Russian-Backed Trolls Are Targeting a New Election

  • In World
  • 2020-12-22 10:00:08Z
  • By The Daily Beast

This is part two of a Daily Beast series on Russian disinformation in the Central African Republic. Our previous installment revealed how Russia uses mercenaries to intimidate anyone looking into its activities in the country.

Russian-linked trolls are waging disinformation warfare in multiple African nations, seeking to discredit the West and boost pro-Russia candidates in important elections, an investigation by The Daily Beast can reveal.

The campaign is part of a larger push for Russian economic and military influence in Africa, which includes mercenary boots on the ground in places like the Central African Republic (CAR), and a network of social media accounts that circulate wild conspiracy theories and defend Russian interests on the continent.

One such account is now furiously trying to undermine the presidential election in CAR, which is slated for the end of December.

How Russian Disinformation Protects Violent Wagner Group Mercenaries in Africa

In May, CAR's President Faustin-Archange Touadera and his ruling party used the coronavirus pandemic to seek to extend the terms of the president and lawmakers through a constitutional amendment citing force majeure, and they declared that elections could not take place this year as the constitution demands. In the process, according to a report published in October by Washington-based The Sentry, the president's circle paid nearly 300 million CFA francs (approximately $514,000) in bribes to lawmakers supporting the plan. Lawmakers backing the plan reportedly received 2.5 million CFA francs-equivalent to $4,300-each.

The Constitutional Court ultimately rejected the proposal, at which point allegations of a massive conspiracy against Touadera began to be amplified by individuals notorious for spreading pro-Russia narratives on WhatsApp. One part of the conspiracy accuses France-the former colonial power in CAR and a Russian rival in the region-of tarnishing Touadera's image so as to pave the way for the victory of the main opposition candidate, Karim Meckassoua. This conspiracy theory, which includes claims that France is planning to overthrow Touadera, has been spreading like wildfire in the African nation.

"There's another viral WhatsApp message that claims France is the main sponsor of [anti-Touadera rebel] fighters," says Louis Kottoy, a CAR freelance journalist, who added that about a dozen anti-French messages have been forward to him via WhatsApp since the court rejected the proposal to amend the constitution on June 5. "Most of these WhatsApp posts, including the video showing Bello and Issa, emanate from someone who wants to be known as 'Eye of CAR.'"

""Eye of CAR' has become a name many people want to trust," said Kottoy. "People from all walks of life, from politicians to civil servants, have been sharing whatever is created on WhatsApp by this name, helping it gain popularity and portraying whoever is behind it as credible."

The WhatsApp profile for Eye of CAR has a Russian phone number but no profile photo. Eye of CAR's messages are often posted to a WhatsApp group called "One Africa, One Success (OAOS)," a platform that-as The Daily Beast previously revealed-is made up of about 80 past and present Russian-based students of African origin whose members often post messages on the group discrediting Western politicians.

In the evening of June 5, the day CAR's Constitutional Court ruled against Touadera's plan to amend the constitution and postpone this December's presidential election, a message from 'Eye of Car,' which accused the court's judges of receiving a €90,000 ($100,000) bribe from France to reject the amendment, was posted to "One Africa, One Success."

The amount seemed to reference a public aid package to CAR that France had announced a day before the Constitutional Court ruled against extending Touadera's tenure.

"The message about France paying a bribe [to the Constitutional Court] was the first I ever saw from 'Eye of CAR,'" said a Nigerian student in the group, who prefers to be identified by his nickname, Coby. "Virtually everyone who replied to the message condemned the alleged bribe, and that's an indication that they believe what was posted."

Supporters of incumbent president Faustin Archange Touadera gather during his opening campaign rally for the presidential election in Bangui, on December 12 2020.
Supporters of incumbent president Faustin Archange Touadera gather during his opening campaign rally for the presidential election in Bangui, on December 12 2020.  

Within 24 hours of being posted to "One Africa, One Success," the bribery conspiracy theory had been widely shared across the Central African Republic.

Over the past few years, Russia has been playing an increasingly prominent role in the restive nation, which has been in the crosshairs of a violent civil war since 2013. That year, a mainly Muslim rebel alliance toppled the government, setting off a Christian backlash and ethnic cleansing of the country's Muslim minority. When Touadera took power in 2016, he welcomed Russia into a vacuum created by withdrawing French troops. Russia agreed to provide military training in exchange for the chance to explore the country's rich natural resources, including its valuable gold and diamond mines.

