Who Are the President of Guinea's Facebook Trolls? The Blurry Line Between Modern Campaigning and Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior
We document an extensive network of Facebook Pages operated by Guinean president Alpha Condé’s political party. The Pages coordinated posting to support Condé's bid for a third term, and the accounts that managed the Pages did not use their real names.
The West African country of Guinea will hold a crucial presidential election in October 2020 that will determine whether President Alpha Condé will extend his rule into a second decade, or whether Guinea will undergo its first-ever democratic transition of power. The election also has significant economic implications for Guinea’s international investors.
In the runup to this election, we identified a network of 94 Facebook Pages that exhibited coordinated behavior in support of Condé and his party. These Pages, which have a combined followership of over 800,000, post pro-Condé texts and images and amplify videos from Guinea state-linked news accounts. As we will explore, media reporting, posting patterns, and other evidence clearly tie these Pages to Condé’s party, the Rally of the Guinean People (RPG) and its paid “volunteer” political communicators (“Les volontaires communicants,” commonly abbreviated as Volcom). Many of the Page administrators obscure their true identities with false names like “Alpha Le Democrate” (“Alpha the Democrat”), and the Pages in question do not disclose their formal, paid relationship with the RPG.
We shared a draft of this blog post with Facebook, along with the underlying data. Facebook found that the Pages and accounts did not meet its threshold for coordinated inauthentic behavior, and the network has not been suspended. While the activity we found does not meet Facebook's formal threshold for enforcement action such as removing the accounts or attaching a label to the Pages, we worry this activity is inconsistent with transparent political campaigning and fair democratic elections. The Guinea case raises broader questions about where and how to draw the line between modern political campaigning in the age of social media and coordinated inauthentic behavior.
Alpha Condé is Guinea’s first democratically-elected President and has served two full five-year terms since taking office in 2010. In March 2020, he held a constitutional referendum to approve a new constitution that, among other changes, reset presidential term limits. Under the new constitution, Condé could stay in office for another 12 years. Protesters in Guinea took to the streets in the months leading up to the referendum, and were sometimes met with force. They also shared their views on Facebook, the dominant social media network in Guinea, with over 2 million users out of the country’s total population of roughly 13 million. Both the ruling party and the opposition use Facebook as the primary platform on which they communicate political messages. This makes Facebook a key arena for influencing voters and projecting the appearance of grassroots support.
The RPG Volcom network
The RPG’s network of Pages is not small or subtle. We first identified two of the larger Pages because they were among the only ones to have placed political advertisements in Guinea (searchable in the Facebook Ad Library). It quickly became evident that there were dozens of other Pages and Groups interacting with these Pages in coordinated fashion: identical posts and images, often amplified by accounts that shared the same profile pictures.
Most of the content on these Pages praises Alpha Condé’s policies or demeanor in polished, journalistic French, including sophisticated sentence construction and vocabulary. Some posts include facts, figures and other evidence. For example, a post by “Guinéens, ouvrez les yeux” (also found on six other network Pages) celebrates Condé’s construction of hydroelectric dams, including a controversial Chinese-financed dam (Image 1).
As we investigated this seemingly organized network, we found Guinean media reports on some of the individuals tagged repeatedly in the network’s posts. The coverage centered on the so-called “volunteer communicators” (voluntaires communicants) of the RPG party. The “Volontaires Communicants,” abbreviated Volcom, are a group of political PR staff employed by the RPG and paid to promote Condé and his policies. Many members of Volcom are transparent about their activities. For example, Korbonya Balde lists himself on his Facebook account as working for “Cellule de Communication at Rpg Arc en Ciel” (the RPG-AEC Communication Cell). Balde was arrested along with several other communicators in 2018 for inciting hatred and violence against their political opponents on social media. In February, Volcom went on strike to protest their working conditions, an event which, according to Guinean sources we spoke to, garnered significant attention among Guinea’s elites.
Press coverage of the Volcom strike exposed part of Volcom’s support network within the Guinean government and suggested that Albert Damantang Camara, Minister of Security; Aissatou Bela Diallo, Minister Advisor to the President of the Republic; Madina Thiam (Diallo’s daughter) and Souleimane Keita, an influential member of the party and presidential adviser, were collectively responsible for channeling money to Volcom.
Though Volcom’s organization chart is not public, at least two of its members stand out as having leadership roles within the group. Ibrahima Kallo is referred to by other Facebook users and media sources as “the head of Volcom.” He was recently named attaché to Diakaria Koulibaly, Minister of Oil and Gas. His presence on social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat) is prolific. He also appears to have privileged access to Condé, as several pictures and tags attest. Charles Kolie, best known under the Facebook alias “Continuité Continuité” also appears to have a coordinating role within Volcom. A biography posted on Facebook asserts that Kolie has occupied various roles within the RPG party since 2007, and that he has been National Coordinator of Volcom since 2018.
