Russia, Facebook, politics and Africa

As the 2020 race for the American presidency heats up, so does the disinfo threat

Welcome back to another edition of the “From Russia With Milanewsletter. Apologies for the short hiatus in newsletter appearances to your inbox — I recently started a new position with CNN’s New Day*, so I’ve been adjusting to the move to the Big Apple and the sleep schedule of an ~a.m. newser~. Thanks for hanging in there! Let’s get back to covering Eastern Europe through the lens of journalism and the media industry.

The presidential race for 2020 heats up and exposes some major concerns with big tech’s influence in politics, especially in the context of Russian interference on Facebook (er, sorry — FACEBOOK) leading up to the 2016 election. So what’s going on with disinformation these days?

Testing out influence tactics on African countries

According to this New York Times piece, as the 2020 race gains traction, Russia has been testing out disinformation tactics in parts of Africa.

The Radio Africa Facebook page, which masqueraded as a news page in Sudan, was part of a Russian-backed influence network in central and northern Africa.

Here is an example of a Facebook page designed to look like a news page (“Radio Africa” seems to be giving off some “Radio Free Europe” vibes), which was part of a Russian-backed influence network in central and northern Africa.

There were four of these state-backed campaigns (three from Iran, one of which started in Russia) that Facebook said it recently removed, but according to this article, the engagement with the pages suggests the tactics were more frequently deployed:

The effort was at times larger in volume than what the Russians deployed in the United States in 2016. While the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency posted on Facebook 2,442 times a month on average in 2016, one of the networks in Africa posted 8,900 times in October alone, according to the Stanford researchers.

To further combat trolls seeking to influence politics after 2016, Facebook has “set up war rooms and hired more security experts to head off foreign interference in elections.”

Also —> Russia stepping up efforts to shield hackers from extradition to the U.S.

The WSJ reports this week that the Kremlin is “resort[ing] to prisoner swaps and coercion to keep potential cyber operatives out of U.S. hands.”

“Putin’s chef”: A recipe for disinformation?

The pages targeting numerous African countries were all linked to a man dubbed by Russian media as “Putin’s chef” — Yevgeny Prigozhin. According to CNN, he was sanctioned by the U.S. for funding the Internet Research Agency that U.S. prosecutors allege meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

It's part of a wider pivot to Africa by the Kremlin. Facebook's takedown came just days after President Vladimir Putin's lavish reception at a summit for 54 African countries in the Russian resort town of Sochi.

Facebook said the operation, partially run from Africa using authentic local accounts, targeted the following African countries:

  • Madagascar

  • The Central African Republic

  • Mozambique

  • The Democratic Republic of the Congo

  • Ivory Coast

  • Cameroon

  • Sudan

  • Libya

One of the disinformation pages that Facebook disabled (AFRIC) is tied to a real organization on the ground in both Russia and Africa, CNN reports:

AFRIC, which describes itself as "a community of independent researchers, experts and activists," was prominently featured at the Sochi forum and even announced its partnership with a foundation run by Alexander Malkevich (a Russian propagandist exiled from the U.S.), who was sanctioned by the U.S. in connection with Prigozhin's election interference efforts.

AFRIC, which describes itself as "a community of independent researchers, experts and activists," was prominently featured at the Sochi forum and even announced its partnership with a foundation run by Alexander Malkevich.

This is not the first time Russia has been mentioned in the news in relation to African countries.

Here’s a bit of background:

In July 2018, three Russian journalists planning to investigate the activities of Russian private military contractors were killed in the Central African Republic. According to CNN, the journalists were investigating how the contractors were involved in exploiting CAR's mineral wealth.

This Daily Beast report from this March talks about how the “same tactics” used in U.S. election interference were adapted to be used in a war zone in Africa and provides more background on CAR, the former French colony that has one of the world’s lowest per capita incomes despite “immense resource wealth.” The money the government does have is often spent on weapons instead of its 4.8 million people, and a civil war in 2013-2014 “further destabilized the country, which is now 70 percent under the control of a complex constellation of armed groups.

Social media are now adding a 21st-century sting to the centuries-old dynamic of rumor-mongering and gossip. Internet penetration in CAR remains among the lowest in the world, with only five percent of the population estimated to have access… In a society where only the wealthy, the educated and the elite are likely to have access to the internet, social media becomes a tool for strategically targeting those groups, and thereby influencing important decision-makers and the people around them.

Earlier this year, a top U.S. general — Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, the commander of U.S. Africa Command — told the Senate Armed Services Committee in prepared written testimony that Russia was using mercenaries to access Africa’s natural resources according to CNN —> “By employing oligarch-funded, quasi-mercenary military advisors, particularly in countries where leaders seek unchallenged autocratic rule, Russian interests gain access to natural resources on favorable terms.”

Waldhauser also wrote that Russia was increasing its involvement in Libya, a country that continues to be beset by violence as rival factions seek to increase their control of the oil-rich nation.

“These agreements are aimed at accessing Libya's vast oil market, reviving arms sales, and gaining access to coastal territories on the Mediterranean Sea, providing Russia closer access to Europe's southern border.”

This Foreign Policy analysis discusses Russia’s desired expansion to Africa, stating that, “other than arms, of which Russia continues to be the continent’s key supplier, there is little it has to offer and less that Africa will take.”