Since then, as The Daily Beast reported, Russian mercenaries have waged a campaign of intimidation against locals in restive regions, and against journalists seeking information about Russia's activities in the country; in 2018, three Russian journalists were killed as they tried to investigate the activities of the Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenary group at the Ndassima gold mine, and reporters who have tried to follow up on the slayings have been attacked and warned to stop making trouble. The Wagner group has been linked by U.S. officials to Russian President Vladimir Putin's close friend Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was identified in the Mueller Report as the moneyman behind a notorious internet troll factory that targeted the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

A year ago, Facebook suspended networks of Russian internet accounts aimed at covertly influencing events in a number of African countries after research by the company, alongside internet specialists at Stanford University, identified opinion-forming operations on the social media site linked to Prigozhin. The trolls masked themselves by using local nationals and they targeted CAR, Madagascar, Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya.

Last week, Facebook said it had suspended three networks totaling almost 500 accounts and pages for so-called "coordinated inauthentic behavior" that primarily targeted CAR. One network was linked to "individuals associated with French military" who pushed pro-French messages before making "claims of potential Russian interference in the election" that takes place on December 27 and "criticism of Russia's involvement" in the country, while the other two had connections to Prigozhin-linked entities that attempted to promote Russian diplomatic and business interests, as well as the candidacy of Touadera in the forthcoming presidential election. (Although Facebook investigators traced the French accounts to "individuals associated with French military," the company's head of security policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, said in a statement that "we did not see evidence that the French military itself directed the activity." A New York City social media analysis firm, Graphika, which investigated the accounts with Facebook, also did not find evidence of direct French government or military involvement in the disinformation campaign.)

Earlier this year, an effort by Prigozhin-funded IRA to use "troll factories" in Nigeria and Ghana to push divisive messages onto social media and inflame racial tensions in the United States ahead of the U.S. presidential election was revealed by a detailed CNN report that drew heavily on research by two professors at Clemson University. The Daily Beast also exposed how a Russian-linked troll factory used young men and women in two West African nations to spread disinformation about United States Democrats and amplify racial issues in America with the aim of instigating social unrest.

In CAR, the Russians also control much of the news that's disseminated in the country. Radio Lengo Songo, a local radio station, was created two years ago by the Prigozhin-linked Lobaye Invest and the Russian embassy. Both have co-sponsored a local soccer tournament and staged a "Miss Centrafrique" beauty pageant. CAR government officials have also reportedly distributed free newspapers containing articles that promote issues that concern Russia.

But it's mostly on WhatsApp that pro-Russian and anti-French narratives have been shared regularly, especially as campaigns gather steam for CAR's December's presidential election. These messages seek to create widespread hatred towards France and are able to circulate even in places where internet penetration is low. (France has consistently offered assistance to CAR, including 1,400 assault rifles delivered in December 2018 and $154 million it gives annually in development aid for the country; it is the only European Union country with an embassy in the capital, Bangui.)

President Touadera, CAR’s Defense Minister Marie-Noelle Koyara and the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy, Victor Tokmakov, attend the training of the Central African Armed Forces in Berengo on August 4, 2018.
President Touadera, CAR’s Defense Minister Marie-Noelle Koyara and the First Secretary of the Russian Embassy, Victor Tokmakov, attend the training of the Central African Armed Forces in Berengo on August 4, 2018.  

Earlier this month, a six-second video began to circulate on WhatsApp showing two traders from the southern town of Bambari being interrogated by Russian mercenaries at the local hospital in January 2019. It showed the Russians accusing the traders, Bello and Issa, of being rebels spying on Russian soldiers for France-but it didn't show the accused men responding to the allegations, as the short clip ended just as one of them was about to speak. The video is just one of many anti-French propaganda messages shared on WhatsApp that are going viral in CAR.

"People are now looking at us as spies for France," said Bello. "The video paints a very false narrative of what actually happened on that day."

The release of the deceptive video-which was shot 22 months ago-so close to the presidential election appears to be a ploy by pro-Russian trolls to paint a picture that France was trying to dig up dirt about allies of Touadera and, as Issa puts it, "make it appear as if militants are being used to target people working for the president."

The "One Africa, One Success" group, which has amplified pro-Russian disinformation, describes itself on WhatsApp as a platform for like-minded African students looking to discuss issues about their continent and "offer solutions to Africa's unique problems." But, in reality, posts by many of the platform's participants have had very little to do with the real problems facing Africa. Instead they are filled with misleading content: from disinformation about the coronavirus to messages that promote QAnon, the conspiracy theory that posits that top U.S. Democrats and persons disliked by QAnon fans are cannibal-pedophiles who will soon be arrested and executed by U.S. President Donald Trump in an event they know as "the Storm."

These Students Got Hired to Spread Disinfo About Democrats

"There's very little posted to that group that makes sense," said Coby, who was added to the group in February. "What you often see are messages that accuse the U.S. and some other Western countries of having evil intentions for Africa."

Messages on the platform push disturbing narratives. One claims COVID-19 was created by U.S. Democrats specifically to destabilize the Trump administration, and that medical solutions aimed at containing the disease, including vaccines, are intended to decimate Africa's population.

