In its charter, the European Union (EU) declares its unambiguous support to democracy and peace in the world, stating that it aims to pursue this commitment with all its external actions in areas such as “trade, development, enlargement and neighborhood policies, its common foreign and security policy, and political and diplomatic relations with third countries and multilateral institutions.”
A noble undertaking no doubt, one that has helped maintain democracy and the longest period of peace on the European continent in centuries. But one that has fallen well short of its stated ideals when assessing its actions in the MENA region, as evident in revelations disclosed in a pair of bombshell reports published by Privacy International – a data rights charity based in the United Kingdom – and the Washington Post.
According to the respective reports, the EU and EU member states are helping undermine democracy and stability in North African countries Algeria and Morocco by training police and security forces to spread disinformation and government propaganda, as part of a training program on open-source intelligence (OSINT) gathering techniques and methods, including harvesting data from social media sites and cell phones.
Whereas Algerian security forces were trained in creating and maintaining phony or “sock puppet” social media accounts to infiltrate targeted online communities, their counterparts in Morocco were instructed in how to gather intelligence by gaining “enhanced” access to social media website data.
“To avoid detection, the [Algerian] officers are directed to purchase different sim cards for different accounts, use picture editing tools, and to remember to post frequently and outside of work hours. Participants are also recommended online platforms to make it easier to manage numerous fake accounts at the same time,” according to Privacy International.
Moroccan police officers were shown how to register as developers in order to gain access to an online source tool designed for “scraping tweets.”
In a module on how to analyze Twitter in real time, Moroccan police officers were shown how to register as developers in order to gain access to an online source tool designed for “scraping tweets.” The service allows developers to scrape tweets relating to specific topics and hashtags, or sort out sensitive information from the platform, including user email and phone numbers, despite the fact Twitter prohibits developer accounts being used for surveillance.
In a module on how to “go further” on Facebook, nearly two dozen members of Morocco’s Directorate General for National Security (DGNS) were taught how to mimic the online behavior of “stalkers” by setting up fake accounts to gain information from targeted users and communities.
Police officers in both countries were trained to extract data from seized mobile devices using a program created by an Israeli surveillance software company including, according to Privacy International, “content that the phone collects without any user action (and often without user knowledge).”
On December 16, the Washington Post reported that Facebook had revealed that the French military, along with Russian networks, had used hundreds of accounts to meddle in African politics, marking the first time the social media giant has singled out individuals affiliated with a Western government or military for sanction.
“Facebook’s takedown marks a rare exposure of rival operations from two different countries going head to head for influence over a third country,” concluded a report from Graphika, a network analysis group. The group, in conjunction with the Stanford Internet Observatory, further stated: “It underscores how geopolitical sparring on the ground in Africa is playing out in parallel across social media — not just Facebook, but also Twitter, YouTube, and long-form news articles written by the operations.”
In Libya, where both France and Russia arm and fund the African warlord ex-General Khalifa Haftar, Facebook uncovered an extensive operation to “undermine Libya’s peace process.”
In Libya, where both France and Russia — as well as the United Arab Emirates — arm and fund the African warlord, war criminal, and wannabe dictator ex-General Khalifa Haftar, whose militias carry out attacks on the UN recognized government in Tripoli, Facebook uncovered an extensive operation to “undermine Libya’s peace process.”
“About 1.3 million users followed the Libya Facebook Pages. This shows that the US is, by far, not the country with the worst foreign interference in our politics,” Shelby Grossman, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory, told the Washington Post.
In Central African Republic, where the respective interests of Paris and Moscow conflict, French and Russian online disinformation campaigns went head-to-head to compete for political influence in the country.
Russia’s misuse and abuse of social media platforms to spread disinformation and misinformation to advance its grand geopolitical strategy is well documented and well known, however, as too is the vociferous denouncement of such anti-democratic measures by French and European governments. Thus EU hypocrisy could not be made more duplicitous or obvious, particularly in countries where governments routinely arrest and detain journalists and human rights activists for reporting the truth.
“The EU has time and again acknowledged that surveillance poses a huge threat to people around the world,” Edin Omanovic, Advocacy Director of Privacy International, told Middle East Eye. “It’s ridiculous that EU agencies are secretly promoting the use of techniques which pose serious threats to authorities in countries where we know activists and others are being targeted. This not only risks making the EU complicit in abuses, it undermines its own interests.”
What’s clear is that when the EU talks about promoting democracy and peace, it’s only giving lip service to ideals it long ago abandoned beyond its continental border.