DRC: ‘Ultra’ activists resort to guerrilla tactics on social media
“Ultra” activists from the Congolese political landscape are waging an all-out cyberwar on social media using propaganda, fake news and insults. Facebook alleges that pro-Tshisekedi politician Honoré Mvula is behind a massive effort to manipulate public debate.
Not one social media site is beyond their reach, no matter the time of day or night. Whether on Twitter, Facebook or WhatsApp, “ultras” work tirelessly to spread propaganda and do not shy away from posting fake news or using insults in the name of supporting one of a number of political parties which make up the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s complex, ever-shifting political landscape. Who are these “ultra” cyberactivists and how are they organised? What are their operating methods?
Full-fledged “squads” enlisted in a never-ending political guerrilla warfare playing out in the digital realm, the first of the lot are the “Taliban”, i.e., “ultra” activists backing Felix Tshisekedi’s party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS). Activists supporting Vital Kamerhe’s party, the Union for the Congolese Nation (UNC), are nicknamed the “North Koreans”, while partisans of the various factions of the opposition Lamuka coalition have been dubbed Pangistants.
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For their part, Moïse Katumbi’s supporters have been saddled with the nickname “ISIS”. This bevy of warlike, threatening-sounding names harks back to the “Kuluna”, a name which means “infantry column” and is used to refer to young social outcast gang members who terrorise the streets of Kinshasa.
The ‘fall’ of Honoré Mvula
The only cohort to have avoided being tacked with such nicknames is internet users backing former President Joseph Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC). In spite of the fact that they are very active on social media, they seem to have opted to keep a relative distance from the main clashes.
And there are many. The arrest and conviction of Kamerhe, Tshisekedi’s former chief of staff found guilty of embezzling more than $50m in the so-called “100 days trial”, thus gave rise to several particularly fierce online confrontations between the “Taliban” and the “North Koreans”.
The “fall” of Mvula, a pro-Tshisekedi politician who Facebook caught red-handed in early August, has shed a harsh light on the methods employed by these radical cyberactivists. According to Facebook, which alleges that Mvula is behind a massive effort to manipulate public debate involving the creation of fake accounts and disinformation spreading, Mvula implemented a system that offers insight into the techniques used by skilled digital activists.
On 6 August, the US tech giant announced that it had removed no less than 66 user accounts, 63 pages and five groups on Facebook, as well as 25 Instagram accounts, all of which were more or less directly connected to Mvula and his political organisation, the Force des patriotes (FP). “There are two tiers of these activities that we work to stop: 1) coordinated inauthentic behavio[u]r in the context of domestic, non-government campaigns and 2) coordinated inauthentic behavio[u]r on behalf of a foreign or government actor,” Facebook wrote in a statement explaining its decision to remove the aforementioned accounts.
One and a half million ‘likes’
According to an investigation carried out by the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), an entity of the US international affairs think tank the Atlantic Council, some of the fake accounts were initially created under the names of high-profile politicians, celebrities and media outlets. To drum up users, the page managers posted articles or comments – often fake news aimed at creating buzz – before kicking off the political propaganda phase itself. DFRLab provides as an example the creation of a page in 2016 under the name of Samy Badibanga Ntita which underwent four name changes before taking on the title “Honoré Mvula” in March 2019.
The strategy paid off: in all, according to DFRLab, these pages generated nearly 1.5 million “likes” on Facebook. As soon as the pages and accounts had attracted enough “friends”, they would undergo a name change and the content would pivot, with a single goal: promoting the ideas of Mvula and his political organisation.
Formerly a member of the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC, led by Jean-Pierre Bemba), Mvula, who has since become an ardent Tshisekedi supporter and regularly appears alongside the Congolese president’s wife, Denise Nyakeru Tshisekedi, founded FP in 2019. In response to Facebook’s allegations, Mvula claimed that he had fallen “victim to a charade staged to tarnish [his] reputation”.
The day after the page was removed, in early August, the FP leader assured that it was created by an “independent journalist, [an] influencer” and that its management was subsequently entrusted to two administrators. He added that the page “nevertheless remained connected to the accounts of the original administrator without his knowledge”.
Mvula’s situation is hardly unique. And it comes as no surprise that most of these activists are members of the political parties they defend online. What’s more, certain accounts are secretly managed by advisers or ministerial cabinet members. Some such individuals are even paid for this advocacy “work” which is part of a highly organised system whose strategy is at times defined from the top.
“Each person receives guidance on how to defend their leader,” explained the secretary general of one of the parties forming the pro-Tshisekedi coalition, Cap for Change. “People abroad are also funded and ‘organised’,” added the top ranking official of the presidential majority coalition.
As for UDPS, the strategy is clear: “We’re required to promote and protect the president’s image, show a head of state who is hard at work as well as fighting to stamp out corruption and ‘anti-values’,” said a self-proclaimed “Taliban”. Kamerhe is one of the group’s preferred targets.
On the opposite side, the “North Koreans” have naturally adopted a more defensive posture. “Our goal is to do everything in our power to defend our president who was unjustly accused and convicted,” stated a fervent Kamerhe supporter.
A similar divide also cuts across the Lamuka coalition, with Katumbi’s backers putting an emphasis on the “providential man”, playing the solution and alternative card ahead of the 2023 election, while the perspective of Martin Fayulu’s supporters has hardly budged since the last election. “In our view, he was the one who should have been elected and not Tshisekedi, who cheated,” a Pangistant said.
On the web, the internet troll war playing out is reminiscent of the war being waged by the top ranks of the various parties, especially within supposedly united coalitions, where alliances of convenience are neither immune to discord nor ego and power battles.