French and Russian trolls duke it out in Central Africa election, Facebook says

Jack Stubbs, Reuters

Posted at Dec 16 2020 10:08 AM

French and Russian trolls duke it out in Central Africa election, Facebook says 1
Facebook logos. Lionel Bonaventure, AFP file photo

LONDON - Rival French and Russian disinformation campaigns have sought to deceive Internet users -- and unmask each other -- in the Central African Republic (CAR) ahead of a Dec. 27 presidential and parliamentary election, Facebook said on Tuesday.

Facebook said 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 totaling almost 500 accounts and pages for so-called "coordinated inauthentic behavior".

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.

The French defence ministry and military command did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Asked about the Africa allegations, Prigozhin, who has denied the U.S. charges, told Reuters in a message that he considered Facebook a CIA tool which took down pages to suit U.S. 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."

Central African Republic's 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.

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.

Watch more on iWantTFC

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." (Additional reporting by Tangi Salaun in PARIS; Editing by Giles Elgood and Peter Graff)