Russia Tests New Disinformation Tactics in Africa to Expand Influence

PerspectiveRussia Tests New Disinformation Tactics in Africa to Expand Influence

Published 1 November 2019

Russia has been testing new disinformation tactics in an enormous Facebook campaign in parts of Africa, as part of an evolution of its manipulation techniques ahead of the 2020 American presidential election. Unlike past influence campaigns from Russia, the Africa campaign targeted several countries through Arabic-language posts. Russians also worked with locals in the African countries to set up Facebook accounts that were disguised as authentic to avoid detection. The effort was at times larger in volume than what the Russians deployed in the United States in 2016 to help Donald Trump win the presidential election. The campaign underlined how Russia is continuing to aggressively try different disinformation techniques, even as it has come under scrutiny for its online interference methods.

Russia has been testing new disinformation tactics in an enormous Facebook campaign in parts of Africa, as part of an evolution of its manipulation techniques ahead of the 2020 American presidential election.

Facebook said on Wednesday that it removed three Russian-backed influence networks on its site that were aimed at African countries including Mozambique, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya. The company said the online networks were linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch who was indicted by the United States and accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Davey Alba and Sheera Frenkel write in the New York Times that unlike past influence campaigns from Russia, the networks targeted several countries through Arabic-language posts,according to the Stanford Internet Observatory, which collaborated with Facebook to unravel the effort. Russians also worked with locals in the African countries to set up Facebook accounts that were disguised as authentic to avoid detection.

Alba and Frenkel write:

Some of the posts promoted Russian policies, while others criticized French and American policies in Africa. A Facebook page set up by the Russians in Sudan that masqueraded as a news network, called Sudan Daily, regularly reposted articles from Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news organization.

The effort was at times larger in volume than what the Russians deployed in the United States in 2016. While the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency posted on Facebook 2,442 times a month on average in 2016, one of the networks in Africa posted 8,900 times in October alone, according to the Stanford researchers.

The campaign underlined how Russia is continuing to aggressively try different disinformation techniques, even as it has come under scrutiny for its online interference methods. By spreading the use of its tactics to a region that is less closely monitored than the United States and Europe, researchers said Russia appeared to be trying to expand its sphere of influence in Africa, where it has started distributing propaganda and building a political infrastructure.

The add:

For Facebook, the evolution of Russia’s disinformation techniques means it cannot afford to lose vigilance. The Silicon Valley company faced a barrage of criticism after Russians abused the social network in 2016 to plant divisive content to influence the American electorate. Since then, Facebook has set up war rooms and hired more security experts to head off foreign interference in elections.

But Russia has kept up a steady stream of influence efforts on Facebook. Last week, the company revealed it had taken down four state-backed disinformation campaigns, three from Iran and one of which started in Russia.

Facebook faces a difficult adversary in Russia. The country had previously indicated that its disinformation techniques were changing and that it was aiming to work with locals on online influence campaigns.

The latest campaign in Africa is the first well-documented case of Russia “franchising,” or outsourcing, its disinformation efforts to local parties, said Facebook and the Stanford researchers. It’s unusual for a nation to try to influence so many countries at once, they said.

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