In January 2019 during an outbreak of violence, a man in the town of Bambari in the Central African Republic lost his little finger. That fact is about the only thing about which everyone can agree.

The United Nations is investigating allegations that the man was abducted, held captive and tortured by Russian forces, who choked him with a chain and cut off his finger.

However, a spider’s web of social media accounts, blogs and news media are claiming that the allegations are a plot by the French to undermine the Russians in CAR, as the Central African Republic is known, or that the U.N. is attempting to smear Russia’s reputation with local people, or maybe, the trolls suggest, the victim is just a liar.

There is a war for mindshare taking place right now in the Central African Republic, where Russia is locked in an increasingly tense contest with France for political influence and access to resources. In it, a sustained campaign for narrative control is being waged across multiple fronts, both on the ground in CAR and online, reaching out to the country’s diaspora. It takes forms typical of 21st century information warfare sometimes, and other times uses techniques as old as village gossip.

Despite its immense resource wealth, CAR has one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes and what money the government does have often is spent on weapons rather than on CAR’s people. The former French colony with a current population of roughly 4.8 million people has been riven with violence for well over a decade, and the immense humanitarian crisis has left millions of civilians without access to food, medical care, education or safe water. A devastating civil war in 2013-2014 further destabilized the country, which is now 70 percent under the control of a complex constellation of armed groups.

In February 2019 Russia helped to broker a fragile peace agreement between rebel leaders and the government, but given this is the eighth such agreement since the beginning of the war, hopes are not high that it will lead to a lasting peace.

In this complex, violent political context, rumors can spread like wildfire—and technology is like gasoline on the flames. At one point during the conflict in 2014, the government even briefly tried to ban SMS messages in an attempt to stop the spread of anti-government messaging.

Social media are now adding a 21st-century sting to the centuries-old dynamic of rumor-mongering and gossip. Internet penetration in CAR remains among the  lowest in the world, with only five percent of the population estimated to have access.

It is this very narrowness, however, which may make social media a potent asset in information campaigns in CAR. In a society where only the wealthy, the educated and the elite are likely to have access to the internet, social media becomes a tool for strategically targeting those groups, and thereby influencing important decision-makers and the people around them.



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