Russian disinformation campaign targets Africa

This editorial was excerpted from the Washington Post.

The Kremlin has turned its attentions to Africa.

Facebook announced last week that it had removed three networks targeting eight of the continent's countries, linked to oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, catering tycoon and Internet Research Agency financier. The influence effort's scale is as shocking as its scope: The pages in question racked up at least 1.72 million likes, and managers produced 8,900 pieces of content in a single month.

Researchers from Stanford Internet Observatory uncovered clusters of inauthentic activity focusing on Libya with the help of reporting by The Daily Beast and documentation from an investigative project by the Dossier Center. Facebook responded to these findings with even more information, and eventually the Central African Republic, Congo, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Cameroon and Ivory Coast were all identified as targets of the campaign.

Russia, it appears, leveraged its physical presence through a mercenary organization called the Wagner Group with reported connections to Russian military intelligence to insert itself smack in the center of these nations' cyberscapes. Much of what emerged resembles what the United States has seen from Moscow, including country-specific memes made up out of whole cloth and propaganda purveyors posing as legitimate news websites. Other tactics seem tailored to the affected countries' media environments. The most salient is what experts refer to as franchising of disinformation drives: Russia recruits local operators to do its job under the guise of organic activity.

These incursions are especially hard to detect because they originate domestically. Actors involved sometimes even have local bona fides. Eighteen of the 22 Sudanese pages identified were associated with Instagram accounts that belonged to Sudanese citizens, many of whom identified themselves as reporters or photographers.

What's bad news for Africa could be better news for the United States. Moscow may well have adjusted its strategy away from cheaper campaigns run entirely from St. Petersburg, because those could no longer evade platforms' increasingly aggressive and advanced detection. That adjustment, however, is less likely to have legs in a country with a robust journalistic tradition and a government that wants to root out disinformation rather than help it along. Russia tried the outsourcing trick in Ukraine, and many recruits ended up arrested. 

Last week's takedowns show that Russia's goals are global. That makes the task confronting those committed to fighting disinformation more difficult. We wouldn't have learned this lesson, though, if not  for vigilant monitors.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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