Moscow’s online efforts on the continent seem to reflect its geopolitical ambitions in Libya and in sub-Saharan Africa.
Russia’s online disinformation army is making inroads into Africa with figures close to President Vladimir Putin linked to a number of suspect Facebook pages.
In October 2019, Facebook exposed vast Russian influence campaigns on its platforms with much of the world’s focus on a renewed effort by Moscow to influence the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election.
In 2016, the Russian disinformation campaign is believed to have attempted to tilt the US presidential election in favour of incumbent Donald Trump. It is not known if the campaign was the decisive factor in deciding who won but whatever the outcome Moscow feels the tactic was important enough to repeat.
This year the country is accused of also trying to help the campaign of Democrat frontrunner Bernie Sanders, who has unequivocally rejected any outside interference.
But while the influence campaign in the US gets the limelight, under the radar in Africa, there is cause for concern with regard to Russian efforts there.
In an interview published by the African Center for Strategic Studies earlier in February, Dr. Shelby Grossman, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory, spoke about her experiences working with Facebook to counter the threat posed by Russia on the platform.
Grossman said that pages removed by Facebook during its purge of pages linked to the Russian campaign, were tied to Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Evidence tying Prigozhin to the pages include reports that his employees celebrated their role in spreading misinformation in Libya.
Russia is deeply involved in the ongoing war in the country, throwing its weight behind the warlord Khalifa Haftar, as he attempts to overthrow the legitimate UN-recognised government in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
That support has included the dispatch of Wagner group employees to Libya and an online campaign aimed at increasing support for Haftar.
Grossman and her team found Facebook pages run by the Russians claiming that Haftar would bring stability to the country but also adverts reminiscing about the Gaddafi era.
Given that Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif al Islam has been touted as a future leader of Libya, Grossman said the Russians could be attempting to bring the two strands together.
But the attempts at propaganda and misinformation are far from universally successful. In posts extolling life in Libya under the reign of dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, many ordinary Libyans commented, asking who was running the pages and whether they had actually experienced his rule.
Libya is not the only country targeted by Russian disinformation on the continent with Mozambique being another example.
In that country, Russian-funded pages backed President Filipe Nyusi before his reelection in September 2019.
The pages also targeted the opposition with fake claims that it had agreed to dispose of Chinese nuclear waste.
One possible explanation for interference in these countries, which are geographically remote from Moscow could be the business interests of Putin’s inner circle.
In the example of the Central African Republic, Russia had significant mining interests there and pages were therefore geared towards supportive coverage of those who would protect those interests.
Grossman, warned that these efforts were becoming increasingly sophisticated as the campaign begins to employ local actors, who can obfuscate the Russian connection by adding a local flavour to the language deployed.
She further warned against delegating the battle against disinformation to local governments, as they were often likely to be the beneficiaries of it in the first place. Instead Grossman argued that the onus was on social media companies to ensure that their products cannot be used for nefarious purposes.
Russian President Putin wraps up the first Russia-Africa summit in Sochi as Moscow aims to strengthen military and defence ties with African nations pic.twitter.com/AWVSGTCKor— TRT World (@trtworld) October 25, 2019