By Miriam Roday and Sarah Daly
In a quiet neighborhood just outside of Accra, 16 Ghanaians were instructed to create social media accounts, representing themselves as Americans, to post content about divisive political issues, where and when U.S. audiences were most active online. Starting in June 2019, posts like this tweet trickled into users’ newsfeeds: “How can a #police officer kill an 11 year old #black boy and go unpunished? Why, are some lives more important than others?”
In the run-up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Russian operatives from Ghana and Nigeria crafted fake profiles on social media to stoke tensions and widen cleavages in American society. Russian trolls posted in Facebook groups about police brutality and racial inequity, implying or claiming that they lived in the United States, and in one case, purported to be the cousin of a Black American who had died in police custody.
These trolling tactics may sound familiar. They were central themes of Moscow’s “sweeping and systematic” campaign to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Under the direction of Russian financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin deployed an army of professional trolls from the now-infamous Internet Research Agency (IRA) based in St. Petersburg to manipulate social media platforms and flood the information space with divisive and inflammatory narratives. During the 2016 election cycle, the effort succeeded in fomenting unrest and conflict.
Russia’s most recent campaign to sow discord within the American electorate, however, marks its first use of Africa as a launchpad for disinformation campaigns aimed at the United States. Earlier in 2021, the intelligence community confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to influence the contest between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, including by “exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US” and using troll farms in Ghana and Nigeria to “propagate US-focused narratives.”
A months-long investigation by CNN uncovered details about the pop-up operation in Ghana masquerading as a non-profit that received funding from an “anonymous source” in Europe. Its 16 employees, some unaware they were working with and for Russian operatives, built audiences and coordinated their posts by time and topic to maximize engagement with American users. Facebook corroborated these findings and linked several of the accounts to Prigozhin’s IRA that it had previously removed for “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”
The Kremlin uses these troll accounts on social media to establish digital networks of influence and advance its agenda in the information space—to subvert public discourse and disseminate anti-Western messaging. Russia’s interference campaign in 2016 illustrated how damaging these low-cost, low-risk tactics can be, especially against a fractious electorate in a highly polarized media environment. This threat is particularly palpable in Africa, where geopolitical developments and democratic backsliding make many states vulnerable to Russian interference. And while the Kremlin’s use of Africa as a base for its information operations targeting a U.S. election may be novel, Russia has been running information manipulation campaigns within Africa for years. Moscow’s weaponization of information is an understudied, overlooked component of its strategic influence efforts that presents immediate national security risks to democratic processes and institutions across the continent.
Russia’s Evolving Information Operations
The conversation surrounding Russian power projection in Africa often focuses on its revitalization of Soviet-era relationships and strategies to strike military, trade, and resource deals across the continent. Russia’s use of parastatal and opaque private military companies to accomplish its goals has drawn international scrutiny. Nominally private, these entities and individuals operate at the direction of the Kremlin, and often deploy information operations to advance Russia’s broader goals in Africa: building a positive reputation for Russia as a “revitalized great power, international mediator, humanitarian actor, and effective counter-terrorism partner”; and courting current and future African leaders to establish long-term ties that will benefit its strategic interests.
Russian reputation-building campaigns involve circulating propaganda through various media, from social and state-funded to proxy sources in foreign news outlets. The Kremlin infiltrates and controls the information space by buying local media outlets or inserting Russian state-owned television channels RT and Sputnik in-country. Establishing mass media control allows Russia to shape the citizenry’s impressions of current events. The resulting de-democratization of information creates a similar effect to that of Russia’s social media campaigns: the Kremlin can develop and disseminate narratives not immediately identifiable as foreign propaganda and impose them onto a population.
Russia sees sidelining Western influence in Africa as integral to its campaign of upending the international order led by the United States. Using an ad-hoc blend of private military companies, non-governmental organizations, and local agents to carry its messages, Russia can launder narratives through the information ecosystem that paint the West as exploitative interventionist actors, and Moscow as a benevolent partner engaging with Africa on mutually beneficial terms. Common tactics include criticizing U.S. and French security assistance efforts and praising Russia’s ability to serve as a mediator and counter-terrorism partner despite limited evidence to support its effectiveness at either.
