As part of its efforts to dismantle disinformation tactics carried out by foreign governments, Facebook unveiled three Russian-backed influence networks that were operating from its platform. This time, the accounts were working toward influencing 4 African countries, Cameroon, Mozambique, Libya, and Sudan.
But these Russian tactics are not new. In the past, this country was also publicly linked to interfering with the 2016 US presidential election. And malicious tactics were not the only similarity because Facebook accounts were also linked to the same Russian oligarch who was allegedly involved in the manipulative actions for that election, named Yevgeny Prigozhin.
Conversely, the Stanford Internet Observatory, which joined efforts with Facebook on this investigation, explained that Russia used Facebook accounts that belonged to African residents to make them pass as authentic.
The content was posted in the Arabic language, and whilst they talked negatively about American and French policies in African countries, other posts praised Russian policies. A clear example was the pseudo-news platform known as Sudan Daily that was regularly posting information sourced from the Russian Sputnik news agency.
Facebook´s chief of cybersecurity policy, Nathaniel Gleicher, complained that Russian tactics are becoming harder every day to get detected. These comments were originated by the more significant amount of posts published by one of the African´s networks that reached 8,900 during October. When comparing to the tactics of the year 2016, these numbers are alarming because that year the average was only 2,442 per month.
Those numbers prove that Russia is not afraid to try new and more aggressive disinformation techniques. Despite that the country´s digital tactics are always closely followed, it doesn´t seem to de-escalate its efforts to interfere with growing its influence in the African continent. Obviously, Russia is taking advantage of the low interest and monitoring efforts of the United States of America and European countries. And these are not the only actions because Russia already distributes propaganda and has been building political infrastructure there.
From the Stanford Internet Observatory, Alex Stamos also explained that these tactics might have serious consequences for the US 2020 presidential elections. That is because it might be the same model that they would seek to implement there. In other words, Russia would work closely with Americans to create local Facebook accounts but operated from Russia.
For Facebook, the panorama is not getting any easier. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, defends the freedom of speech and allows politicians to publish whatever they want in their ads. But this has lead US presidential candidates, lawmakers, and Facebook´s employees to attack and criticize the way he handles political advertising.
The African continent is not the first target of Russia to apply this method because, during the 2019 presidential campaign of Ukraine, a Russian Agent was caught in March trying to find local owners of Facebook who were willing to sell or rent them out.
However, according to Facebook and Stanford Researchers, Africa is the first proven case where Russian tactics penetrated local parties with an outsourcing strategy. And they did it in several countries at once by using their own residents who were willing to post fake content on behalf of Russia. In fact, they went even further by hiring media organizations to act the same way.
It hasn´t been easy to determine when Russia began its disinformation activities due that the accounts already existed long before they started to use them. However, a suspicious increase in Facebook ads that reached $87,000 might give a clue on when it all began.
At first, it seemed that the networks´ news focused their efforts on offering information about the elections in Madagascar and Mozambique. Also, to increase the number of followers, they used engaging live videos, surveys, and Google forms. The final goal was to redirect Facebook users to encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp to make them feel safer to talk, interact, and offer information.
But, according to Stanford researchers, the pages were not as well organized as they should have been. As a consequence, you could see a discrepancy between the location of the news network and the location of its managers and administrators.
One example is a group of pages that belonged to a Libyan news organization that used to post about that country, but its page administrators were in other countries such as Germany, Egypt or the Netherlands. Besides, some pages suddenly increased their number of followers along with other suspicious behaviors.
Mr. Nathaniel Gleicher from Facebook also informed that Russians hijacked accounts from real people and repurposed them. Unfortunately, Facebook hasn’t fully developed its automated system for detecting these fraudulent accounts. As a result, the social network can´t identify all cases and needs to include its investigative team to locate them.
Although Facebook was able to associate Russian campaigns with Mr. Prigozhin, it decided not to provide information on how he controlled the Internet Research Agency of Russia.
In the end, Facebook informed that it shut down 83 pages, 66 accounts, 11 groups, and even 12 Instagram accounts. And, according to Mr. Gleicher, they had thousands of Facebook and Instagram followers.
As Russia advances with its campaigns, it is said that this country uses this method as “the new KGB playbook for foreign influence”. In this sense, Ben Nimmo, who is chief of investigations at Graphika, social media analytics company, referred to this situation as the keystone that supports a series of Russia´s dark operations to expand its presence in Africa.