Another conspiracy-drawn from QAnon's playbook-claims a U.S. government agent who has access to classified information involving the Trump administration and its American opponents had found that "there is a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who rule and control almost everything in the world." It claims that these pedophiles are Americans who exploit Black people, including children in West Africa, and brutalize African Americans using law-enforcement agents. To give itself the veneer of credibility, the conspiracy references a study last year by the African Child Policy Forum which revealed that the continent is witnessing a rise in child sexual exploitation, with foreigners targeting kids in North Africa and West Africa. This, the trolls claim, is proof that Satan-worshipping Democrat pedophiles are targeting the continent's children.

On the same day these QAnon-linked conspiracies appeared on the "One Africa, One Success," they were also emailed to multiple journalists in Nigeria, including those at its top private radio stations, via the Russian-owned Yandex Mail account of a man known as Bill Gyado. In November, The Daily Beast exposed Gyado as an operative in a West African troll factory with Russian connections that aimed to spread disinformation about U.S. Democrats ahead of the 2020 elections.

Putin's Man in the Central African Republic: Is Valery Zakharov at the Heart of Russian Skulduggery?

Posts by members of the "One Africa, One Success" group usually target the same African countries-such as Libya, CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan-that have been spammed by social media accounts linked to Prigozhin. Those Prigozhin-linked accounts were deactivated last year by Facebook after they tried to meddle in political campaigns in the above-named countries, along with Madagascar, Mozambique, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon.

In one October post regarding Sudan-a country where deceptive Facebook pages set up by the Russians for local outlets Radio Africa and Sudan Daily were used in 2019 to repost articles critical of the West from Russia's state-owned Sputnik news organization-a "One Africa, One Success" user accused U.S. Democrats and France of trying to sabotage the Sudanese government's normalization of relations with Israel, which was brokered by the Trump administration.

In another post the same month about Mozambique, where Russia began a Facebook operation a few weeks before the country's 2019 presidential election to support the incumbent president and dent the image of the opposition, a member of "One Africa, One Success" claimed that France was "funding" rebel groups in CAR that in turn were supplying ammunitions to the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), which operates in Mozambique. The message somehow found its way to WhatsApp users in Mozambique, who kept forwarding it to their contacts.

"Of late, we've been receiving these kinds of messages on WhatsApp and so I was not surprised when I saw this one about weapons used by terrorists coming from militants sponsored by France," Alex Camacho, an environmental activist in the Mozambican mining town of Tete, told The Daily Beast. "Many of us have even started to believe what the messages say."

"One Africa, One Success" has also been used as a platform to promote Russian interests in Madagascar, where President Andry Rajoelina, a 45-year-old media entrepreneur, was elected in 2018 with-as The New York Times reported-some help from Putin.

One post on June 27 praised Russia's Ferrum Mining, a St. Petersburg company tied to Prigozhin and currently carrying out mining operations in Madagascar, for investing $16 million in a local company, "thereby creating jobs for thousands of people" in the country. Another post on the same day from a different member of the "One Africa, One Success" group mocked U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel-who introduced legislation to expand sanctions against Prigozhin-for losing June's New York Democratic primary to newcomer Jamaal Bowman, saying it was payback for "lying" about the Russian oligarch.

The following day, a website called Afrique Panorama-another Prigozhin-funded project-published an article attributing Engel's defeat to the legislation he introduced against Prigozhin, claiming it "provoked a strongly negative reaction among American voters." But that was after the initial WhatsApp post appeared on "One Africa, One Success," and was then widely shared across Africa's biggest island.

"I remember reading the Afrique Panorama article and saying, 'I saw something like this on WhatsApp yesterday,'" Thierry Pam, a French freelance journalist living in Madagascar, told The Daily Beast. "Oftentimes, conspiracy theories you see on WhatsApp are picked up by the media in Madagascar."

Just as in the Mozambique example, the media post that was forwarded to Pam by a close contact in Madagascar contained exactly the same words as those that appeared on the "One Africa, One Success" platform-another sign that the WhatsApp group may be the source of some of the conspiracy theories and misinformation that's pushed in countries where Prigozhin's operations are taking place.

But even on the "One Africa, One Sucess" platform, it's hard to know the true identity of the trolls.

"The people mostly posting these conspiracy theories and misinformation don't have display photos," said Coby, who left the group this month. "The administrators kept adding people who never introduced themselves to members but kept posting toxic messages and I don't want to be in that kind of environment."

Like 'Eye of CAR,' other members of the "One Africa, One Sucess" group who posted conspiracy theories and misinformation about the West had Russian phone numbers-and none agreed to speak to The Daily Beast when contacted.

But their activities show campaigns on messaging services like WhatsApp-with end-to-end encryption of text, voice, and video communications-that create room for fake stories and conspiracy theories difficult to check.

"In addition," says Pam, "there are millions of Africans using WhatsApp and the Russians are happy to be where the numbers are."

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