Russian election meddling is back, but this time in Africa
Facebook tries to curb Russian meddling in African politics
Russia has put on a stream of attempts to influence the Internet on the political processes taking place in Africa
The mass deletion of Facebook and Instagram social media accounts used to interfere with African politics has given new insight into the extent to which Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of the Russian president, is involved in the continent, analysts say..
On Wednesday, Facebook announced that, as a result of its investigation, which lasted several weeks, the social network is deleting pages associated with the name of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman who was accused of financing attempts to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. The investigation was conducted by Facebook in conjunction with researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, a group dedicated to the study of new technologies..
“Companies associated with Yevgeny Prigozhin are engaged in social media activities in several African countries, to a much greater extent than we previously knew,” says Shelby Grossman, a researcher at Stanford Internet Observatory and author of a report on Russian online transactions in Africa.
“We believe this is consistent with Russian commercial activities, and to some extent with Russian state political interests,” Grossman said in an interview with Voice of America..
Prigogine, often referred to in the Russian press as “Putin’s chef,” was accused by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller of conspiring to interfere in the 2016 elections. The latest allegations relate to Prigozhin’s online activities in Cameroon, CAR, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar and Mozambique.
In some cases, Russians have even hired local journalists and possibly regional digital marketing companies to spread the word, Grossman says..
Facebook has calculated that Russia spent about $ 77,000 on advertising as part of this campaign. The first such announcement appeared in April 2018, the last in October 2019. However, Facebook was not the only thing..
“Companies associated with Prigozhin used not only Facebook. They created groups in Telegram and Whatsapp, and, in some cases, Google Forms accounts to interact more closely with the locals. On one of these pages, created for the people of Mozambique, they ran a competition. I think this is part of their activity, which we saw in Africa for the first time, “adds the researcher..
Grossman says the content and style of the pages varied greatly from country to country. In general, the authors of the pages supported the ruling political parties, criticizing democratic activists and opposition groups. For example, in Mozambique, the page authors supported FRELIMO, the ruling party, on the eve of the elections. In Sudan, Russian-organized groups first supported former dictator Omar al-Bashir, and then, after his resignation, switched to supporting the Transitional Military Council. In Libya, support was provided to both General Khalifa Haftar and his potential rival, Saif al-Islam, the son of the former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed during the Arab Spring in 2011..
Often these pages were associated with the “Wagner Group” – a paramilitary unit of the Prigozhin holding, engaged in sending military contractors to Libya, Mozambique, the Central African Republic and a number of other countries..
Cameron Hudson, senior fellow at the African Center at the Atlantic Council, says Russia, unable to strike major economic deals, is turning to its military and intelligence capabilities to influence the African continent. Moscow is also ready to support regimes not popular in the West..
“Russia is ready to do business with many dubious individuals. She is ready to do business with regimes that seek to retain power by unconstitutional means. She is ready to do business with military governments, governments that are not ready to support in the West. Russia sees advantages for itself in penetrating these markets, “Hudson said in an interview with the Voice of America..
According to Hudson, Moscow’s goal is to achieve the same sense of its presence in the region as it did during the Cold War, but with much less investment. In addition, Russia believes that cyber intervention in other countries is most beneficial for it..
“How is its influence felt? This can be done through things like social media and online intervention, which are relatively inexpensive to have the impact on the world stage they seek … Anything they can do to undermine press freedom, democratic institutions and plant doubt in the minds population, I think, corresponds to their broader vision, “- said the researcher.