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Facebook Stings Museveni Lieutenants Ahead Of Polls

“They used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular that they were.”

Social media giant Facebook has shut multiple accounts belonging to Ugandan government officials accused of seeking to manipulate public debate ahead of elections scheduled to be held on Thursday.

Facebook’s head of communication for sub-Saharan Africa, Kezia Anim-Addo stated in a statement that the company had removed “a network of accounts and pages in Uganda that engaged in CIB (Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour) to target public debate ahead of the election.”

Uganda is holding presidential and parliamentary elections after a tense and bloody campaign, with President Yoweri Museveni, 76, facing a stiff challenge from the popstar-turned-politician Bobi Wine, 38.

“They used fake and duplicate accounts to manage pages, comment on other people’s content, impersonate users, re-share posts in groups to make them appear more popular that they were.”

Anim-Addo said the network was linked to the ministry of information and communications technology. “Given the impending election in Uganda, we moved quickly to investigate and take down this network.”

Social media giants have come under increasing scrutiny over the content they allow to spread on their networks. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook blocked US President Donald Trump over incitement to violence after his supporters stormed the US Capitol last Wednesday, a move his backers see as an assault on free speech.

Museveni’s senior press secretary Don Wanyama, who saw both his Facebook and Instagram account shut down, accused the company of seeking to influence the election. “Shame on the foreign forces that think they can aid and plant a puppet leadership on Uganda by disabling online accounts of (ruling party) NRM supporters,” he said on Twitter.

“You won’t take away President Kaguta Museveni,” he added, using the president’s second name.

Museveni’s online account is still active but many government officials and members of the ruling party have seen their pages taken down, including a well-known blogger and Museveni supporter, a prominent doctor and a senior official in the information ministry.

The president has long accused foreign organizations and elements of backing Wine in a bid to remove his government.

Inauthentic content

The term Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviour was invented by Facebook, which describes it as when “groups of pages or people work together to mislead others about who they are or what they are doing”.

The tech giant explained on its website that this is often linked to deceptive behavior rather than content. Anim-Addo said over 100 such networks seeking to manipulate public debate have been removed worldwide since 2017.

According to Job Bwire, a journalist with Kampala-based Daily Monitor newspaper, on November 3, 2020, pro-government social media users started  to craft a narrative portraying Wine and his supporters as violent saboteurs following his arrest on the same day he registered his candidacy.

Images broadcast on Ugandan television showed police clashing with Wine’s supporters at Kyambogo University, where over two days the election commission cleared 11 candidates to contest the presidency in early 2021. It was then that pro-government lieutenants started to push the narrative under the hashtag #StopHooliganism

“However, many of the images used as evidence of violence allegedly committed by protesters were lifted from old news articles about protests and riots in the country, some dating back to 2011,” Bwire wrote on Facebook.

“Although the images appeared to be primarily lifted from news stories about protests and riots in Uganda, very few, if any, were images of the situation in the country on November 3 and 4. This again happened on November 18 and 19 as #StopHooliganism hashtag trended (following a violent protest in which over 54 people, believed to be opposition supporters were shot dead by security operatives)” he added.

Uganda’s election has been marred by numerous arrests of opposition candidates and their supporters, as well as violence which saw at least 54 killed in protests in November.

Wine has a strong following among the poor and a young population who have known only the 35-year reign of Museveni, but the powerful incumbent is seen as almost impossible to unseat.