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France/Russia: Propaganda war on Facebook targets Mali & the CAR

By Quentin Velluet
Posted on Monday, 21 December 2020 10:19

mali
During a demonstration against France in Bamako on 22 September 2020. (AP/SIPA)

The American social network has deleted several dozen fake accounts dedicated to promoting French foreign policy and criticising Russia. The campaign, targeting Mali and the Central African Republic, was allegedly led by “individuals associated with the French army.”

Attempts to manipulate the public debate on Facebook appear to be intensifying on the continent. Nathaniel Gleicher, head of the American social network’s cyber security policy, announced that his staff had dismantled three networks of social media accounts, groups and pages that had been spreading “rumours or false information in a coordinated manner and in the name of foreign or governmental entities” since January 2020.

A network managed from France

This is the first time since Mark Zuckerberg’s platform has engaged in the hunt for what it defines as “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” that one of its networks has been based in France.

Consisting of 84 accounts, six pages and nine Facebook groups as well as 14 Instagram accounts, it has mainly targeted the CAR and Mali, using fake accounts that allow individuals based in France to pose as local citizens.

READ MORE How Facebook spun its web across African internet

These various accounts – 6,800 in total on Facebook and Instagram – published messages and comments in French and Arabic aimed at promoting French military operations and initiatives in the Sahel and French-speaking Africa.

In the CAR, these false accounts initiated or relayed “allegations of potential Russian interference in the elections”, “supportive comments about the French army” and “criticism of Russia’s involvement in the country.” In Mali, while some of the messages focused on promoting the actions of the French Development Agency, others directly attacked Russian policy regarding Bamako. “The Russian imperialist is a gangrene in Mali! Beware of Tsarist lobotomization!”, read one of the messages highlighted by the Facebook teams.

Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire were also targeted, but “to a lesser extent,” Gleicher told the conference. “Although the people behind [this coordinated campaign] tried to hide their identities, our investigation revealed ties with individuals associated with the French army,” Facebook added in a statement, without giving further details.

A war of ideas

Facebook and its partners, such as Stanford University or the company Graphika, insist that the platform was, in this particular case, used as a battleground between French and Russian networks of influence in a foreign country. With accounts trying to discredit the messages of others by replying via comments or other posts, the duelling online campaigns were more than a mere attempt at interfering in the public debate.

On the Russian side, the two removed networks are linked to the Russian oligarch Evgueni Prigojine, owner of the Wagner group, a supplier of mercenaries and active in the CAR. They targeted this country and, to a lesser extent, Madagascar, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa and the Central African diaspora in France.

READ MORE Nigeria: Facebook and Twitter in Buhari’s firing line at the UN

Along with criticising French foreign policy and making claims about a fictitious coup in Equatorial Guinea, their messages – published in French, English, Portuguese and Arabic – concerned the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the promotion of the Russian vaccine and Moscow’s policy in sub-Saharan Africa.

At the end of October 2019, Facebook had announced that it had dismantled a similar network linked to the businessman, presented as close to Vladimir Putin and a financier of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian propaganda outlet.

Questioned by us on the possible legal measures it could take against Prigojine, Facebook does not seem to want to go beyond banning him and the networks linked to him on its platforms. They are unwilling to take this action at the risk of seeing similar disinformation campaigns continue to thrive.

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