Sciences and International Relations, the International Journal of Progressive Sciences and Technologies, European Scientific Journal and in Journal of Strategic Innovation and Sustainability among others. As an electoral expert, he has observed elections in the DRC, South Africa and Mozambique. To connect with Qemal, find him on Linkedin @Qemal.Affagnon or Facebook @QemalAffnagon.

If you want to find out more about the firms that support political parties engage with Google advertising, head over to The Influence Industry Explorer.

The influence industry is led since 2016 by Tactical Tech’s Data and Politics team addressing the pervasive data-driven technologies used by political groups within elections and political campaigns.

First published: August 17, 2023

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