fake news abounds on social networks against a backdrop of tensions with France

Franco-Malian relations have stiffened since the announcement of the reduction of the French military presence in the country and the possible arrival of the group of Russian mercenaries Wagner.

Since the beginning of October, AFP’s digital investigation service has spotted five particularly viral infox, which mainly relate to the alleged actions of French troops. In reality, the French “high executive” allegedly arrested with heroin was a Nigerian national; the photo of Russian soldiers was taken in Moscow in 2015. Another publication wrongly claimed that a French plane had been intercepted by the Malian army on “Russian intelligence”.

“There is an aggravation” of disinformation in Mali, confirms Niagalé Bagayoko, president of the African Security Sector Network. “It is really the diplomatic overbidding that there was recently between France and the Malian authorities which is at the origin”, she adds.

More infos than ever

“Fake news has never been so numerous in the political news in Mali as during this transition” started after the August 2020 coup, abounds Boubacar Haidara, associate researcher at the Les Afriques dans le monde laboratory (LAM ) from Sciences Po Bordeaux and lecturer at the University of Ségou (Mali).

The colonels who overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta have pledged to organize elections to return power to civilians in February 2022, under pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and many partners in the Mali, including France.

France, which committed its army in 2013 to Mali in order to stem the progress of the jihadists, strongly criticized the management of the country by the junta. Critics supposed to justify the possible recourse by Bamako to the private Russian paramilitary company Wagner, described as close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

All the experts interviewed agree that it is very difficult to identify who is behind the false information. Boubacar Haidara quotes the “videomans”, these Internet users who broadcast very viral “pro-junta and anti-France” videos on their Facebook pages. Kalilou Sidibé, academic of the African Security Sector Network, evokes “Malians, but also activists who call themselves pan-Africanists” favorable to the arrival of Wagner’s Russians.

Michael Shurkin, director of global programs at the Dakar-based consulting firm 14 North Strategies, suspects that some of the fake news is orchestrated by Russia. “The Russians are spreading propaganda to poison Franco-African relations,” he says. “Regardless of who is behind these recent misinformation, they clearly align with Russian interests. »

Informational battle

For several months, an information battle has been raging in Mali and more broadly in the Sahel between pro-French and pro-Russian accounts. At the end of 2020, Facebook removed three “troll” networks run from Russia and France, one of which had links to people associated with the French military. Paris had then affirmed not “to be able to attribute possible responsibilities”.

The French Ministry of the Armed Forces is due to present its informational warfare doctrine on Wednesday to combat fake news aimed at discrediting its operations. Currently, the experts interviewed claim to see little or no false information aimed at supporting France in Mali. “The trend is: France, which it releases, Wagner has the solution”, resumes Boubacar Haidara.

While Russian-French infox are the most visible on social networks, many others, the quantity of which is more difficult to quantify, circulate via encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp. However, for Kalilou Sidibé, the spread of this false information results in the “weakening of the country”.

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