Facebook has removed three networks originating in Russia and France for violating its policy against foreign interference, the company reported on Tuesday, December 15. According to Facebook, these networks were responsible for carrying out “coordinated inauthentic behavior” targeting multiple countries in North Africa and the Middle East. While Facebook has removed Russian “troll factories” for similar activities in the past, the company says this case is unique due to the apparent rivalry that developed between the French and the Russian campaigns.
On December 15, Facebook announced that it had identified and removed two “troll factories” targeting residents of numerous countries in Africa and the Middle East. These networks carried out actions coordinated from Russia and France — and according to Facebook, this is the first time their team has identified two campaigns competing for influence in third countries. What’s more, it’s the first case where the social network has identified and blocked a group of trolls acting in the interests of a Western government.
Facebook’s investigation linked the Russian network to individuals associated with the past activities of the Internet Research Agency (also known as the St. Petersburg troll factory) and other entities connected to Russian catering magnate . The French campaign was traced to individuals associated with the French military. In total, Facebook removed 63 accounts, 29 pages, and 7 groups belonging to the Russian network, and 84 accounts, 6 pages, and 9 groups belonging to the French campaign. They also removed one Instagram account belonging to the Russian side, as well as 14 belonging to the French.
Both the Russian and the French networks primarily targeted the Central African Republic (CAR), where presidential elections are set to take place at the end of December. In addition, the Russian accounts were actively involved in Madagascar, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Mozambique, while the French accounts targeted Mali, Niger, Burkina-Faso, Algeria, and Chad. Facebook also removed a third, separate network of Russian accounts operating independently in North African countries.
Facebook noted that both campaigns used similar tactics in the CAR. The French accounts wrote positive commentary about France’s influence on the country’s security, while warning about Russian plans to interfere in the upcoming presidential vote. In turn, the Russian trolls wrote about Russia’s fight against terrorism in North Africa, plans to supply the “Sputnik V” vaccine to the region, and criticized France’s foreign policy. Both campaigns also left critical comments on each other’s posts, including mutual accusations of publishing fake news.
As Reuters underscores, the activities of the two campaigns hardly had any influence on the general mood of Facebook users in the region, since neither group managed to attract a significant audience. “They looked like two troll teams arm wrestling, with nobody else really paying attention,” social media analyst Ben Nimmo told Reuters.
This isn’t the first time that Facebook has removed a network of accounts allegedly linked to Evgeny Prigozhin for inauthentic activities targeting African countries. In October 2019, Facebook blocked around 200 accounts with a total audience of more than 1 million people for meddling in Africa. Back then, as now, Prigozhin’s spokespeople have denied that he has any connections to “troll factories.”
The Central African Republic is set to hold presidential elections on December 27. It is believed that Russia is supporting the incumbent candidate, President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. During Touadéra’s first term, companies linked to Prigozhin received several major contracts in the CAR — in particular, for diamond mining and security (this hasn’t been officially confirmed; three Russian journalists investigating the activities of the Prigozhin-linked private military company Wagner were murdered in the CAR in 2018). Since the Central African Republic is a former French colony, countering Russian business interests in the country is an important part of Paris’s general policy of maintaining its influence in the region.
Translation by Eilish Hart