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Taking social media at (Face)book value in Africa

Facebook’s revelation about fake accounts designed to influence elections shows the risks for Africa’s already fragile democracies.

Last week Facebook revealed that it had disabled hundreds of fake accounts that had sought to meddle with the electoral processes of eight African countries. The campaigns, which used more than 200 such accounts, attracted more than a million followers. This shows that unless robust counter-measures are taken, Africa risks becoming a safe haven for those seeking to manipulate democratic processes digitally.

Evidence of concerted digital disinformation campaigns linked to Russia has emerged from Facebook’s joint investigation with Stanford University’s Internet Observatory. It found that a network of Russian accounts used fake or compromised user accounts to tamper with domestic electoral processes in Madagascar, Sudan, Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. They date from 2014 to just a few weeks ago.

The operations included the establishment of accounts purporting to be from genuine news organisations or other forms of misrepresentation. Researchers say this is the work of ‘entities’ associated with Russian financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, a man known colloquially as ‘Putin’s chef’, because of his close friendship with the Russian leader and the lavish dinners he throws.

Among the dubious activities allegedly linked to Prigozhin’s interests was an attempt to undermine the presidential race in Madagascar last year. Fake social media posts and staged street protests were among the tactics used to denounce French policy on the island state and offer a pro-Russia stance.

In 2021 nearly a dozen prominent election campaigns will be fought across Africa

Stanford University researchers told ISS Today that they’d identified a number of other accounts, linked to the Russian leader’s friend, seeking to influence political processes in the CAR. The fake accounts were traced to operatives in Madagascar, where a cell allegedly working for Prigozhin was based.

Russia is by no means the only actor behind such digital disinformation campaigns but its expansion into Africa and efforts to extend its sphere of influence through defence contracts and international trade is well documented. Its strategy is to tap into anti-western sentiment on the continent and target its messages accordingly.

Although attempts to shape the political narrative during election time aren’t new, the internet offers a new tool with the possibility of reaching audiences at unprecedented speeds. Shelby Grossman, who led the research at Stanford University, says ‘it is significant that a foreign actor is seeking to shape the internal domestic affairs of a sovereign state, undermining democracy.’

Commenting on Facebook’s announcement that it was taking down the network of fake accounts, Dr Nomsa Masuku, a South African electoral commissioner and respected academic, said it showed that Africa’s ‘digital ecosystem is in need of reform.’ Masuku expressed concern that the use of local agents was making the issue of tracing far more ‘complex’.

Africa risks becoming a safe haven for those seeking to manipulate democratic processes digitally

As recently as a few weeks ago, researchers say, sites directed at the Mozambican electorate made claims that the opposition Mozambican National Resistance had signed a contract with China allowing them to dump nuclear waste in Mozambique. The wild claims weren’t taken at face value, Grossman observes. A number of social media users in Mozambique questioned the authenticity of the claim, pointing out that the opposition had no authority to sign such contracts.

That bodes well for those advocating public digital literacy campaigns which may be the surest way to protect citizens from manipulation. However internet penetration in sub-Saharan Africa currently stands at around 11.9% of total world users and other priorities such as healthcare, schooling and crime compete for limited resources.

Avani Singh, a South African information rights advocate who recently joined a panel at an Institute for Security Studies seminar on digitisation and elections in Africa, says the electorate needs ‘accurate, credible and reliable information, both in terms of the outcomes of elections [and] the potential for inciting hatred and violence.’

The revelation that Facebook’s platforms have been used to influence turnout, sway opinion or tell blatant lies to shape political outcomes on our doorstep is concerning. It adds to the current debate about when and whether tech companies should remain ‘net neutral’, or proactively remove accounts that knowingly pedal falsehoods.

Public digital literacy campaigns may be the surest way of protecting citizens from manipulation

Facebook has found itself under increasing pressure from its own staff to take a stand. Now that it has gone public about its Africa investigation, it’s drawing attention to plans for a Kenya-based ‘content review centre’ in order to filter content in a number of vernacular languages. This may indicate that to reduce reputational damage, tech companies such as Facebook must get off the fence and offer a duty of care to their customers.

Mistrust of mainstream media and limited freedom of speech in many parts of Africa have allowed platforms such as Facebook to position themselves as champions of unfiltered free expression. Yet whether users trust Facebook more than mainstream media is an open question. If the answer is yes, the power of Facebook may well be amplified.

Nevertheless, the Mozambican example cited above surely puts paid to assumptions of a passive and naïve African internet user. If anything, mistrust of traditional institutions could make users in this part of the world more questioning.

Masuku admitted that electoral commissions across the continent were ill-informed about the potential of digital disinformation campaigns. The Southern African Development Community also has only limited mention of social media in its election guidelines.

Theo Watson, a lawyer with Microsoft, which owns a number of social media platforms, argues that Africa needs to ‘use technology to grow democracies, the democratic processes and structures that underpin it.’ But he warns ‘we also need to upskill and educate ourselves to be aware of the dangers and downsides that new technology brings.’ In resource-poor settings, surely there is a role for the private sector to step in?

In 2021 nearly a dozen prominent election campaigns will be fought across Africa. As the Cambridge Analytica saga has shown, Russia and China don’t have the monopoly on election manipulation. So across Africa, as with the rest of the world, indifference to the threat of digital tampering is no longer an option.

Karen Allen, Senior Research Adviser, Emerging Threats in Africa, ISS Pretoria

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