Mar 12, 2020 - Politics & Policy

New reports find Russian meddling coming via Africa ahead of 2020

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

A new Russian disinformation campaign targeting Americans on social media operated through satellite outfits in Ghana and Nigeria, according to new reports from CNN and Graphika, in collaboration with Facebook and professors at Clemson University.

Why it matters: Russian efforts to meddle in this year's U.S. elections are evolving in an attempt to avoid detection. In 2016, most state-backed misinformation campaigns went through St. Petersburg. Now, the Kremlin is changing course.

Details: According to the report, hundreds of accounts run by Ghanaian trolls created posts in English aimed at sowing division among U.S. citizens.

  • The Ghanaian fraudsters, mostly in their 20s, were instructed to time the posts for optimal U.S. hours. Many of their posts, like Russian operations in 2016, focused on driving division among the races, as well as LGTBQ issues and police brutality.
  • The trolls communicated via the encrypted app Telegram, which CNN notes isn't normally used in Ghana.
  • The operation's headquarters were in a compound near the Ghanaian capital, Accra. It was rented by a small nonprofit group that called itself Eliminating Barriers for the Liberation of Africa (EBLA). Facebook's intelligence suggests that EBLA was run by a Ghanian man living in Russia in conjunction with the Kremlin.

Between the lines: Facebook and Twitter were already looking into some of the troll accounts when CNN notified the two companies of its investigation.

  • The probe found that the group had extended its activities to Nigeria, and was beginning to try to advertise positions in the U.S. CNN found online job postings for misinformation shops in Nigeria and even Charleston, South Carolina.

By the numbers: More than 200 accounts were created by the Ghanaian trolls — the vast majority in the second half of 2019, per CNN.

  • Facebook said in a statement Thursday it had removed 49 accounts, 69 Pages and 85 Instagram accounts. It said thousands of U.S.-based accounts followed the Ghanian fraudsters' accounts on Facebook and Instagram.
  • Twitter said it had removed 71 accounts that had 68,000 followers.

The big picture: The report speaks to a growing trend of bad actors relying on vulnerable populations in Africa to deploy misinformation campaigns. In October, Facebook said it took down Russian misinformation campaigns that were targeting people in eight African countries.

  • CNN found last summer that Russia had begun to develop an influence operation in the Central African Republic.

Go deeper: 2020 misinformation threats extend beyond Russia

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