The Russian disinformation machine turns its attention to Africa
Facebook announced it took down dozens of pages shown to be spreading Russian-backed disinformation in Africa after the company was tipped off by a group of Stanford researchers.
The pages were aimed at audiences in eight countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Madagascar, Sudan and Libya. The pages’ scope was significant: a total of 1.2 million people liked the pages, which in October alone produced a total of 8,900 posts, more than triple the average number of posts pushed out by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency during the U.S. elections in 2016.
According to researchers, Russia has expanded its disinformation program to Africa, building upon existing tactics used in the U.S. and Europe to ramp up its influence overseas. The Facebook operation has been linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman indicted by the U.S. for interfering in the 2016 election. Prigozhin has been spearheading Russia’s push into Africa. So far, that’s involved striking military deals, fostering diplomatic relations with leaders, and attempting to blot out European former colonial influence on the continent.
“While many of Prigozhin’s activities in Africa are known, we provide evidence that he is engaged in social media activities in several African countries to a much wider extent than we have previously known,” tweeted Shelby Grossman, one of the researchers on the project.
The report, published on Tuesday by the Stanford Internet Observatory, details evidence of Russia-linked campaigns which Grossman called “the franchising of disinformation operations.” The researchers recount how the investigation started when they identified “a cluster of Facebook pages tied to the Wagner Group” – a private military company run by Prigozhin, dubbed a “shadowy band of mercenaries” loyal to Putin.
To even the diligent Facebook user who uses the platform’s “transparency” button to reveal a page admin’s location, nothing about the pages betray a Russian connection. “It’s really hard to imagine how any ordinary Libyan citizen would have been able to figure out the Libyan pages were connected to Russia,” Grossman said. “The strategies we see these Prigozhin-linked entities using in the operations targeting Africa are actually increasing the challenges of identifying disinformation campaigns.”
The pages pushed a variety of messages: some drew positive attention to Russian policy and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s activities in Africa, mixing these messages with internal political rhetoric. A number of the Libyan pages invoked what Facebook and the Stanford team cheerfully call “Gaddafi Nostalgia.” “Why was late Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi killed? Everyone was happy in Libya,” one post read.
In a statement about the page takedowns, Facebook’s Head of Cybersecurity Policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said the Libyan accounts, alongside those from Sudan, “frequently shared stories from Russian-controlled media Sputnik and RT.”
“There was cheerleading with occasional disinformation,” said Grossman. “The pages were either about trying to bolster a ruling party or trying to denigrate an opposition group.” Grossman added that in some cases the groups were simply confusing in their narrative: “it wasn’t clear what the objective was.”
“The pages produced almost universally positive coverage of Russia’s activities in these countries,” the researchers wrote, adding that the pages seemed “intended to foster unity around Russia aligned actors and politicians.”
The inauthentic nature of the pages was heavily veiled, because the pages were often locally run by journalists who had been hired out on the ground, Grossman explained.
The revelations about the pages offer “a hint as to what shape these operations might take in the future,” the researchers conclude. Facebook has been under heavy scrutiny in recent weeks for its controversial policy of allowing political ads to run without being subject to fact-checking. The company’s employees wrote an open letter this week to condemn the practice – and this latest report suggests even greater difficulty lies ahead for the social media platform.