Facebook is under fire in Africa for undermining democracy, with critics saying the social media giant has allowed its platform to be weaponised for co-ordinated misinformation campaigns.
The role of false news has taken centre stage in every single one of the continent’s eight national polls this year – and last week Facebook said an Israel political consultancy was behind much of it.
It banned Archimedes Group, which it said was responsible for a network of those masquerading as African nationals, and removed 265 Facebook and Instagram pages and groups involved in “co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour” mainly targeting Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, Angola, Niger and Tunisia.
Nanjira Sambuli, from the World Wide Web Foundation, says it has taken Facebook too long to pay attention to this problem in developing countries.
“Democracies are at risk on this continent, and unfortunately, social media platforms are fast becoming the sites of aggravation,” she told the BBC.
Some feel the continent’s weak regulations on privacy and data protection have meant Africa has been used as a “guinea pig” for privacy violations.
“We’re a training ground. Once it works in Africa, they replicate that and they use it across Africa other geographies,” Cameroonian tech entrepreneur Rebecca Enonchong told the BBC.
She cites the Cambridge Analytica scandal as a prime example of the pass Facebook gets in Africa for the same wrongdoing for which Western regulators were less forgiving.
In 2018, Facebook and British data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica were at the centre of a dispute over the harvesting and use of personal data of more than 230 million users, using it to try and alter how people voted in multiple countries including Nigeria and Kenya.
People that use these networks actually feel that this information is coming from Facebook, not realising that it’s a third party putting the information there”
Cameroonian tech entrepreneur
As a result of the scandal, Cambridge Analytica closed operations and the US Senate summoned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to testify before Congress.
In reaction to last week’s Facebook announcement, Congolese blogger Simeon Nkola Matamba tweeted: “The question should rather be, why does Facebook feel comfortable doing in Africa what they’d be less likely to do in other parts of the world? As much as Facebook must comply with ethics our institutions and regulators must up their game (if they have any) and protect people’s rights.”
Those behind the Israeli-linked Facebook pages spent about $812,000 (£641,000) on the platform between December 2012 and April 2019 and gained a total of 2.8 million followers.
The Archimedes Group has not returned the BBC’s repeated requests for comment and has removed all instances of its work from its website.
‘Darth Vader of Nigeria’
Many of the now-deleted pages focused on the 2019 Nigerian elections, a review by US-based political think tank The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) found out.
One of the pages taken down, “Make Nigeria Worse Again”, appeared to be a trolling campaign aimed at Atiku Abubakar, a former vice-president and President Muhammadu Buhari’s main opponent. “The page included a banner image of Mr Abubakar as Darth Vader, the notorious Star Wars villain,” the researchers wrote.
Idayat Hassan, from the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy and Development, told the BBC it was difficult to track who had commissioned the pages as during elections “there’s always a will to try and sway people along either religious or ethnic lines”.
DFRLab also found pages posing as disinformation watchdogs such as “C’est faux — les fake news du Mali”, which claimed it was founded by students in Mali but was actually run by administrators in Portugal and Senegal.
The researchers speculate that it was probably a front to build its credibility as it was not linked to any party or candidate and concentrated on “fake news” about Africa or Africans.