In addition to propagandizing, Russia uses its “franchised” proxies—local troll farms established by Russian operatives and affiliates—to influence domestic politics in Africa, often as a means to court political elites and secure support for extracting resources and building Russian military bases. In October 2019, researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory together with social media analytics firm, Graphika, uncovered Russian-linked information operations aimed at influencing the politics and public discourse of eight African countries. Their joint report shows how using local trolls to augment mass and social media campaigns pays dividends allowing Russia to deploy effective, low-cost operations to more easily evade detection and obviate the need to conduct the operations within its own borders.
Russia has demonstrated a preference for autocratic or authoritarian-leaning political leaders and regimes that often coexist with a controlled information and media space. For instance, in 2019, Russia orchestrated information operations in Sudan aimed at delegitimizing protestors in Khartoum and Moscow. Private researchers found that Prigozhin-linked proxies set up a Facebook page disguised as a local news network and frequently re-shared Sputnik articles. The proxies, who were attempting to preserve President Omar al-Bashir’s leadership against popular opposition, also recommended public messaging themes to the regime and security responses to demonstrations. Though al-Bashir was deposed in April 2019, Russia’s influence campaign in Sudan corresponded to interests in licensing for gold mines and military basing in Port Sudan on the Red Sea. For Russia, relationship building, with later economic and security agreements in mind, supersede loyalty to a particular candidate or political platform.
Moscow has demonstrated this ideological flexibility in its extensive electioneering and propaganda efforts in the Central African Republic, Libya, Madagascar, and Mozambique, among others. The Kremlin seizes upon the information space as a means to gain political allies and threaten U.S. and French interests, even if it only manages to hijack African social and political discourse in the short term or on a particular issue. To this end, Russian state-backed media outlets offer training courses on social media and the Kremlin sends “spin doctors” or propaganda specialists overseas to African clients. These impermanent and relatively agile information operations are ideal for producing maximum effect on African states with minimum effort.
Growing Threat to Democracy
Russia’s efforts to infiltrate the information space in Africa, brought to the fore with its most recent attempt to influence the 2020 U.S. election, will likely grow in scale and sophistication. In the past few years, such campaigns have enabled the Kremlin to dictate the terms of the truth and to degrade democratic discourse, which directly undermines U.S. stated interests in the region, namely its commitment to strengthening democratic progress and peace. These campaigns draw Africa into the spotlight as a battlefield where Russia can hone its weaponization of the information space against the United States and its allies. Just as the Soviet Union did during the Cold War, Russia perceives the African information environment as permissive and less monitored, a place where it can experiment with tactics to influence political processes, fan the flames of social unrest, and deflect culpability. The threat to Africa, however, is acute. Russian information operations could fuel conflict in states prone to election violence, could destabilize governments and economies, and further erode democratic gains across the continent.
The United States and its allies can mitigate this risk by bolstering the African information environment against Russian exploitation. Specifically, the West can double down on its support for African nations and leaders working to strengthen election integrity and public discourse and to preserve independent and diverse media. Also, establishing the means for greater collaboration between governments, civil society, and tech companies to expose and raise awarenessabout Russian disinformation can increase societal resilience against it. Countering Russia’s subversive activities in the information environment will not only stymy its attempt to broker political, economic, and security deals across the continent, but promote the endurance of democratic institutions at home and abroad.
Miriam Roday is a researcher in the Joint Advanced Warfighting Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses with a focus on digital disinformation, Russia, and transatlantic security.
Sarah Daly is an adjunct researcher in the Intelligence Analysis Division at the Institute for Defense Analyses with a focus on geopolitical and security developments in Africa.
The views, opinions, and findings expressed in this paper should not be construed as representing the official position of the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.