Researchers from Stanford Internet Observatory uncovered clusters of inauthentic activity focusing on Libya with the help of reporting by the Daily Beast and documentation from an investigative project by the Dossier Center. Facebook responded to these findings with even more information, and eventually the Central African Republic, Congo, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Cameroon and Ivory Coast were all identified as targets of the campaign.
Russia, it appears, leveraged its physical presence through a mercenary organization called the Wagner Group with reported connections to Russian military intelligence to insert itself smack in the center of these nations’ cyberscapes. Much of what emerged resembles what the United States has seen from Moscow, including country-specific memes made up out of whole cloth and propaganda purveyors posing as legitimate news websites. Other tactics seem tailored to the affected countries’ media environments. The most salient is what experts refer to as franchising of disinformation drives: Russia recruits local operators to do its job under the guise of organic activity.
These incursions are especially hard to detect because they originate domestically, because their attunement to cultural context makes them appear authentic and because the actors involved sometimes even have local bona fides. Eighteen of the 22 Sudanese pages identified, for example, were associated with Instagram accounts that belonged to Sudanese citizens, many of whom identified themselves as reporters or photographers.
What’s bad news for Africa could be better news for the United States. Moscow may well have adjusted its strategy away from cheaper campaigns run entirely from St. Petersburg, because those could no longer evade platforms’ increasingly aggressive and advanced detection. That adjustment, however, is less likely to have legs in a country with a robust journalistic tradition and a government that wants to root out disinformation rather than help it along. Russia tried the outsourcing trick in Ukraine, and many recruits ended up arrested — because law enforcement was on the lookout.
Last week’s takedowns show that Russia’s goals are global while its tactics are local. The IRA has innovated in a manner tailored to its African audience; a separate set of removals last month revealed it is innovating in a manner tailored to its American audience, too. That makes the task confronting those committed to fighting disinformation more difficult. We wouldn’t have learned this lesson, though, if vigilant monitors hadn’t struck this latest blow.