Facebook has said rival French and Russian disinformation campaigns are seeking to deceive internet users – and unmask each other – in the Central African Republic (CAR) before presidential and parliamentary elections on December 27.
The social media giant said on Tuesday it was the first time it had seen such a direct battle of the trolls by competing foreign states on its platforms, with the rivals’ fake accounts denouncing each other as “fake news”.
The company said it had suspended three networks totalling almost 500 accounts and pages for so-called “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”.
One network was linked to “individuals associated with French military”, it said. The other two had connections to “individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency”, as well as to Evgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman indicted in the United States for election interference.
There was no immediate comment by the French defence ministry and military command. Asked about the Africa allegations, Prigozhin, who has denied the US charges, told the Reuters news agency in a message that he considered Facebook a CIA tool which took down pages to suit US interests.
Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said: “You can’t fight fire with fire. We have these two efforts from different sides of these issues using the same tactics and techniques, and they end up looking sort of the same.”
CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera is a Russian ally, a relationship often seen as a threat to France’s influence in the French-speaking country where Paris had deployed 2,500 troops until 2016.
Former President Francois Bozize’s recent return to the country where he sought to run for office raised fears of a return to violence
A former five-star general, Bozize, 74, seized power in 2003 before being overthrown a decade later by the Seleka, a rebel coalition drawn largely from the Muslim minority.
The 2013 coup triggered a bloodbath between the Seleka and so-called “Anti-balaka” self-defence forces, mainly Christian and animist.
France intervened militarily to push out the Seleka, ending the operation after Faustin-Archange Touadera was elected in 2016 following a transition.
Bozize on Tuesday, however, walked back on his decision to run for the highest office in the country, which he filed in July, announcing he accepted a decision by the country’s top court to bar him from contesting the elections.
Facebook said the two disinformation campaigns largely focused on the CAR but also targeted users in 13 other African countries including Algeria, Cameroon, Libya and Sudan.
Ben Nimmo, head of investigations at social media analytics firm Graphika, said both campaigns used fake accounts to pose as local people, sometimes sharing doctored photos.
The French effort started in mid-2019 and pushed pro-French messages before targeting “Russian fake news” when Facebook shut down a Russian disinformation operation last year.
A subsequent Russian operation attempted to promote Russian business and diplomatic interests, as well as Touadera’s candidacy, Nimmo said. Later, the Russian accounts tried to unmask the French accounts that were trying to unmask them.
Neither side built much of an audience in CAR, Nimmo added. “They looked like two troll teams arm wrestling, with nobody else really paying attention.”