Tuesday’s action also was notable because it identified ongoing operations by people once affiliated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which interfered aggressively in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Company officials also described what amounted to an online battle between the fake French and Russian accounts that involved parts of two networks with 274 fake Facebook accounts, along with groups, pages and accounts on Instagram, the photo-sharing site owned by Facebook. Some of the Russian accounts also targeted politics in Libya, Sudan and Syria.
“Facebook’s takedown marks a rare exposure of rival operations from two different countries going head to head for influence over a third country,” concluded a report from Graphika, a network analysis group. “It underscores how geopolitical sparring on the ground in Africa is playing out in parallel across social media — not just Facebook, but also Twitter, YouTube, and long-form news articles written by the operations.”
It issued its report Tuesday in conjunction with the Stanford Internet Observatory on the French network.
Camille François, Graphika’s chief innovation officer, said that when democratic governments get involved in disinformation, it makes it harder for them to denounce it in their own countries.
“It’s a cautionary tale for people who think governments should fight fire with fire,” she said, noting that the operation appeared to be tied to people who had affiliations with the French army.
The French government did not comment on the report Tuesday but on Wednesday acknowledged that disinformation campaigns were creating havoc in Africa, without taking responsibility itself or naming those it believed responsible.
“We are not surprised by the conclusions of the report published by Graphika, which we are studying, without being at this stage in a position to attribute possible responsibilities,” the statement said. “Indeed, the multiplicity of actors in this informational struggle, state or not, makes such a designation difficult.”
The report noted that of Facebook’s 100 takedowns of coordinated disinformation since 2017, only one has involved rival operations interacting with one another.
The French network included 84 Facebook accounts, 14 Instagram accounts and several Facebook pages and groups. Together they posed as Africans supportive of French military action while commenting on political matters in former colonial nations, mainly in Central and West Africa, Facebook said.
One focus of the Russian accounts was the upcoming Dec. 27 election in the Central African Republic. The Russian accounts also pushed narratives about coronavirus vaccines.
“This is the just the latest example of Russian actors interfering in the African social media space,” said Shelby Grossman, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory and co-author of the organization’s report on the Russian accounts.
Grossman said the operation in Libya was “more sophisticated” than a Russian operation that Facebook took down in Africa in 2019.
“The operation worked aggressively to undermine Libya’s peace process,” she said. “About 1.3 million users followed the Libya Facebook pages. This shows that the U.S. is, by far, not the country with the worst foreign interference in our politics.”
The rival French and Russian networks commented on each other’s posts, attempted to “friend” each other, and also used social media to accuse each other of being fake. Facebook officials described these online struggles as novel developments that put ordinary, authentic social media users at a particular disadvantage as heavily funded foreign actors flooded platforms with misleading content.
“It’s important to call this out,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy for Facebook, in announcing the enforcement actions.
One fake French post on Facebook, for example, aimed at users in the West African nation of Mali, read, “The Russian imperialists are a gangrene on Mali! Watch out for the tsarist lobotomy!”
One fake Russian account praised Faustin-Archange Touadéra, the president of the Central African Republic, depicting him in an illustration surrounded by adoring children: “I hope that thanks to his efforts to restore peace to the country, our children and the next generation will have a better life than those who saw the Central African Republican ravaged by tyrants. Pray for that.”
Facebook said some of the fake Russian accounts were affiliated with Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an ally of President Vladimir Putin who financially backed the Internet Research Agency and was indicted by U.S. officials in 2018 on charges related to interfering in the presidential election two years earlier.
In a statement posted on VKontakte, a Russian social media service often compared to Facebook, Prigozhin dismissed Facebook as “nothing more than a tool of U.S. intelligence services,” adding that “the only reason Facebook accounts live or die is solely to promote the interests of the American oligarchy and, less often, the national interests of the United States.” He said accounts blocked in Libya “fought against terrorism.”
“Most likely, the era of Facebook will come to an end and states will finally close their borders to such political perverts,” Prigozhin said in the statement. “As for me personally, I have never used Facebook, and I don’t even know what it looks like.”
Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow and James McAuley in Paris contributed to this report.