Facebook removes French, Russian accounts active in Africa

Individuals linked to Russia and the French military used fake Facebook and Instagram accounts to wage a covert disinformation campaign in the Central African Republic ahead of elections there this month, Facebook announced this week.

Facebook said it took down hundreds of accounts and groups linked to France and Russia accused of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” in the CAR as well as other countries in Africa and the Middle East.

While accounts traced to Russia have been repeatedly accused of such activity, Facebook told The Associated Press this is the first time it has taken action against a network tied to individuals associated with a Western government. It has taken action against networks tied to political parties in the West in the past.

Facebook’s move came ahead of elections Dec. 27 in the Central African Republic, which Facebook identified as the main target of the disinformation, at a time when both France and Russia have been jockeying for influence in the region.

The company said its investigators traced the French accounts to “individuals associated with French military.” However, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said in a statement that “we did not see evidence that the French military itself directed the activity.” 

Graphika, a New York City social media analysis firm that investigated the accounts with Facebook, said it found no evidence of direct institutional involvement by the French government or military.

The French military said in a statement Thursday to The Associated Press that it “firmly condemns” such disinformation efforts and is working alongside the U.N. and European partners to bring peace to the CAR.

“We are examining the results (of the Facebook-Graphika investigation), but at this stage, we’re not able to confirm any responsibility. There are many stakeholders in this struggle, public and civilian, which makes it difficult to assess the situation clearly,” the statement said.

France was once the colonial power in the Central African Republic and nearby countries that Facebook also identified as being targeted. Russian companies also have growing interests in the region.

Facebook said it removed the networks for “violating our policy against foreign or government interference which is coordinated inauthentic behavior (CIB) on behalf of a foreign or government entity.”