Dec 16, 2020 - World

Facebook takes down dueling French, Russian online influence campaigns in Africa

Faustin-Archange Touadera, President of the Central African Republic, gives a speech in a campaign rally in Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 12, 2020.

Faustin-Archange Touadera, president of the Central African Republic, gives a speech at a campaign rally in Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec. 12, 2020. Photo: Xinhua/André Bâ via Getty Images

Facebook took down three networks of accounts that were waging online influence campaigns in Africa, which researchers linked to an infamous Russian troll farm and the French military.

Why it matters: The report offers an unusual look into an antagonistic online influence campaign that pitted two adversaries against each other in real time.

  • It is also a rare window into an online influence campaign authored by a Western U.S. ally.

Details: The French and Russian operations, which targeted people in the Central African Republic (CAR) and other African countries, did not merely run in parallel, but often took shots at one another on Facebook, according to a new report by the social networks analytics firm Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory.

What they’re saying: “From January 2020 through to the moment of the takedown, the rival influence operations posted in the same groups, commented on each other’s posts, called each other out as ‘fake news,’ conducted basic open-source analysis to expose each other’s fake accounts, friended each other, shared each other’s posts, and even, according to one source, tried to entrap each other with direct messages,” per the report.

Yes, but: There were important differences in the French and Russian operations, notes the report. Though they did post pro-French military content, the French operatives eschewed the type of direct online electoral influence attempts pervasive in the Russian campaigns.

  • In CAR, the French “posted almost exclusively about Russian interference and Russian trolls,” says the report. “Unlike the Russian operation, it did not post systematically about electoral politics and avoided commenting on the upcoming election and its candidates.”

The bottom line: The use of covert online influence networks by France — a democratic Western power — still carries great risks of moral and ethical condemnation, says the report.

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