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Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviours and Conflict Amplification in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviours and Conflict Amplification in the Democratic Republic of Congo
16th October 2023 Narcisse Mbunzama
In Insights


The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has long been plagued by conflict, violence, and societal divisions. The widespread adoption of the internet in the country and the increasing accessibility to social networks have introduced a new set of challenges in the form of coordinated inauthentic behaviours exacerbating existing tensions and conflicts. In this Insight, the term ‘inauthentic behaviours’ refers to actions carried out online by fake or deceptive accounts, including spreading false information, promoting hatred, and engaging in extremist discourse. This Insight aims to shed light on the mechanisms through which these coordinated inauthentic behaviours perpetuate violence in the DRC and how targeted efforts against them could pave the way for peace and inclusion.

Historical Context

The conflict in eastern DRC has claimed the lives of an estimated 6 million people since 1996. This devastating humanitarian crisis is largely hidden from the world’s attention, with its victims residing in the remote, mountainous regions of central Africa. Despite the valiant efforts of a handful of journalists, scholars, and human rights observers, the suffering of these individuals remains underreported.

Among the victims are peasant women who are sexually assaulted while collecting firewood, children succumbing to cholera in overcrowded refugee camps, and vulnerable young boys forcibly conscripted into numerous militia groups. The conflict in the DRC may be one of the deadliest since World War II and ranks among the world’s most severe ongoing crises, yet it remains profoundly obscure and anonymous to the world at large. 

These conflicts involve multiple internal armed groups, as well as those from foreign countries. The most violent among them is currently led by the M-23, also known as the March 23 Movement. M-23 is a rebel group that emerged in the eastern region of the DRC in 2012. The group primarily consists of ethnic Tutsis and has been linked to external support from Rwanda, which has been a significant source of controversy and tension in the region. The M-23’s ideology is rooted in ethnic and political grievances; the group claims to be fighting for the rights and protection of ethnic Tutsis in eastern DRC, particularly in the North Kivu province. They argue that the Congolese government, based in Kinshasa, has marginalised Tutsis and failed to address their concerns. Clashes with the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) have resulted in thousands of deaths, a multitude of rape cases, and the displacement of millions of people, both internally and as refugees.

Coordinated Inauthentic Behaviours and Conflict Amplification

Coordinated inauthentic behaviours are online efforts to manipulate or corrupt public debate for a strategic goal, relying primarily on fake accounts to mislead people about who is behind them. The DRC has seen in recent years a widespread adoption of the Internet and access to social networks, including in rural and isolated areas, leading to an unprecedented exchange of information across the nation. Consequently, there has been a significantly increased interest among various armed groups operating in the DRC to utilise platforms for their awareness campaigns, financing, the recruitment of future fighters, propagation of their ideologies, and ultimately, ensuring the sustainability of their operations. In their extensive use of social networks, the use of fake accounts has been observed in a coordinated effort to amplify information among armed groups, particularly in favour of the M-23 group. 

For instance, a Twitter user with 15,800 followers actively publishes daily in favour of the M-23 rebellion in the DRC and receives thousands of comments from followers. Another account with 2,778 followers frequently posts tweets in Kinyarwanda, a language spoken in Rwanda, which is the place of origin for a significant majority of M-23 fighters. This account frequently retweets images celebrating M-23 fighters in eastern DRC with the phrase “Le lion de Sarambwe” which can be translated as “The lion of Sarambwe.” This phrase carries symbolic significance, often used metaphorically to describe a powerful or heroic figure.  In this context, it is used to literally lionise or glorify the M-23 fighters in eastern DRC, portraying them as formidable and courageous individuals.

Fig. 1: Screenshot of a Twitter account supporting M-23

These social media accounts have greatly contributed to fueling tensions, violence and instability in an already fragile region, disseminating hate speech focused on the FARDC and inciting violence against specific vulnerable ethnic communities. 

For instance, the Tutsi community, which comprises a substantial portion of the M-23 fighters that have captured significant territory in North Kivu province in eastern DRC, faces marginalisation and discrimination, especially in areas controlled by the FARDC. Similarly, the Hutu and Nande ethnic groups residing in regions under M-23 influence are confronted with violence and discrimination, deepening their suffering. The Nande people have endured both victimisation and active involvement in various conflicts. Hate speech specifically targeting Nande individuals or communities further exacerbates tensions and insecurity within this group. Similarly, the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups, with a history of conflict in the Ituri region, are at risk of becoming targets during periods of intercommunal violence.

Lastly, numerous other ethnic minority groups across the DRC remain vulnerable to hate speech or violence due to their perceived allegiances or vulnerabilities within the complex and challenging environment of the region. Addressing this issue is paramount to achieving lasting peace and security in the eastern DRC.

In addition to hate speech, these platforms have been used to propagate false narratives, rumours, and fabricated news, such as the assertion of an ongoing genocide targeting the Tutsi community, shedding light on Kinshasa’s glaring failure to ensure the safety and security of its own citizens.  The dissemination of disinformation has played a pivotal role in shaping public perceptions and fostering mistrust among these communities.

