21 May 2019

Africa: Insiders Insight - Facebook Busts Israeli Fake News Firm Targeting Africa

analysis

The essentials: Facebook announced it has removed hundreds of fake Facebook and Instagram accounts operated by Israeli political marketing firm, Archimedes Group. Archimedes targeted countries in Africa but has also focused its campaigns on some countries in Latin America and South East Asia. Facebook says Archimedes operated and used fake accounts to publish political news particularly related to elections.

The context: Nigeria, Senegal, Togo and Algeria are only four of at least 13 countries Facebook says were the targets of coordinated social media attacks by Archimedes Group. Facebook investigated and removed 265 accounts involved in inauthentic and manipulative activity. The Archimedes-linked accounts had a combined following of almost 3 million people. These accounts posed as local news organisations or fact checkers to post mainly about elections. Archimedes spent over $800,000 on ads and published defamatory information about election candidates.

Among others, the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensics Lab investigated activities targeting Atiku Abubakar, the main opposition candidate in Nigeria's elections this February. DFRLab, which was alerted to the suspicious activities by Facebook before the sweep, said the fake accounts made gross mistakes that showed the operators lacked local knowledge.

The operators of Archimedes Group are unknown but the company has been linked to controversial Israeli advert agency, Grey Content. The accounts were run from locations other than the countries their operators claimed to be from. Some were run from Israel, UK and Portugal.

The good: Facebook not only conducted a sweeping take-down of the fake accounts targeting African elections, but it also banned Archimedes Group from using its platforms. It has also vowed to keep removing threats. That's positive news for countries with elections coming up. Disinformation on social media escalated tensions during the Nigerian elections, as I witnessed personally, with things turning violent in some places. There need not be a repeat of this in other African countries.

The bad: Information warfare is now being waged on a massive, commercial scale and social media is the battlefield. African countries are easy to pick on because they lack developed digital landscapes and advanced media literacy levels. Facebook is under pressure and has so far shown no great success in keeping the site clean. Whatsapp, a division of Facebook, and Facebook Messenger are the most popular messaging applications on the continent meaning millions across Africa are susceptible to rumours and the spreading of fake news.

The future: Facebook says Archimedes' deceptive activity dates back to 2012. It's not clear how effective the company's political campaigns were, but what is clear is that Facebook was unable to stop the campaigns when it mattered. We may never know just how much damage was caused. Facebook is a necessary means of communication and information for many users in African countries and will likely remain so regardless of its vulnerabilities. The company must develop more effective techniques to keep its platforms safe for users on the continent.

Primary Source: Removing coordinated inauthentic behaviour from Israel (Facebook)

Inauthentic Israeli Facebook assets target the world (DFRLab)

Facebook says Israeli company used fake accounts to target African elections (CNN)

Facebook busts Israeli campaign to disrupt elections in African, Asian and Latin American nations (Haaretz)

Who is behind Israel's Archimedes Group, banned by Facebook for election fakery? (The Israeli Times)

Video: How attackers used Whatsapp vulnerability to spy on phones (FT)

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