Date: 25 March 2021
Russia’s Disinformation Campaign in Africa
In the October of 2019 Facebook have removed a dozen of authentically looking fake profiles, which have worked together in a coordinated way to gain influence and carry out a disinformation campaign in Africa – all the fake profiles could be connected to Russia. The profiles could be connected to a well-known oligarch, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is a very close ally of President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is also the head of the de facto working, but de jure non-existent private military company (PMC), the Wagner Group, which is a common guest of the conflicts in the African continent, such as in Libya, the Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique or Mali.
All the deactivated profiles concentrated on African countries, e.g., on Cameroon, the CAR, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique and Sudan. Their activity gives a unique opportunity to investigate the so-called gray zone of the Russian disinformation campaign in Africa. But what does “disinformation” even mean and what does Russia want in the continent?
Disinformation, fake news, information warfare and internet propaganda
In the recent years, a lot of concepts formulated around these words and compositions: fake news, internet influential activities, information warfare, disinformation, internet propaganda etc. The terminology is chaotic: the definitions usually cross over each other, and the expressions are used – must of the time falsely – as simple synonyms. We can confidently say that there is no absolute terminus technicus we could use for all the actions Russia has carried out in the field of media through hybrid warfare since 2014.
Our first expression is the ‘disinformation warfare’. The word ‘disinformation’ according to the dictionary means ‘deliberately misleading or biased information’, which has ‘manipulated narrative or facts’ or in other words: ‘propaganda’ (and right here is where the confusion begins). The European Committee (EC) also uses an own definition for the expression. According to that the disinformation is a ‘verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public’. They also mention that ‘it may have far-reaching consequences, cause public harm, be a threat to democratic, political and policy-making processes, and may even put the protection of EU [or anyone’s – the editor] citizens’ health, security and their environment at risk’. The definition of the EC mentions that the aim of the disinformation in the context of the EU – but we can compare it with any state or federation of any kind – is to erode ‘trust in institutions and in digital and traditional media and harm our democracies by hampering the ability of citizens to take informed decisions. It can polarise debates, create or deepen tensions in society and undermine electoral systems, and have a wider impact on European security’.
However, the traditional definition of disinformation was created by the ex-archivist of the KGB, Vasili Mitrokhin, who fled to Western Europe in 1992 from Russia and wrote a book about all the secrets of the Soviet secret agency he ever got to know. His book was named ‘KGB Lexicon: The Soviet Intelligence Officers Handbook’. He defined the expression as misleading through false information. He also mentioned that disinformation is an activity of intelligence connected to active measures, which provides the enemy channels with false information, special materials, and fictive documents, encouraging them to make moves that are synchronized with the plan of the secret intelligence agency that carries out the disinformation.
However, the expression is not that new as it seems. According to Ion Mihai Pacepa, who worked as a General in Ceauşescu’s Romania, Stalin invented the word ’disinformation’, with a disinformational intention at the very beginning. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union directly gave the expression a French-sounding name – according to Mr. Pacepa – to confuse people and suggest that it’s a Western-based exercise. However, the expression cannot be found neither in the 1952 or 1978 Larousse Dictionary, but in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia yes. According to Mr. Pacepa, the first disinformation campaign of the Kremlin was to discredit Pope Pius the 12th and introduce him as the ‘Pope of Hitler’.
There are a lot of expressions connected closely to disinformation. One of the mentioned are the so called ‘fake news’. Since the disinformation wants to provoke and manipulate the politics and the public opinion through the media, creating fake profiles and news became one of its priority works. The ‘fake news’ can be a non-real, made up, biased, exaggerated writing or any media product, which is approached from one direction, pseudoscientific and conspirationally written. The aim of creating fake news is to catch attention and reach even reliable media sources’ feed with deception.
