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Power of social media

Knight explained that in Uganda, the network behind the coordinated inauthentic content was divided into three clusters: Posts in support of President Museveni and the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party, false information spread about presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (Bobi Wine) and his supporters, promotion of Museveni’s son as a future presidential candidate.

Each cluster created fake and duplicate Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts that spread disparaging disinformation about opponents through misleading images, claims, and hashtags—such as exploiting homophobic sentiment in Uganda by asserting Bobi Wine is gay.

The clusters amplified one another’s inauthentic content by copying and pasting posts and hashtags across dozens of pages and groups created by the fake user accounts. Facebook pages for a fake news outlet (“Kampala Times”) and a recently set-up public relations firm (“Robusto Communications”) were part of these efforts, which helped give the false content a veneer of legitimacy.

Ultimately, on January 8, 2021, Facebook removed 32 pages, 230 user accounts, 59 groups, and 159 Instagram profiles for violating their policy against government interference. Twitter removed accounts connected to this network several days later.

“The distorting and distracting impact of digital disinformation is making it increasingly difficult for the African public to discern between facts and “fake news” while following political, social, and security developments across the continent,” she said.

Knight says the government-connected disinformation campaign had a relatively large impact.

“While it is hard to say how this disinformation may have affected the disputed election, the reach of the inauthentic content was widespread on social media in the lead-up to the vote,” she said, “Public relations firms that were part of the network had a combined following of over 10,000 accounts.”

She said Facebook’s removal of the network’s disinformation campaign, in turn, provoked the Museveni regime to shut down the internet and suspend Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter days before the election.

Since many Ugandans receive their news via social media, this had a major impact on their access to information at a critical time.

Don Wanyama, the then Senior Press Secretary to President Museveni subsequently demanded that the Uganda Communications Commission investigate Facebook, which remained inaccessible in Uganda for six months after the election. The government also blocked virtual private networks (VPNs) that could be used to bypass the ban.

According to Knight, the resulting deterioration of trust and truth online has softened the ground for further conspiracy theories and fabricated content to take root in a murky information environment. The report said: “Disinformation inhibits informed decisions on issues affecting Africans’ daily lives such as whether to receive a vaccination or whether to participate in the political process. Ultimately, this is the intent of disinformation in its most malicious form—to sow fear and confusion to advance the political purposes of those plying these falsehoods.”

She gave the example from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where, while investigating COVID disinformation back to a group of young people from the University of Kinshasa, they eventually traced an inauthentic social media network.

The network’s content had gained an online following and was subsequently—and deceptively—rebranded to promote a national politician and his political organisation. The politician had ties to the young men behind the accounts, which the investigators documented through photographs showing them together at events in Kinshasa.

“A lot of people are not aware of the scale of disinformation that is happening in Africa and how much it is distorting information networks,” Knight said.

Their investigation into coordinated social media influence in Ethiopia showed that members of the international diaspora were behind widespread Twitter campaigns advancing competing narratives related to the conflict in Tigray despite an absence of independently verifiable information. Accounts tweeting in support of the government were amplified by members of Prime Minister Abiy’s government.

In Sudan the disinformation network they investigated was connected to the Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russia’s Internet Research Agency.

The students at the University of Kinshasa in the DR Congo created a number of fake social media profiles. Facebook ultimately removed a network of 66 user accounts, 63 pages, 5 groups and 25 Instagram accounts linked to the politician.

The students told investigators that they had initially created these pages “pour le buzz,” competing with one another over who could gain the most followers and likes by posting sensational and false information.

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