Russia is expanding the scope of its disinformation campaigns by focusing on a new target: Africa.
On Wednesday, Facebook announced that it had removed three networks of pages, accounts,and groups linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to Facebook, Prigozhin was behind a network of 200 fake and compromised accounts that reached almost 1 million people in eight African countries: Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Sudan, and Libya.
This is hardly new territory for Prigozhin, commonly known as “Putin’s cook.” He was indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller in 2018 for his role funding Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which is accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
Prigozhin has been spearheading Russia’s effort to wield greater influence in more than a dozen African countries, according to documents leaked to the Guardian earlier this year. Facebook’s findings published Wednesday makes clear that online information campaigns are a key part of this effort.
In some of the campaigns, the Russian-run networks worked with local citizens to evade detection, Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cyber-security policy, said.
“There’s sort of a joining of forces, if you will, between local actors and actors from Russia,” he told Reuters. “It appears that the local actors who are involved know who is behind the operation.”
Facebook did not identify any of the locals, organizations or companies working with these campaigns, but according to their researcher partners at Stanford Internet Observatory, the disinformation campaigns can be linked to the Wagner Group, a private Russian military contractor owned by Prigozhin that operates in the Middle East and Africa.
The network of accounts worked to promote Russian interests in the region, criticize French and U.S. activities, as well as bolster the prospects of a range of African politicians and political parties.
The aims and techniques of the campaigns differed from country-to-country:
Libya: Beginning in December 2018, the Russian networks supported two potential future presidential candidates: Muammar Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, and the rebel General Khalifa Haftar, who reportedly has at least 100 mercenaries from the Wagner Group fighting alongside his militias.
Sudan: The effort here isn’t as clear cut as in Libya. Instead, the content in Sudan appeared to support whatever government was in charge at the time. Since it popped up in mid-2018, the network of accounts supported Omar al-Bashir, the Transitional Military Council, and the Sovereign Council of Sudan. It ran a number of pages related to two news websites that regularly re-posted articles from the Kremlin-run Sputnik news agency. Prigozhin-linked companies are known to have mining agreements in Sudan and have trained local military forces.
Mozambique: The most recent campaign began in September 2019, just weeks before the country’s presidential and parliamentary elections. The pages posted content to support the incumbent president, and damage the reputation of the opposition — in at least one instance, with a fake news story, according to Facebook’s findings.
Cover: In this Friday, Nov. 11, 2011, file photo, businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, serves food to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, center, during dinner at Prigozhin's restaurant outside Moscow, Russia.