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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

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Facebook uncovers a French military disinformation campaign targeting Mali

Facebook announced on Tuesday that it had dismantled a French military disinformation campaign targeting Mali, Central African Republic and other countries, as well as a Russian disinformation campaign targeting Central African Republic, Libya, and others.

“We removed 84 Facebook accounts, 6 Pages, 9 Groups and 14 Instagram accounts for violating our policy against coordinated inauthentic behavior,” the press release stated. “This activity originated in France and targeted primarily the Central African Republic and Mali, and to a lesser extent Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Chad.”

The posts praised the actions of the French military, the Malian military and the UN mission in Mali, while criticizing the jihadist groups the French military are fighting, as well as Russia. A spokesperson for Facebook said that “although the people behind it attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with French military.”

In a statement to Sahelien.com, the French defense ministry did not deny Facebook’s allegations. “We are not surprised by the Graphika study’s conclusions. We are studying them and at this stage cannot attribute possible responsibilities. Indeed, the multiplicity of state and non-state actors in this information struggle makes such a designation difficult,” a spokesperson for the French defense ministry said by email.

An example of an inauthentic French military Facebook posting targeting Mali. Source: Stanford University

The French military spokesperson said this campaign came in a context of other disinformation campaigns, without naming them. “For many months, we have witnessed a rise in disinformation actions aimed at destabilizing the country. We condemn these actions,” the spokesperson said.

France has some 4,700 in the Sahel region under the command of Operation Barkhane, the majority of which are stationed in Mali. Additional French troops are involved with MINUSMA, the UN mission in Mali, and the EU training mission for Mali’s military.

Individuals connected to the French military pretended they were local Malian accounts and began making inauthentic posts in Facebook groups starting in May 2018, according a study conducted by Stanford University. “The assets located in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad simultaneously disseminated pro-France content in local groups. The posts often celebrated both the French and the French-led Operation Barkhane for their efforts to make Sahel a region “free from terrorism” and a “better place,” presenting them as heroes and saviors of Sahelians,” the report states.

“The network’s strategy to defend France was varied, with some accounts sometimes accusing others of spreading disinformation about France, or by arguing that signing treaties with France would not prevent Mali from emerging as a strong and independent post-colonial country,” the report continued.

An example of an inauthentic French military Facebook posting targeting Mali. Source: Stanford University

The news of a French military disinformation campaign generated less media attention than when Facebook uncovered a similar Russian-led campaign last year.

In October 2019, for example, the New York Times published an investigation called “Russia Tests New Disinformation Tactics in Africa to Expand Influence”. The article called the campaign “an evolution of its manipulation techniques,” that “Facebook faces a difficult adversary in Russia,” and ended with a kicker saying “Russia’s new tactics revealed the “dirty tricks and black ops that are underpinning the Russian outreach in Africa.”

The New York Times has not published an article about the French military campaign in Mali. When asked about this disparity in coverage, Times spokesperson Danielle Rhoades Ha said in a statement to Sahelien.com that “as a general rule we don’t discuss what may or may not publish in future editions.”