Malian rivals’ power struggle spills onto social mediaThu, 16 Nov 2023 07:53:02 GMT

Escalating hostilities between Malian forces and separatists have also spilt online as the rivals and their supporters battle to control the narrative via fake social media accounts and state-sponsored “fact-checking”.The army, Tuareg-dominated rebel groups and jihadists have been fighting for territorial control in the north since the summer when the ruling junta ordered UN peacekeepers to pull out of the region. Tuesday’s recapture of Kidal, a strategic Tuareg stronghold, represents a significant symbolic success for the military. The conflict has further fuelled tensions in the Sahel, which has seen military coups in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in the past three years. The region’s instability has become a hotbed of disinformation, including for Mali.Pro-rebel accounts published a fake statement on X (formerly Twitter) attributed to Mali’s prime minister announcing that government troops had “abandoned” Anefis, a village recaptured from the rebels on October 7.Meanwhile, pro-government partisans shared images from an American film alongside photos of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s hideout, and falsely claimed the pictures showed a tunnel housing a “terrorist leader”.Experts say the warring factions are using social media to try and steer the public narrative in their favour. “Each side gives its version of what’s happening on the ground, discrediting the other’s as propaganda,” said Seidik Abba,a Nigerien journalist and political analyst specialising in the Sahel.- Competing for audiences -In October, Mali’s state TV launched a monthly “fact-checking” programme that, in its own words, “goes through images and documents attributed to the Malian armed forces on social media to see if they’re true or false”.The show, called “Untangle Facts from Fiction”, devoted its first episode to verifying allegedly false images of army equipment destroyed by separatist forces that were widely shared by pro-separatist accounts.”It’s the first time we’re seeing state media, which very often shares disinformation, also wanting to fight against disinformation,” said Abdoulaye Guindo of Benbere, a fact-checking platform in Mali. According to the show’s presenter Abdoulaye Keita, any suggestion that the broadcast is a propaganda outlet for the Malian army is false.”(It is) a public television initiative. The authorities did not ask for anything,” Keita told AFP”The first episode was dedicated to the army because it was topical,” he said, adding that further episodes would tackle various subjects. For their part, the rebel camp has also bolstered its communication efforts on social media.The Permanent Strategic Framework (CSP), an alliance of predominantly Tuareg armed groups, created an X account for “military affairs” in September, with similar accounts popping up on Telegram and Facebook.In addition, an online radio station named “Radio Azawad International” has been reporting stories in support of the CSP and amplifying news unfavourable to Malian military forces.- Communications ‘war’  -Against the backdrop of these struggles between local actors, foreign powers including France and Russia have also been fighting for influence in the Sahel.Anti-French sentiment has been on the rise across the region as countries increasingly turn their backs on Paris in favour of closer ties with Moscow.Mali’s ruling junta, which seized power in 2020, has broken off a historic military partnership with France and demanded the departure of the UN stabilisation mission, MINUSMA.In September, Mali signed a military cooperation deal with neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger in September. And at the start of this month, their respective state media outlets agreed to a partnership to combine their resources and co-produce programmes. “We are at war, not only on the ground but also in terms of communications. So it’s important we work hand in hand to take up the communications challenge,” Mali’s head of state television, Hassane Baba Diombele, told Burkina Faso’s information agency.  The military rulers in the three countries have suspended several French media outlets and expelled journalists.Local journalists are subject to considerable pressure and have difficulty covering sensitive subjects, especially those linked to the army, according to Guindo of the Benbere fact-checking organisation.Analysts also worry about how the media crackdown will impact ordinary citizens as they try to navigate conflicting accounts.For Abba, the Sahel expert, this “blackout in banning media will push people to cling to tools that promote misinformation”.