Geopolitical Threats and Influence Operations: A perfect storm currently exists for the growth of influence operations – a storm created by increasing social and political unrest globally combined with ease of access to technologies that facilitate the spread of misinformation. In this blog post, we look at the growing threat in the context of political influence carried out on social media throughout the African continent.
Agents of Change
Africa’s recent progress in governance and human development, driven by democratization movements, is paralleled only with the collapse of colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s and is often overlooked and misunderstood. The African population is projected to grow substantially and is becoming more youthful and better educated, urbanized, and mobile. This change is marked by increased protests against high levels of corruption, inflation, unemployment, and underperforming governments. This increase in civil disobedience has been facilitated by the rise in social media use, which is now driving social change and the political evolutions happening across the continent.
While the use of mainstream social media platforms has been an agent of change in places like Algeria and Egypt, places like Burundi and Kenya have seen the cementing of the political elite, who use social media platforms to spread narratives in defense of their government policies. In Algeria and Egypt, social media has been the engine behind mass civil disobedience. The most notable were the revolutionary changes in Egypt with the 2011 downfall of the Hosni Mubarak regime, followed by the democratic victory of President Mohamed Morsi in 2012 and his subsequent removal from power in 2013. The relative ease of fostering mass civil disobedience is a nightmare for the security apparatus of authoritarian regimes.
One of the biggest threats of political influence throughout all of Africa is the high prevalence of “fake news” being spread on social media, particularly on popular messaging services. Over this past year, during the COVID19 pandemic, fake news has gone viral, especially in countries where false information has received endorsement from the head of state, such as South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir’s endorsement of the use of “protective badges” that release chlorine dioxide. While the magnitude of the issue is widespread and doesn’t seem to be relenting, the high level of national preoccupations with fake news and misinformation campaigns is most alarming.
Election seasons also note a significant uptick in the circulation of fake news across social media. In places where there’s a greater level of social media usage, such as Kenya, there is a growing trend to rely on social media as a news source rather than traditional media. This makes users more vulnerable to consuming high levels of fake news. Social media platforms are widely reported to have been exploited to circulate misinformation which helped propel the electoral violence seen in Kenya’s last presidential election in 2017.
There are efforts to fact-check viral posts, but the process is inherently flawed, not least because a post’s viral status indicates that it’s already been widely viewed and shared. Often, by the time a post is revealed as fake, the damage is already done.
Foreign Political Interference Campaigns
Social media campaigns driven by foreign governments – with the resourcing of state actors – can be even more influential as discussed in the article The Intelligence Community’s Deadly Bias Towards Classified Sources from the Rand Corporation which highlights examples of foreign influence from Russia and China.
Foreign influence campaigns are increasingly targeting the full range of social media users throughout Africa. One of the most notable incidents was Facebook’s announcement in December 2020 that stated:
In the process of helping Fivecast customers and partners understand the scope of geopolitical threats and foreign influence, we have witnessed how effective the spread of misinformation can be, even from a relatively small set of seed accounts like this network. It is not uncommon to detect 10s to 100s of thousands of accounts interacting with a social media network of this size.
This particular influence campaign is one of many, most of which would continue to operate undetected if those charged with combatting this influence do not have the right tools and insights required to identify and address influence operations. The objectives of each campaign movement are similar; artificial sentiments being created and disseminated out to the unsuspecting public with a political aim in mind.
Addressing the Challenge: Geopolitical Threats and Influence Operations
While the number of social media discussions within the political arena are numerous, consensus on how to address the fake news and influence operations challenge is not easily achieved. Social media companies’ efforts to combat foreign interference via influence operations and remove “fake news” are essential to mitigating the problem. Still, the inherent open nature of social media makes detecting inauthentic behavior impossible to address completely. African governments and regional bodies, such as the African Union, will have to contend with these issues. Current efforts to combat social media usage by blocking access and use to the platforms are problematic and often unsuccessful, as users are increasingly savvy in their use of VPNs to circumvent the blockages.
Fivecast ONYX is a threat intelligence framework that combines broad data collection across open-source platforms with AI-enabled risk detectors to build a rich intelligence picture around issues and individuals. Particularly suited to the nuances of understanding foreign influence, Fivecast ONYX enables intelligence teams to cast a large data collection net across the Surface, Deep, and Dark Web to gain a broad understanding of the issues and then deploy AI-enabled risk detection capabilities to identify specific individuals or groups or movements that are influencing public opinion or sentiment.
Ongoing monitoring supports trend analysis, giving analysts insights into how online activities related to a foreign influence issue are changing over time and highlighting new content, networks, and risks. It is this combination of advanced tradecraft combined with targeted data collection and AI-enabled technologies that can help detect and address Geopolitical Threats and Influence Operations that are having such widespread societal impact, in African nations and globally.