Facebook accused people linked to the French military on Tuesday of running a covert online influence operation targeting parts of Africa. It is the first time Facebook has publicly linked a campaign like this to individuals connected to a Western military.
The deceptive tactics allegedly used, which include using Facebook to pose as locals in the targeted countries, mirror misinformation campaigns run by the Russian government.
Facebook staff told reporters on a press call Tuesday that the company could not say if the operation was directed by the French military itself – they only said it was run by “individuals associated” with the military.
According to Facebook, the operations targeted the “Central African Republic and Mali, and to a lesser extent Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Chad.”
Facebook removed the accounts and also announced on Tuesday that it had removed accounts, also posing as Africans, that were linked to Russian troll group.
In some cases, Facebook said, the fake French and Russian accounts even interacted with each other.
CNN previously reported that Russian operatives active in Africa had ties to the same Russian troll group that allegedly used social media to pose as Americans in the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election.
Facebook said the alleged French accounts “posted primarily in French and Arabic about news and current events including France’s policies in Francophone Africa, the security situation in various African countries, claims of potential Russian interference in the election in the Central African Republic (CAR), supportive commentary about French military, and criticism of Russia’s involvement in CAR.”
Elections are due to take place in CAR later this month.
One post in French read, “The Russian imperialists are a gangrene on Mali! Watch out for the tsarist lobotomy!”
The alleged Russian accounts, in turn, criticized the French.
“While we’ve seen influence operations target the same regions in the past, 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,” the authors of the Facebook blog post, Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy, and David Agranovich, global threat disruption lead, wrote.
Facebook said it tied about 100 Facebook and Instagram accounts and pages to the alleged operation tied to people linked to the French military. The pages had about 5,000 followers on Facebook, the company said.
Two separate networks of Russian pages, both allegedly linked to a Russian troll group, were also removed. Those pages had about 6 million followers, Facebook said,
Facebook now regularly announces removals of networks of fake accounts it can link to nation-states and other foreign entities.
In a statement, the French Defense Ministry did not confirm or deny possible French military involvement in the alleged operation.
“Alongside the UN and its European partners (EUTM-RCA), France takes an active part in the international community’s efforts to bring back peace and stability in this country,” the statement read.
“For some long months, we have been observing an increase in the power of disinformation aimed at destabilizing the country, acts that we condemn,” the Ministry said, adding that it was studying the allegations raised by Facebook and that it could not yet allocate responsibility.
Despite assessments from the US intelligence community and evidence from US prosecutors, the Russian government has consistently denied it used social media for foreign interference in this way.