Washington Post | Facebook says the oligarch behind the Internet Research Agency is involved.
In October, the Russian government hosted the first Russia-Africa Summit. More than 40 African heads of state arrived in Sochi to “identify new areas and forms of cooperation,” as Vladimir Putin noted in his greeting to participants.
A week later, Facebook announced that it had removed three networks of pages and accounts engaged in a long-term influence operation spanning eight African countries. Facebook, which had proactively identified a majority of the pages, attributed this operation to companies run by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a man with close ties to Putin. Prigozhin is also the Russian oligarch U.S. authorities accused of bankrolling the Internet Research Agency — which the New York Times referred to as the “notorious Russian troll factory.”
Our team at the Stanford Internet Observatory worked with Facebook to identify and analyze these materials. As we show in a recent white paper, it is no accident that, as Russia sought to increase its influence in Africa, Prigozhin was running influence operations there. Here’s what we found.
This was a big operation
The operation targeted Libya, Sudan, Madagascar, the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Congo, Ivory Coast and Cameroon. We analyzed the networks targeting the first six of these countries — an investigation involving 73 Facebook pages and seven Instagram accounts. These pages had “likes” from more than 1.7 million accounts, though some of these likes are probably from the same account. The accounts posted at a high rate — with over 8,900 posts in October alone.
There were patterns, and familiar tactics
We saw consistent tactics across these Facebook pages. Some of these tactics were familiar to those who have studied Internet Research Agency activity: pages set up to resemble local news sources, posts duplicated and cross-posted to amplify engagement, and attempts to leverage original, country-specific memes to damage opposition leaders and Russia’s rivals on the continent, such as France.
But other tactics were novel. At times, the Russian disinformation companies employed local citizens as content creators, making it more difficult to trace pages back to their origin. And there were franchise-like centers — the two largest were in Egypt and Madagascar — directing teams of page administrators who produced steady streams of local-language content.