US looks to expose Russian propaganda in Africa

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Wednesday, 25 May 2022 10:47

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestures as he speaks during a news conference after his meeting with U.S President Joe Biden at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland June 16, 2021. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

The State Department's counter-propaganda arm has released its first-ever report on Russian disinformation in Africa as the Joe Biden administration looks to expose the Kremlin following the invasion of Ukraine.

The Global Engagement Centre, which leads and coordinates US efforts to “recognise, understand, expose, and counter foreign propaganda and disinformation”, released a three-page bulletin on Russian activities on 24 May. The report focuses particularly on Mali and other Sahel countries where the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group of mercenaries operates.

“Russia deploys disinformation across different continents for varied objectives, often working through tested proxies to support Kremlin foreign policy objectives indirectly, which provides a level of deniability,” the report states. “In some parts of Africa – including, most recently, Mali – Kremlin-linked proxies exploit instability to gain influence, particularly through disinformation and the deployment of the Wagner Group forces.”

A spokesperson for the State Department describes the report as “part of the State Department’s overall public exposure efforts to counter Russian disinformation”.

“We are releasing these substantive products to the public to counter Russia’s false narratives and propaganda with reporting that shines the light on Kremlin lies,” the spokesperson tells The Africa Report. “This bulletin is our first on Russia’s disinformation efforts in Africa.”

Evolving target

The Global Engagement Centre was created under President Barack Obama in March 2016. Its original mission was to contest the “information battlespace” with the Islamic State and “break the recruiting efforts of violent extremists abroad”, according to its first coordinator, Michael Lumpkin.

Disinformation is one of the Kremlin’s most important and far-reaching weapons

Housed at the State Department, the interagency organisation also draws on staff from the departments of Defence, Treasury, Justice and Homeland Security as well as the Intelligence Community and the US Agency for International Development. Its mandate: to coordinate, integrate, and synchronise government-wide communications with foreign audiences to counter disinformation campaigns.

Over the years its mission has evolved, with Russia emerging as a core concern over the past couple of years.

Since January 2020, the centre has notably issued a slew of reports on Russian chemical and biological weapons disinformation in Ukraine, featured the Kremlin’s top propagandists and denounced the Russian state-owned and state-directed media RT and Sputnik.

“Disinformation is one of the Kremlin’s most important and far-reaching weapons,” the Global Engagement Centre says at the top of its web page. “Russia has operationalised the concept of perpetual adversarial competition in the information environment by encouraging the development of a disinformation and propaganda ecosystem.”

The new report on Africa comes as the Biden administration has been lobbying African countries to join the West in denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Washington not only hopes to see the continent defend the rules-based international order but is just as keen to make sure that the surge in food, fuel and fertiliser prices that has devastated Africa gets blamed on Moscow rather than its own sanctions campaign.

“The impact on Africa of this conflict [is] a direct result of this war, and Putin is to blame,” Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland tells The Africa Report in an exclusive interview.

Focus on Wagner

The new report is almost entirely devoted to the Wagner Group and its manager and financier, oligarch and President Vladimir Putin ally Yevgeniy Prigozhin.

The Treasury Department sanctioned Prigozhin in 2019 for his alleged role in seeking to influence the 2018 midterm elections through his Russian troll farm, the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

FBI wanted poster of Yevgeniy Prigozhin
The United States announced on March 3, 2022 they were imposing sanctions against Russian oligarchs, including Yevgeniy Prigozhin (seen in an FBI poster), as it targeted Russia’s super-rich and others close to President Vladimir Putin, further ratcheting up financial pressure over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. FBI/Handout via REUTERS.

More sanctions have followed, most recently in March when the Biden administration targeted Prigozhin and his family as part of its bid to turn key oligarchs against the Ukraine war.

The Global Engagement Centre says Wagner’s intervention in Mali has been marked by false narratives since the very beginning.

“Pitching themselves as able to counter the terrorist threat, Wagner Group forces deployed to Mali in December 2021 amid a barrage of targeted disinformation to hide its arrival and activities,” the US report says.

Russia’s intensified application of disinformation and the use of the Wagner Group across Africa has spread a trail of lies and human rights abuses

The group is accused of using a network of Facebook pages to promote Russia as an “alternative” to France and the West in Mali while encouraging the postponement of local elections. Since then, the State Department says, Russia has deployed its propaganda weapons to deflect responsibility for the Wagner Group’s alleged involvement in the massacre of at least 300 civilians in the village of Mourah in central Mali while concocting a fake video purporting to show dug up bodies near a former French base outside the Malian village of Gossi.

Beyond Mali, the State Department points to takedown notices on Twitter and Facebook that allegedly exposed IRA efforts to:

  • trick journalists in Nigeria, Cameroon, The Gambia, Zimbabwe and the Republic of Congo into publishing articles on its behalf;
  • introduce a pro-Russia viewpoint in the Central African Republic (CAR)’s political discourse; and
  • promote Russia and denounce French foreign policy in CAR, Madagascar, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa and the CAR diaspora in France.

“Russia’s intensified application of disinformation and the use of the Wagner Group across Africa has spread a trail of lies and human rights abuses,” the State Department bulletin says. “Despite US, EU, and UK sanctions and exposure of Prigozhin-linked entities that spread disinformation, these actors continue operating in Africa, exploiting turbulent situations through disinformation to sway public support for the Russian government to expand its influence.”

Beyond Russia

Idayat Hassan, the director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Nigeria, welcomes the Global Engagement Centre’s latest report.

“We need to actually pay more attention to the role disinformation is actually playing on the continent, and how it’s actually stealing the hope of citizens and dampening trust in democracy as well,” says Hassan, who co-authored the November 2021 article titled Russian Disinformation Is Taking Hold in Africa.

She worries that disinformation is increasingly finding its way offline, not only in newspaper and broadcast reports, but also in rallies in places like Mali and CAR where Russian flags are now commonplace. She says not only are a “multitude of actors” engaged in disinformation in Africa besides Russia, including countries such as China and Turkey, but also local African nations and groups that are taking a page from Moscow’s playbook to launch their own assaults on the truth.

Although Africa’s reduced reliance on Western narratives isn’t inherently a bad thing, Hassan worries that the continent risks aligning itself with illiberal actors. At the same time, the rise of information warfare presents real risks of further destabilising the region.

What’s needed, she says, is a comprehensive approach that avoids once again turning Africa into a battlefield where great power rivalries play out, this time in the information space.

“The emphasis [should be] to ensure that actions are taken in such a manner that it is not viewed as a geopolitical warfare,” Hassan says. “I think we need a kind of new global order, addressing disinformation… It’s not just about Russia. There is actually a coalition of actors — from nation-states, to businesses, to individuals — and we just have to do something to address what the influence industry currently looks like, especially if we want to promote democracy and guarantee human rights.”

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