April 20, 2024

Ugandan Internet propaganda network exposed by BBC

Image source, Jared Wolfe

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Dr. Jamechia Hoyle was one of the women whose faces were used to create fake personas online.

A BBC investigation has uncovered a network of fake social media accounts in Uganda. Under false identities, they spread pro-government messages and attack critics with threats. But who are the people behind this?

It’s not every day you get to take a selfie with Uganda’s veteran president Yoweri Museveni. When the opportunity arose, Dr. Jamechia Hoyle took it.

She is a senior consultant in the United States, focused on global health security. In October 2017, she traveled to Kampala, the capital of Uganda, to attend an international conference.

Museveni was there to welcome his foreign guests.

Weaving her way through the crowd, Dr. Hoyle approached him, smartphone in hand. “He was very happy to interact with us and take the photograph,” she recalls.

Seeing Dr. Hoyle and the President with wide smiles, surrounded by smiling faces trying to take the photo, the photographers couldn’t resist and captured that image as well.

Image source, Twitter/Don Wanyama

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Dr. Jamechia Hoyle took a selfie with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Four years later, this exact photo would be used to create a fake social media account intended to spread state propaganda and attack government critics.

Dr Hoyle found out recently, after being contacted by the BBC.

“Seeing my own photo and then understanding the context of some of the things that were shared… I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I was really taken aback.”

The ‘fake Jamechia’ intervenes

The fake account using Dr. Hoyle’s photo was created on X, then called Twitter, in October 2021.

From the beginning, he appeared to have no interests outside of Ugandan politics, and regularly published praise for the Ugandan government and its policies.

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In one of the account’s first tweets, “fake Jamechia” praised the National Resistance Movement (NRM), Uganda’s ruling party.

Much harsher words, including occasional threats, were directed at opposition supporters and government critics.

“We know that you support terrorist activities,” the account posted without presenting any evidence, in response to a tweet by opposition leader Bobi Wine, whose real name is Robert Kyagulanyi.

“You will die,” said another tweet directed at Hillary Innocent Taylor Seguya, a U.S.-based Ugandan climate activist and member of Wine’s party, the National Unity Platform.

On social media, Seguya has become known for his criticism of one of Uganda’s flagship projects: the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP).

Image source, Hillary Inocente Taylor Seguya

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Seguya says EACOP represents a “serious risk” to the environment

When completed, the $3.5bn (£2.7bn) pipeline will connect Uganda’s oil fields to the port of Tanga in Tanzania, along a 1,445km (898 mile) route.

Supporters of the project say it will create thousands of jobs and generate millions in oil revenue.

But critics have argued that EACOP could prove detrimental to local communities while also having a significant impact on the environment.

“The trolls still come after me every day,” he says. “They continue to label me an enemy of progress in Uganda and Africa. Sometimes they call me a ‘US-backed puppet’ or a traitor.”

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Despite receiving tweets like this regularly, Seguya says he “will not be gagged or silenced.”

The account belonging to the “fake Jamechia” was just one of dozens that attacked, harassed and at times threatened Mr. Seguya.

But upon closer inspection, all the profiles had striking similarities to each other.

All claimed to be Ugandan citizens, often women, whose accounts appeared to have the sole purpose of posting praise for the president and pushing back against critics.

The Uganda Media Centre, which handles public communications on behalf of the government, did not respond to our requests for comment.

An extensive network of fake accounts

By analyzing the behavior of those accounts, BBC Verify was able to map a network of almost 200 fake social media accounts operating on X and Facebook (although the latter has been blocked in Uganda since 2021).

The vast majority of these accounts used stolen images as profile photos, often social media photos of models, influencers and actresses from around the world. But none of the usernames used by them seemed to be linked to real people in Uganda or Tanzania.

These accounts often posted the same content within minutes of each other. By looking at the dates they were created, we also discovered that many had been created on the same day.

This suggests that while they may appear to be separate accounts, they have been working together.

It is unclear how successful this network may have been in changing people’s opinions about the government, as very few of its posts garnered a large number of likes, comments, or shares.

For all its sophistication, could this network then be failing to fulfill its mission? Not entirely, experts say.

“[Their] The goal may be to spread the message; “Whether or not people interact with it is irrelevant, as long as people have seen it,” says Tessa Knight, a research associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Laboratory who researches disinformation.

Who manages this network of accounts?

Meta, contacted by the BBC, removed most of the Facebook accounts we identified.

Meta believes that people linked to the Government Citizen Interaction Center (GCIC), a Ugandan government agency, may have been managing several of the accounts it deleted.

The company did not share the evidence it said it had to support this claim. And, as a result, the BBC has not been able to independently verify it.

But, in a statement, the GCIC denied this accusation, stating that the agency’s accounts “do not operate on Facebook.”

However, this is not the first time the agency has been accused of conducting what Meta describes as “influence operations”: in 2021, Facebook’s parent company took action against hundreds of accounts it said were linked to the GCIC.

X did not respond to our requests for comment and the platform took no action against any of the accounts identified by the BBC investigation.

When asked if it recognized any of to work”. “

The GCIC did not respond to follow-up questions seeking to clarify whether the identified accounts were indeed managed by state employees.

Seguya says he is “not surprised” by the existence of this network, but urges whoever is behind it to consider the human cost of their campaign against its critics.

“They may not know the negative impacts they are creating on someone’s mental health by sending such threats to people like me and different activists.

“Do not let them silence dissent. Dissent is democracy.”

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