Based on this knowledge, we developed criteria for attributing the pro-Condé Pages we encountered to Volcom. We attributed Pages to Volcom with high confidence if they fulfilled at least two of these criteria:
Explicitly mentioning Volcom by name in posts or Page information. This often took the form of using hashtags like #Volcom_rpg_AEC or #Volcoms.
Tagging individual Volcom members in posts, sharing the posts of individual Volcom members, or regularly being shared by individual Volcom members.
Duplicating more than one post (text or images) from another network Page. In a subset of Pages, we found that this took the form of highly coordinated post times and content.
Matching patterns in Page metadata, including Page creation date, profile picture update date, contact email or telephone number, or administrator location.
We identified 94 Pages that we assess with high confidence are part of the Volcom network. Most of the Pages in the network were created at the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020, with 25 created on March 27, 2020. Most of the Pages have between several hundred and several thousand followers, with 14 having over 10,000 followers (see examples of two Pages in Image 1). The largest (“Le coin des guinéens”) has over 353,000 followers, potentially suggesting that nearly 1 in every 5 Guinean Facebook users follow this Page. None of the Pages declares that paid employees of the RPG party or the government are responsible for its content. A typical “About” section reads, “Guineans, Open Your Eyes is a page created by analysts in order to condemn, criticize, and provide solutions for various changes in Guinea.”
The network displays forms of coordination, including repeating posts in their exact form across several pages. For example, the posts in Image 3, which criticize the National Front for the Defense of the Constitution (FNDC), a coalition of Guinean opposition parties, was posted almost simultaneously on May 31 on at least three Facebook pages: at 9:58 A.M. on “Le Forum Républicain” (The Republican Forum), and at 10:00 A.M. on “Guinéens, Changeons de Mentalité” (Guineans, Let’s Change Mindsets) and on “Allons au référendum dans la paix et la concorde” (Let us go to the referendum in peace and harmony). Later that day, the same post appeared on two additional network Pages, “Le coin des guinéens” and “Pr Alpha Condé Pour Tous.”
Such coordinated posting activity is common across Pages in the network. We identified two clusters of Pages within the network which exhibit highly coordinated posting activities. Cluster 1 (Image 4) consists of 15 Pages that commonly post the same content at approximately the same time. These Pages have a combined 185,000 followers, representing around 23 percent of the overall network’s following. 10 of these Pages have a single Page administrator in Turkey, suggesting that a common foreign individual or firm may be involved with managing these Pages. 7 additional Pages outside this cluster (a total of 17 pages in the network) also have a Turkish administrator. While other Pages in the network have administrators in other countries, including the United States, France, Morocco, Spain, and India, the number of pages with a Turkish administrator stands out.
Cluster 2 (Image 5) consists of 14 smaller Pages with a combined follower count of 2,896. All Pages in this cluster were created March 26-27, 2020. Judging by their low follower counts and engagement rates, we suspect that Pages in this cluster may be in the initial audience-building phase or exist to inflate the engagement statistics of other network Pages. Their posting activity is coordinated in lockstep, suggesting the use of automation to manage these Pages.
In addition to coordinated posting activity, these Pages tend to share posts from two RPG-linked news video networks: Alpha Conde TV and 224Minutes (note, 224Minutes Page was removed from Facebook in September 2020, just ahead of publication of this blogpost). Guinean media identifies Volcom patron Madina Thiam as the owner of Alpha Conde TV. 224Minutes has been previously flagged by social media platforms for policy violations: its original Twitter account was suspended, and Facebook blocks outward links to 224minutes.net, displaying a message stating, “The link you tried to visit goes against our Community Standards.” Both Alpha Conde TV and 224Minutes’ Facebook Pages have some posts with a suspiciously high ratio of shares to likes - one recent Alpha Conde TV post, for example, had only 96 likes and 67 comments but over 4,000 shares within 16 hours of being posted.
Volcom’s Pages are boosted by a network of Facebook accounts run by RPG communicators. Most of the users who like, comment on and share content from the Pages in the network post almost exclusively about Condé on their own personal profiles. Many have the same images of either Vladimir Putin or Condé as profile and cover photos (Image 6, Alpha Mon Choix and Politologue Traoré). Some but not all of these accounts list their employer as RPG Arc-en-ciel, Condé’s party.