Furthermore, social networks have transformed into breeding grounds for extremist recruitment efforts among various local armed militias, such as the Mai Mai and other foreign armed militias active in eastern DRC, like the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamist rebel group and terrorist organisation. Fake accounts amplify and promote radical content, providing armed groups with a platform to gain followers and expand their influence, thereby intensifying the conflicts and violence in the region.

Fake Accounts Promoting Violence

Analysis of fake accounts associated with armed groups promoting violence in the DRC sheds light on a disturbing pattern. These accounts predominantly share content related to armed groups such as M-23, and engage little with other users or subjects.  Notably, many of these accounts are unverified, highly active, and surfaced relatively quickly. 

Their content is often identical, giving the appearance of a coordinated effort to amplify the same message. This includes propagating narratives of battlefield victories, statements from armed groups, information for their followers, and posts aimed at recruiting new fighters. Another feature of these inauthentic networks is their ability to spread harmful content anonymously, evading accountability for their actions. Leveraging the virality of social media content, they ensure the rapid spread of content that captures public attention, swiftly accumulating millions of views, re-tweets, comments and likes. 

Furthermore, a direct correlation emerges between the frequency of social media posts and battles taking place on the ground.  As conflicts intensify between the DRC’s armed forces and the armed groups, there is a surge in the activity as disinformation spreads. This underscores the direct link between these accounts and the activities of the armed groups; these networks unmistakably contribute to amplifying violence in the eastern DRC.      

The initial part of this Insight has offered insights into how fake accounts on social networks contribute to the escalation of violence. In this second part, we delve into essential recommendations aimed at addressing this issue. It is paramount to combat fake accounts by advocating for sound policies and practices that promote peace and inclusivity. The subsequent recommendations have been identified as indispensable for a more effective campaign against coordinated inauthentic behaviours on social networks, which exacerbate conflicts and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Recommendations to Counter Inauthentic Behaviours

Many efforts are currently being made to eradicate fake accounts and identify and monitor clusters created through the dissemination of misinformation. This is achieved using applications like Follower Audit, Crowd Tangle, Meltwater, Gephi, and other open-source intelligence (OSINT) applications. These applications facilitate the analysis of data from public accounts, such as interactions between accounts, metadata, sentiment analysis, the number of likes, views, IP addresses, and the geolocation of fake accounts. 

While these solutions do significantly contribute to combating coordinated inauthentic behaviours, it’s equally important to consider other aspects that can contribute to stopping misinformation and removing these fake accounts. These various recommendations include: 

Public Awareness Campaigns

It’s important to educate social media users about recognising and reporting fake accounts and disinformation. Promoting critical thinking and media literacy can empower individuals to discern authentic information from falsehoods. User education could empower individuals to play an active role in maintaining the integrity of online platforms. Fact-checking platforms can indeed play a significant role in identifying disinformation campaigns and fake accounts, while also contributing to public education. Congo Check, a DRC-based fact-checking platform serves as an example of a model used for user education in this context.

Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration

Through a strong collaboration between governments, social media platforms, civil society, and academic institutions, the DRC’s government can work to collectively combat coordinated inauthentic behaviours and establish regional partnerships to address specific challenges in the eastern part of the DRC.

Transparent Platform Policies     

Social media companies should develop and enforce clear policies against fake accounts, automated bot networks, and manipulative behaviours on social media platforms. In this context, this could take the form of regular updates to users in the Democratic Republic of Congo about the measures taken to tackle coordinated inauthentic behaviours.

Legal Measures

Governments can implement laws that hold individuals and groups accountable for spreading false information and engaging in inauthentic behaviour. The digital code of the Democratic Republic of Congo was promulgated in March 2023. This marks a significant milestone in the development of the digital sector in the country; it fills the legal gap and regulates the digital sector, contributing greatly to combating disinformation and fake accounts on social networks.

Strengthen Monitoring and Detection     

Enhance the capabilities of social media platforms to identify and swiftly respond to coordinated inauthentic behaviours through advanced algorithms and AI-driven tools. Collaborate with independent fact-checking organisations such as Congo Check to validate and debunk misinformation before it spreads.

Support Independent Research     

Encourage academic research focused specifically on the impact of coordinated inauthentic behaviours on peace and inclusion in the DRC, leading to evidence-based policy recommendations.

Long-Term Engagement

Recognise that countering coordinated inauthentic behaviours is an ongoing effort requiring continuous adaptation to evolving tactics. Engage in sustained efforts to build a culture of online responsibility, ensuring lasting peace and inclusion. By implementing these recommendations, stakeholders can work collectively to counter coordinated inauthentic behaviours, thereby contributing to peace and inclusion in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Narcisse Mbunzama holds a background in computer science and is the founder of Digital Security Group, based in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), conducting research in areas such as disinformation, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and cybersecurity.