Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues, released by members of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee looking into Russia's interference in the 2016 U.S. election
Photo: Jon Elswick/AP
Photo: Jon Elswick/AP

Russia tests new disinformation tactics in Africa to expand influence

Facebook campaign at times larger than US effort in 2016, Stanford researchers say

Russia has been testing new disinformation tactics in an enormous Facebook campaign in parts of Africa, as part of an evolution of its manipulation techniques before the 2020 U.S. presidential election. 

Facebook said Wednesday it removed three Russian-backed influence networks on its site that were aimed at African countries including Mozambique, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya. The company said the online networks were linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch who was indicted by the United States and accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election. 

Unlike past influence campaigns from Russia, the networks targeted several countries through Arabic-language posts, according to the Stanford Internet Observatory, which collaborated with Facebook to unravel the effort. Some of the posts promoted Russian policies, while others criticized French and American policies in Africa. Russians also worked with locals in the African countries to set up Facebook accounts that were disguised as authentic to avoid detection. 

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The effort was at times larger in volume than what the Russians deployed in the United States in 2016. While the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency posted on Facebook 2,442 times a month on average in 2016, one of the networks in northern and central Africa posted 8,900 times in October alone, according to the Stanford researchers. 

“They are trying to make it harder for us and civil society to try and detect their operations,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, of the Russian actions. 

The campaign underlined how Russia is continuing to aggressively try different disinformation techniques, even as it has come under scrutiny for its online interference methods. By spreading the use of its tactics to a region that is less closely monitored than the United States and Europe, researchers said Russia appeared to be trying to expand its sphere of influence in Africa, where it has started distributing propaganda and building a political infrastructure. 

Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former Facebook executive, said it was highly likely that Russian groups were already using the same model of working with locals in the United States to post inflammatory messages on Facebook. 

In all, the social network said it took down 66 accounts, 83 pages, 11 groups and 12 Instagram accounts related to the Russian campaign. Gleicher said hundreds of thousands of Facebook accounts followed the pages, groups and Instagram accounts.

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