These users share content from network Pages onto their own timelines or into Groups, with individual accounts often sharing the same post multiple times (Image 7). They often share into neutral or even opposition groups that are not controlled by Volcom accounts, thus reaching a wider range of Guineans. We note that while these users exhibit coordinated posting activity and many use obviously fake names, they are not necessarily completely fake personas – many post photos that appear to be of one person over time, engaged in a variety of (often political) activities. Furthermore, we do not interpret the proliferation of Putin profile pictures as evidence of Russian involvement. The pattern seems to stem, rather, from parallels between Condé and Putin, who is also engaged in an effort to change Russia’s constitution to remain in power. By using Putin’s image, Condé’s supporters reference Putin’s two decades in power in Russia as an example of the stability and continuity they seek in Guinea.
Foreign Links: Turkey
Based on the number of pages with a Turkish administrator, we investigated the network’s posting behavior on topics of interest to Turkey. We found that the Volcom network (including some Pages with no Turkish administrator) has posted several times about a Turkish conglomerate with significant ties to Condé: the Albayrak Group, chaired by Ahmet Calik, a close ally of Erdogan’s, and formerly headed by Berat Albayrak, Erdogan’s son-in-law. The posts are positive towards Albayrak, praising the company’s donations to Guinea during Covid-19 (sharing an Albayrak corporate video) and Albayrak’s roll-out of garbage collection services in Conakry (Image 8).
Furthermore, Volcom members document some of the meetings between leaders of Albayrak and the Condé administration, as the picture of Condé sitting in an October 30, 2019 meeting with Albayrak CEO Ahmet Calik, posted by Ibrahima Kallo on Twitter, suggests (Image 9). The post tags 2 ministers in Condé’s government, 2 members of Volcom, and the CEO of the national Road Maintenance Fund. That same month, Albayrak was awarded a contract to extend a road connection to Conakry’s Autonomous Port.
Presidents Erdogan and Condé also enjoy very strong personal ties. Erdogan was one of few world leaders to express support for Condé by sending official congratulations after the March 2020 referendum. Erdogan has also lent a private jet to Condé, which Condé now uses as his official plane (Image 10). A record of the jet’s recent activity shows at least 4 round-trips from Guinea to Turkey in the latter half of 2019 alone.
That said, so far, while circumstantial evidence points to a link between Volcom content and official Turkish interests, we have not been able to ascertain the identity of the Turkish administrator on the Volcom Pages or find other direct evidence of Turkish involvement in this group.
Volcom Influence on Guinean Politics
We contacted several journalists and politically-aware Guineans in order to understand to what extent Volcom Pages influence Guinean politics and how likely they are to mislead voters ahead of the October presidential election or exacerbate tensions among ethnic groups in Guinea. Several Guinean sources confirmed that Volcom is financed by the President’s party and that the main opposition parties in Guinea also rely on social media and spread mis/disinformation. As an example, sources said the opposition alleged that Alpha Condé was being treated for Covid-19 abroad, which turned out to be false. Note that, while we did find Pages supporting the Guinean opposition with tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, we did not identify a similar pattern of coordinated posting behavior. Our sources say that online disinformation (known as “intoxication” in Guinea) is such an essential part of the political game that no party in Guinea can afford to abstain from it.
Political propaganda and disinformation in Guinea are far from innocuous. Sources bemoaned Guinea’s low levels of digital illiteracy, worrying that the population is susceptible being misled by online propaganda. “This is a huge problem in Guinea. Everything people see on Facebook, they think it is reality. There is also a lot more fake information and fake news in Guinea.” Some contacts expressed concern that by fueling adversarial dynamics between parties, disinformation may aggravate tensions between Fula and Mandinka ethnic groups. As mentioned earlier, one set of media reports on Volcom centered on a 2018 court case in which communicators from both the RPG and the opposition UFDG were arrested for incitement to violence online.
What to do about digital propaganda in Guinea?
Our contacts in Guinea were skeptical of legal regulation’s effectiveness against disinformation. As one person put it, “Our Constitution mentions cyber criminality and provides for sanctions; but enforcement, as in all areas, is lacking.” They commonly cited the need to engage civil society more actively: “We need a very dynamic, open civil society. If no independent institute controls government action, civil society should be the guarantor of transparency.” Others emphasized the importance of digital literacy training for the public.
However, efforts to build civil society capacity or increase digital literacy will take time. As it prepares for October’s historic election, Guinea’s ruling party has already built the infrastructure on Facebook to carry out a large-scale propaganda campaign in support of President Condé’s bid for a third term. We see this operation as an example of a political campaign that – intentionally or not – is exposing gray areas in Facebook’s policies. While Facebook says the network does not meet its coordinated inauthentic behavior threshold, we believe the network’s lack of transparency about its affiliation with Guinea’s ruling party is inconsistent with democratic ideals for political campaigning.