We should also include the definition of ‘psychological operations’ (a.k.a. ‘psy ops’). The aim of the ‘psy ops’ is to trigger a demoralizing psychological reaction from the enemy with different measures. However, most people misuse the term and apply it when we should use ‘information warfare’. The term has been used during the Gulf War in 1990-1991. Information warfare means fight for critical information, for the possession and control over information systems, using the information as a weapon. We can confidently say that Russia uses all the mentioned with pleasure and we can use the term ‘disinformation’, since this expression stands the closest to name all these instruments together. This proves that the Kremlin uses a complex set of narratives, systematic and coordinated attacks at the same time with a less professional and more interest-enforcing intention. The fact that the modern state of Russia decided to restart this old KGB-strategy is not that surprising in the context that its political system is still ruled by people who used to work as assets to the intelligence. These people are the ‘siloviks’, and even the President of Russia is a member of them.
A few years ago, the Gerasimov Doctrine straightforwardly decided to pick disinformation to be one of their official tools. Moscow realized that with the spreading of fake news they can become sympathetic in the eyes of entire societies, which might motivate the leaders of the disinformed countries to tighten their relations with the Russian Federation and in the end create a beneficial situation for the Kremlin. Russia realized that social media platforms such as Facebook can easily manipulate through media consumption the worldview of their users. The algorithms of these sites create such ‘Filter Bubbles’ and ‘Echo Chambers’ which make it possible for the distributors to reach more relevant social-economic resources and by that aim the audience more precisely – this is what we call the ‘micro-marketing’.
Some countries realized the danger of the disinformation campaigns and decided to build defense strategies against it. The Czech Republic and Belgium for example started media literacy programs in the high schools to educate its population. Their aim is to educate the students how to identify and defend against disinformation. Meanwhile, the Baltic states created so called ‘troll hunter’ networks. These networks are volunteer groups of determined social media-users whose mission is to identify the pages which spread pro-Kremlin propaganda, put them on blacklist and check them whether or not there can be found a direct link to the circles of Russian government officials. The EU also reacted to the threat of disinformation and have created the East Stratcom Task Force (ESTF) in the March of 2015 to fight against these manipulative attacks and communicate the professional policy of the Union effectively. However, we can find solutions in the fight against disinformation all around the world – for example in China as well. China have created the ‘Golden Shield Project’ – a great Chinese firewall – which limits every internet material coming outside of the country. Beijing also developed several applications,, such as Weibo, Baidu, or WeChat, which minimalize the risk of foreign intervention, but also indirectly limits the source of media for the users – serving through this to the government.
Russia in Africa – again
In the last decade Russia has ‘rediscovered’ Africa. Moscow’s priority in the continent is to strengthen its position and undermine the influence of the US and Europe – and finally take over the geopolitical supremacy. One can say that with the reelection of President Vladimir Putin in 2012, the modern Russia has stepped into a new era, where the aggressive foreign policy, the maintenance of the image of a world power and the preservation and expansion of zone of influence have become priority again. Russia is not interested only in its ‘Near Abroad’ (or the post-Soviet area), but in various new regions too, such as Africa. Moscow lined up a great variation of tools which all helped to achieve its goal. These are the building of military bases, actions of irregular forces (e.g. private military companies, such as the Wagner Group), arms trade, gaining of special mining permission as well as disinformation campaigns. The latter have always been playing an important role in the geopolitical strategy of Russia. President Dmitry Medvedev’s 2009 Presidential Decree on the National Security Strategy – which was in effect until 2020 – also mentioned the disinformation operations, such as the Gerasimov Doctrine, which is considered to be the Bible of hybrid warfare. Earlier, the Soviets have already tested the disinformation operations in Africa. For example, in 1960 Moscow ordered to propagate pamphlets all around the Black-Africa to turn its population against Washington with the use of the ethnical tensions in the USA.
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The main reason why Russia is spending so much money and paying so much attention to these smart strategic moves is because Moscow is far behind their self-declared rivals, such as China, the US and even the EU when it comes to the access to Africa’s resources. Some say Russia couldn’t even compete on this continent with countries whom it doesn’t even consider a threat, e.g. Japan or Brazil. Russia decided to use the disinformation campaigns to strengthen the position of their few allies on the continent, which in turn would take care of the Moscow’s interest. Therefore, the aim of such an extremely supportive and manipulative media backup is to help figures that can guarantee that for a long period of time. This is what we can see in Sudan, Guinea, Libya, Madagascar, Cameroon, the CAR, Ivory Coast, the DRC and Mozambique. The real goal of Russia is of course to strengthen their position in these countries through their African partners. However, as we can see nor the Russian private military companies (PMCs) can lead to a clear success (e.g. Libya, Mozambique), nor the disinformation campaigns can stop the citizens to overthrow a leader by any mean, if they found them too autocratic (e.g. el-Bashir in Sudan) or accept one (e.g. Haftar in Libya).
