Troll crackdown exposes France-Russia rivalry in Africa

Facebook has exposed a curious battle for influence in Africa, with former colonial power France and former superpower Russia using fake accounts to engage, criticise and even befriend each other online.

The US tech firm said on Tuesday it had closed down two Russian-linked networks of accounts and a third with “links to individuals associated with French military” for breaking its policy against foreign or government interference.

While information warfare is nothing new, Facebook was still surprised to see two countries fighting head-on in a third region.

France, the former colonial power in large parts of Africa, has thousands of troops deployed in the region to fight jihadists.

Russia has also stepped up its bid for sway in recent years with observers accusing it of using a notorious mercenary group called Wagner to fight in countries including Libya.

One of the networks shut down by Facebook was linked indirectly with shadowy Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, accused by the West of running troll factories and Wagner — allegations he denies.

“This was the first time our team found two campaigns — from France and Russia — actively engage with one another, including by befriending, commenting and criticizing the opposing side for being fake,” wrote Facebook’s Nathaniel Gleicher and David Agranovich in a blog.

The networks “used fake accounts as a central part of their operations to mislead people about who they are and what they are doing, and that was the basis for our action”, Facebook said.