• Perri Grace

Disinformation Dispatch: Russia's Campaigns Across Africa

Russia is attempting to revive Soviet-era ties with African states. Although international eyes are trained on Moscow’s moves in Ukraine, the continent still remains a target.

Vladimir Putin and the leaders of the 54 African countries at the 2019 Russia-Africa summit in Sochi
Vladimir Putin hosted the leaders of all 54 African countries at the 2019 Russia-Africa summit in Sochi. Credit: kremlin.ru.

What differs between misinformation and disinformation - and why they are not interchangeable - is intentionality. Behind disinformation campaigns, there is malice to disseminate false information for political, economic or military gains; they are strategic direct attacks that take the form of all sides of the spectrum. Wherever there is confusion, there is room for a campaign.


Africa has become a frequent target for disinformation campaigns, with these operations harming countries' ability to engage in fair politics and think critically. As always, Russia is seeking to re-establish their old Soviet era status on the continent.


Anti-UN Content

There are five ongoing peacekeeping missions in Africa: Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Mororrow-Western Sahara.


The Wagner group, a Russian private military company (PMC), entered Mali in 2021, sparking grave international concerns which invited accompanying online propaganda campaigns across social media, in particular Telegram. The paramilitary is connected to Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and have adopted tactics including the use of puns and hidden messages to deceive search engines and undermine moderation efforts. Wagner group’s ambitions hinder the UN’s MINUSMA mandate and campaign efforts, seeking to polish the PMC's human rights reputation, through anti-French and anti-UN messages.

"As always, Russia is seeking to re-establish their old Soviet era status on the continent."

Russia’s Internet Research Agency network was connected to multiple​​ inauthentic profiles burnishing Russia’s reputation. Several pages were connected to Russian administrators based and promoted Arabic-language disinformation criticising the health industry and praising incoming aid from Prigozhin. Similarly, fabricated pages of politicians and news agencies pushed Russian agendas.


Watch This Space The Kremlin operates in a disinformation ecosystem that ranges from covert media to state-affiliated to digital amplifiers that run sophisticated, coordinated campaigns in a bid to shape narratives. Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik remain notorious leaders in augmenting Kremlin ambitions which is likely to increase with RT’s purchase of at least four fresh African domains.

An image claiming to show armed Wagnre mercenaries at a fomer French military base in Gossi, Mali.
An image claiming to show armed Wagnre mercenaries at a fomer French military base in Gossi, Mali. Credit: French Armed Forces.

African influencers backed by Wagner and Russian affiliates have already considerably promoted Russian disinformation narratives through spaces such as Radio Révolution Panafricaine in Equatorial Guinea and Lengo Songo in the Central African Republic. Moscow saw an opportunity with the rise of African think tanks to establish the “Association for Free Research and International Cooperation” (AFRIC) run by Jose Matemulane, a Saint Petersburg State University-educated professor based in Mozambique. Matemulane was one of the international observers at the Zimbabwean 2018 elections despite his Moscow connections and social media pages praising the Russian Defence Ministry and Putin. The think tank was launched with support from a “St. Petersburg businessman,” although no people named fit the description of Prigozhin.


Africa’s media scene is growing and RT and Sputnik both have raised their hands on several occasions to train African journalists, both in Moscow and on the ground. RT had also proposed access for African television stations to a sleuth of documentaries. Meanwhile, over 600 news websites across the continent used Sputnik and RT as sources.

"Russia’s moves have opened the door for duplicate campaigns with several actors adopting similar tactics in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya."

Russia’s moves have opened the door for duplicate campaigns with several actors adopting similar tactics in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya. The marketing firm Archimedes Group, which mimics the Kremlin campaigns, began to enter the disinformation scene targeting at least 13 countries with a network of fabricated accounts and false fake-checking websites. The nexus of pages presented themselves as African-based but transparency features exposed accounts to be based in Israel or other African and European countries.


Whilst Moscow cant hope to go toe-to-toe with China economically they can use their decades of superior experience in disinformation to attain the needed advantage, and sway the continents opinions, rather than their wallets. As we saw recently in Burkina Faso’s uprisings, whilst it was the Chinese flag being waved in the treasury, it was the Russian flag being waved by the crowd.

 

Written by Perri Grace.

Edited by Wade McCagh.