The methods of these disinformation operations are almost always the same . Each time we can find a foreign suborganism of the Prigozhin-led, St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (such as the Seth Wiredu-led EBLA Group in Ghana), which recruits administrators for their fake ‘troll’ accounts on social media from third countries (e.g. from Egypt, Germany, the Netherlands, etc.), whose main job than to use the basic rules and tools of disinformation and start to post, comment and react as commanded from St. Petersburg. These fake accounts usually share any news from the Kremlin-based media (e.g. Russia Today or Sputnik) without any source criticism on a non-stop basis. These accounts help to boost the number of clicks on these articles, which then appear on the sites of reliable media sources – through deception – and finally end up among the regular citizens. Then, the deceived population is more likely to act as Moscow wanted to in their local politics.
However, not all plans go as well as it looked on the desk and as the Kremlin imagined. For example, the Libyan disinformation campaign backfired and made the population even more divided, creating two huge groups between the people who got informed from Russia-supported media. One of these groups supports Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the leader of Libyan National Army, who controls most of the North-African country and especially the Eastern coastline. Haftar’s Russia-supported media consequently share the view that under the leadership of the Field Marshal, security and peace shall protect all of Libya. However, we can also find another group which evolved from the Russia-supported media that can be called ‘Gaddafi-nostalgy group’. 90% of the followers of these pages share the desire to turn back to the pre-2011 Libyan reality and 10% of them support Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam’s endeavor to get into power. The Russian disinformation campaign through this error became more divisive then expected – and became unable to transfer a clear and unified message towards the people. According to local social media expert, Khadeja Ramali, these attempts, thanks to their division, became directly repulsive to the population. The Libyans do not like that Russian propaganda sites take over their local media’s place, therefore – without any alternative – they simply stop reading the news.
Even the earlier mentioned EBLA Group has failed: on the 6th of February 2020 its office in Accra was stormed by the Ghanaian security forces after their cyber defense department noticed the organization thanks to its intensive foreign (European) financial support and server connection. Their leader, Seth Wiredu, was arrested and charged with money laundering, since he was not able to confess how did he get 82,443 Ghanaian cedi in cash. Later it became obvious that the Ghanaian businessman had serious connections to Russia, he even had a permanent declared address in the city of Novgorod.
Russia realized and reacted well to its situation in the continent: it is true that they have quite a serious delay, but so is their intent to join the “scramble for Africa”. They realized that they have to create such tools for their aims that are creative and effective enough, but do not require such resources like what their rivals are using: how can they ‘fill the gap’? The disinformation operations are one of the many new methods (such as the PMCs) that help Russia extend their sphere of influence efficiently. In this Russian infiltration the main point is not their success, since it’s only in its experimental period, but the message that is clearer than ever: Russia has returned to the African continent and their intentions are more serious than ever.
Author: Róbert Gönczi
Róbert Gönczi is visiting fellow from the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Hungary. He joined the Warsaw Institute through the MCC’s Fellowship Program. He currently studies in the Faculty of Military Sciences and Military Training of the National University of Public Service in Budapest, and in the School of Social and Historical Studies of the Mathias Corvinus Collegium. He currently works for the Budapest-based think-tank, the Migration Research Institute as a Research Assistant and also as a foreign policy journalist for the Hungarian Jewish online newspaper, Neokohn.hu. Earlier he worked for 2 years at the Hungarian civil conservative online newspaper Mandiner.hu as a news editor, reporter and foreign policy fellow writer. His main topics are the post-Soviet and post-communist states, disinformation, hybrid warfare, migration, defense- and security policy.
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