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Troll Farms and Whitewashing Gaddafi: Russian Media Targets Africa

December 4, 2020
Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert
5 min read
A "troll farm" where Ghanaians posed as Americans and posted pro-Kremlin narratives on social media
A "troll farm" where Ghanaians posed as Americans and posted pro-Kremlin narratives on social media
An article in Sudan Daily lifted wholesale from the Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik
An article in Sudan Daily lifted wholesale from the Russian state-owned news outlet Sputnik
An image from a now-deleted Facebook page of one of the alleged Russia-sponsored trolls sought to incite unrest in the US
An image from a now-deleted Facebook page of one of the alleged Russia-sponsored trolls sought to incite unrest in the US

Emil Filtenborg and Stefan Weichert are independent journalists based in Ukraine. In a weekly series for IranWire, they examine the landscape of disinformation in Russia and some of the false information that has emanated from the country since the outbreak of coronavirus.


Russia is targeting several countries on the African continent to strengthen its strategic interests, with a media messaging onslaught – and within that, disinformation – a core strand of the campaign. Among other things, Kremlin-backed media outlet have attempted to whitewash Muammar Gaddafi’s legacy in Libya and attack Western interests in the Central African Republic (CAR).

The CAR is a former French colony and a still-developing country in Africa with an abundance of of diamonds and cotton. It continues to have close ties to France, but of late the latter has found itself competing with Russia, which is trying to establish itself as an alternative partner to the West.

Russia has tried to generate influence in the CAR several ways, but disinformation and propaganda play a vital role across the board. The news platform Coda Story, which focuses on disinformation and authoritarian technologies, has previously reported on how Russia arranged beauty contests in CAR to improve its image, and bought a local radio station to exclusively promote its foreign policy position. Russia is also said to have paid reporters in the CAR to write supportive articles, and ensured that donations – even small ones, such as a trampoline for a childcare facility – often receive a great deal of media attention, according to the report by Coda Story.

“Russia is not just about arms. Security can come only when we change people’s lives. We must create positive ground,” the Russian security advisor Valery Zakharov told Coda Story. Simultaneously, reports suggest that Russia has targeted the UN’s peacekeeping mission, France, and some foreign journalists inside the country with bad press.

Russia is also increasingly active in the information sphere in other African countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Madagascar, Sudan, and Libya. Facebook decided in 2019 to take down a dozen Facebook pages in Africa because they spread Russian disinformation, targeting domestic politics in eight African countries such as the CAR. According to Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, Russian-run networks were trying to hide their origin by using local citizens.  “There’s sort of a joining of forces, if you will, between local actors and actors from Russia. It appears that the local actors who are involved know who is behind the operation,” he said.


Supporting Gaddafi in Libya

It was researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory at Stanford University that made Facebook aware of Russian disinformation in Africa. The researchers found Russian disinformation aiming at creating support for Russian deals for natural resources.

In Libya, Russian-run networks have focused on creating nostalgia around the former dictator-president Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed by protestors during the Arab Spring. “Why was late Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi killed? Everyone was happy in Libya,” reads one post found by the Stanford researchers. The claim that “everyone” was happy in Libya under Gaddafi stands in sharp contrast to the truth, whereby popular unrest both unseated the dictator and sent him to his death. Russia is now trying to rewrite that history to gather support for rebel General Khalifa Haftar and Muammar Gaddafi’s son, who could be future presidential candidates in Libya.

This is just one example of how Russia tries to influence domestic politics in Africa. “The pages produced almost universally positive coverage of Russia’s activities in these countries... intended to foster unity around Russia aligned actors and politicians,” the Stanford researchers concluded about Russian disinformation in Africa.

The same report also found that Russian media outlets in Africa reject well-founded allegations against Russia’s actions in Africa, using disinformation. In the CAR, for example, the UN asked the authorities to take action against Russian mercenaries, who are accused of having beaten and tortured a man whose fingers were cut off. The Kremlin-backed outlets "Kodóro236" and "Agence de Nouvelles Béafrika” labeled the UN’s claims as lies without providing evidence.  When in 2019, CNN reported about the misconduct of the so-called Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, in CAR and other African countries, the "Agence de Nouvelles Béafrika" said CNN had been "bribing CAR residents for defamatory material" and called it a fabrication, quoting the Russian ambassador to the CAR.


A Network of Trolls

Russia is not only using disinformation in Africa to shape public opinions and counter Western worldviews, but appears to be operating behavior-influence operations on social media. Previously, it has been found that the Internet Research Agency, is the Russian department responsible for Kremlin-backed online campaigns, has established “troll farms” in West Africa. Local citizens in Ghana and Nigeria were hired to post content inciting racial tension inside America and “promote black empowerment and display anger toward white Americans” to create civil unrest, CNN found in April 2020. These employees were using primarily Twitter and Facebook accounts, posing as American citizens.

"This network was in early stages of audience-building and was operated by local nationals – witting and unwitting – in Ghana and Nigeria on behalf of individuals in Russia. It targeted primarily the United States,” Facebook stated at the time, subsequently closing the accounts.

IranWire has previously reported on how Russia seized on the Black Lives Matter movement to incite broader social unrest in the US. Russia has a long history of playing on racial tensions in America, which it also did during the Cold War, but the fact that people in Ghana and Nigeria were being paid to masquerade as Americans seems to be new. "It's definitely spreading out the risk," Professor Darren Linvill, who works with US law enforcement in tracking trolling activities, told CNN. "You can have accounts operating from entirely different parts of the globe, and it might make your operation harder to identify overall."

Researchers at The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies recently published a new report highlighting the patterns of Russian information warfare, which is found to be present in 85 countries around the world, on six continents.



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