On December 15, Facebook, the Stanford Internet Observatory, and Graphika announced the takedown of accounts they attributed to Russian and French networks that published content relating to several African countries, including the Central African Republic.
These takedowns due to information operations attributed to foreign entities are part of a situation marked on the one hand by the conflict in CAR and Sahelian terrorism, and on the other hand by the Russian will to come back to Africa, especially on a meridian stretching from Libya to Mozambique or South Africa, via Sudan and CAR.
The Russian strategy relies on Evgueny Prigozhin's conglomerate. Prigozhin can be described as Vladimir Putin's 'Foccarsky' (TN Jacques Foccart was the eminence grise of Charles de Gaulle, in charge of African affairs). He became known for his involvement in the Internet Research Agency, whose trolls carried out interference operations in the 2016 US election, or in the private military company Wagner, whose mercenaries intervened in Ukraine, in Syria, then in Africa, for example in Mozambique or in CAR.
The use of social networks to build an anti-French sentiment in order to strengthen the Russian presence in Africa has already been identified and sanctioned by Facebook and denounced by Jean-Yves le Drian, and by the French President. Central African populations are the first victims of the Russian propaganda operations, which in essence increase conflictualities.
On December 15, Facebook announced the takedown of 500 accounts including 84 "linked to the French army", however specifying that it was unable to attribute these French accounts to the French army. Unsurprisingly, several press articles devoted to these takedowns then presented the French army or the French government as responsible for "disinformation" operations flooding fake news in Africa, which contributes to the building of an anti-French sentiment and generates conflictualities which can only further destabilize the region. Moreover, with France seeking to put an end to tax evasion by GAFAs in Europe, Facebook's neutrality may seem questionable.
To date, the French government has neither confirmed nor denied state responsibility. However, quantitatively, 84 identified French accounts, and 34 followers for the best performing French asset in CAR are figures which characterize more at best a small group of activists than a state-sponsored operation. And secondly, even if in 2018 an ifri report affirmed the need to take account of information operations, in particular Russian ones, the risk associated with the disclosure of an information operation targeting African audiences is to increase the anti-French sentiment in Africa, which is exactly the opposite of the desired effect. Moreover, ethically speaking, public opinion, particularly in the West, would probably condemn operations that take African opinions as a battleground. The amateurism implied by the under-assessment of these risks is hardly compatible with the hypothesis of a state-sponsored operation.
Anyway, if the fight against destabilization operations via social networks in Africa is undoubtedly necessary, African countries are nevertheless faced with the fact that their sovereignty may be undermined by US platforms which in practice concentrate the power to watch and investigate African public opinions building, and the power to influence these opinions via unilateral decisions to take down, or not, certain accounts according to private, commercial, and arguably opaque criteria, for example during an election period.
An alternative would be for these takedowns to be the responsibility of the African courts concerned, and to raise regional actors' awareness of informational risks and of a need for popular education aiming at building resilience against these risks.
- Stanford & Graphika joint report (pdf)
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- Facebook Suspends Accounts Tied to Putin Ally Over Alleged Africa Meddling
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- Qui est le groupe Wagner, pourvoyeur de mercenaires russes en Centrafrique?
- L’ONU enquête sur des actes de torture qu’auraient commis des militaires ou des mercenaires russes en Centrafrique
- Taxe française sur les GAFA : bonne nouvelle ou écran de fumée ?
- "Both Graphika and the Digital Forensic Research Lab have received funding from Facebook."