Since 2014, when sanctions following the annexation of Crimea forced Putin to find new markets and partners beyond the West’s regulatory reach, Russia has made a concerted effort to expand into Africa. It hasn’t had much effect. Today, only 3.7 percent of Russian goods end up in Africa. With more than 2.7 percent getting gobbled up by North Africa, a paltry fraction is destined for the bulk of the continent. It’s even worse in reverse, as African goods account for just 1.1 percent of Russian imports. The Sochi summit was supposed to change all this. However, there’s not much to suggest that it will. Of the $12.5 billion in deals that were allegedly signed, most were only memorandums of understanding that may never get off the ground.

Paul Stronski, a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, writes in his Carnegie Endowment for International Peace analysis that “Russia increasingly looks to Africa as a region where it can project power and influence.”

Stronski writes:

Opportunism is a hallmark of Russia’s current foreign policy, and its behavior in Africa is hardly an exception. Russia’s return to Africa in recent years has been facilitated in part by the drop-off in U.S. attention to the continent under President Donald Trump’s administration.

2020: Facebook not fact-checking political ads

The social networking site is faced with concerns as an agent of information aggregation and sharing as CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced he will allow politicians to post unsubstantiated claims in political ads displayed on the site — a move many politicians, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), point out is unhelpful for stopping the spread of disinformation leading up to another U.S. presidential election.

Image result for cnn ocasio cortez facebook zuckerberg ads"

“Would I be able to run advertisements on Facebook targeting Republicans in primaries saying they voted for the Green New Deal,” Rep. Ocasio-Cortez asked Zuckerberg at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Wednesday. Adding, “I mean if you're not fact-checking political advertisements, I'm just trying to understand the bounds here, what's fair game?”

After this hearing, a fake ad from a left-leaning PAC claiming that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham endorsed the Green New Deal ran on Facebook. The ad was flagged and canceled, but the video stayed on the site.

According to CNN, Facebook does not pro-actively fact-check political ads, — but Rep. Ocasio-Cortez would be able to run the ad without it being removed because “fact-checking does not extend to politicians” — which meant in this case the ad was able to run for more than a day before it was flagged and removed.

Essentially, this goes to show that there is a grey area with fact-checking political advertisements on Facebook that is open to disinformation exploitation.

A study conducted this week by Avaaz, an international non-profit working to “protect democracies from the dangers of disinformation on social media,” showed that, in the first ten months of 2019, “politically relevant disinformation was found to have reached over 158 million estimated views, enough to reach every reported registered voter in the U.S. at least once.”

Almost all fake news (91%) was negative. The study found that most negative misinformation (62%) was about Democrats or liberals. Positive fake news was much rarer (9%), and 100% was about Republicans or conservatives.

Andrew Marantz writes about Facebook and “free speech” in this piece for the New Yorker, saying it’s one thing for Zuckerberg to build the world’s biggest microphone and then choose to rent that microphone to liars, authoritarians, professional propagandists, or anyone else who can afford to pay market rate, and another thing to “claim he is doing so for everyone’s benefit.”

He mentions the letter that the New York Times’ editorial board published, written by Facebook employees who spoke out about Facebook’s new ad policy:

“Free speech and paid speech are not the same thing,” the letter read, followed by six specific suggestions as to how the policy could be improved, “short of eliminating political ads altogether.”

Note: Even though Facebook still appears committed to letting false political ads run, a source told CNN Thursday that the social media site is “considering changes to how political ads can be targeted, how ads are labeled, and providing more information about who is paying for an ad.”

Special Edition: Analyzing western media’s coverage of African countries

By Haleluya Hadero (@masayett)

In media circles, journalists for some years have been talking about how badly western media outlets have covered African countries and why this coverage needs to change. This includes their usual framing around the African banana republic, starving children, and when Meghan and Harry make a trip to the continent — the white saviors.

For people who live in the West and desire to see solid reporting on serious issues in the continent, most are left with little options. Mainstream outlets almost always neglect events plaguing African countries unless it somehow touches on whatever interests them. And as the Royals visited, good photo-ops and comparisons to Princess Diana’s charitable work in Africa dominated the airwaves. In her 2014 TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie described this type of media coverage as pieces which make up a “single story” of Africa. Whether we consciously think about it or not, I would argue repeatedly consuming the same depictions of 54 countries subconsciously affects the importance — and kind of coverage — we give to a continent projected to make up a quarter of the world’s population by 2050.

I had a reminder of this just a month ago when reading an opinion piece in a major international publication where the writer warned Africa could be “stolen” from President Trump by China. Like many before it, the tone and the framing of the piece portrayed the continent as group of helpless states in a war of influence between foreign powers.

As stories continue to be written about Vladimir Putin’s seemingly new pivot to the continent, I advise journalists to take caution in framing their stories about Russia’s new geopolitical maneuvering. In a brilliant analysis piece for Foreign Policy, Stephen Paduano writes one of Russia’s blunders during the rollout of their comeback to the continent has been “treating African states as easy-to-manipulate pawns” in a way that’s “not only ethically and intellectually questionable” but also “strategically silly.”

With each new article on Russia-Africa, let’s hope our media outlets avoid doing the same thing.

That’s all for now! Reach out with any questions or comments, and stop back for more on media and Eastern Europe.

— Мила (Mila)

Connect on Twitter

*The views expressed here in my newsletters are entirely my own, and not those of my employer.