As Russia strengthens ties with governments across French-speaking parts of West and Central Africa, social media users in the region have faced a well-documented barrage of pro-Moscow influence campaigns: a swarm of videos, images, and news stories depicting Russia in a positive light — typically at the expense of France, the region’s former colonial power.
A report shared with The Intercept shines a light on one such campaign in action — and it appears to be reaching an especially large audience.
According to an Intercept review of investigations conducted by the tech watchdog group Reset, a network of 53 Facebook pages has been amplifying French-language videos promoting the Kremlin’s line on the war in Ukraine, starting in March. According to Reset, the pages share the common traits of “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” a term used by Meta, Facebook’s parent company, to describe when pages misrepresent themselves and work together in pursuit of specific political or financial goals. (Reset receives funding from Luminate, which was founded by Pierre and Pam Omidyar. The Intercept was founded by Pierre Omidyar and continues to receive funding from First Look Institute, which is supported by the Omidyar Group.)
Together, the accounts have a combined 4.3 million followers, more than that of similar high-profile networks in Africa such as “Russosphère,” a web of Francophone pages operating across social media platforms that was exposed earlier this year, as well as scores of pro-Russia pages shut down by Facebook in 2019 and 2020.
The report also comes amid warnings from employees that Meta’s plans to cut 10,000 jobs this year may hamper its ability to detect harmful false information spread unintentionally (misinformation) or intentionally (disinformation) on its platforms. In April, the company laid off “the majority” of its 50-person engineering team focused on misinformation. In May, a separate round of cuts hit business and tech divisions covering content moderation, while in July, it was reported that Meta quietly slashed jobs from teams investigating election disinformation and coordinated troll campaigns, heightening concerns around upcoming 2024 elections across the globe.
In addition to the job cuts, Meta critics have long claimed the company does not devote enough resources to monitoring content published in languages other than English, such as in sub-Saharan Africa — in other words, pages misrepresenting their identities to achieve common goals are more likely to go undetected.
“African countries are not at all considered priority zones for geopolitical reasons, for resource-related reasons, but also because of the difficulties that can exist with [language barriers],” said Asma Mhalla, a French researcher specializing in tech and digital regulation.
Debates over content moderation are inherently complex — and particularly in the United States, with its deep attachment to freedom of speech. But advocates calling on Meta to beef up self-regulation point to the platform’s massive global reach, its role in public debate, and the consequences of allowing troll campaigns to act freely — with calls to take violence against certain groups and efforts to share false medical advice presenting fatal risks.
A Meta spokesperson said the company is committed to monitoring content in Africa and pointed to the company’s record of breaking up foreign influence campaigns in languages other than English, including in French-speaking Africa. Earlier this year, the firm shut down a group of accounts in Burkina Faso with 65,000 followers.
Pro-Russian content has flooded social media as African governments bolster links with the Kremlin and turn away from France, which finished a nearly decadelong counterterror military operation in the Sahel region last year. Burkina Faso’s new president has lauded Moscow as a “strategic ally,” while the Russia-linked Wagner Group provides security to the Central African Republic and new authorities in Mali. (The mercenary group’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin also cheered last week’s coup d’état in Niger, whose deposed president was one of France’s last remaining allies in the region.) Tapping into deep-seated resentment against the former colonial authority, pro-Russia narratives on social media depict Vladimir Putin’s government as a friendly guarantor of national sovereignty.
Russia is portraying itself as an inheritor of the Soviet Union’s anti-colonial past, said Kevin Limonier, a Slavic studies and geography professor at Paris 8 University who has written about Russia’s growing influence in sub-Saharan Africa. “The Russian media have known how to play on this mythology, on this anti-colonial nostalgia, and on this totally fantasized vision of the Soviet Union as the protector of colonized peoples.”
According to Limonier, the “conquest” of Ukraine has done little to detract from Russia’s anti-colonial image. “The underlying discourse linking radical pan-Africanists, the Kremlin, and Russian intellectuals close to the government is the notion that imperialism only exists if it’s Western,” he said.
At the heart of the network identified by Reset is Ebene Media, a Francophone news outlet based in Cameroon whose home page is littered with advertisements and formatting errors. While the main website features a mix of international news stories, its two Facebook pages, Ebene Media TV and Ebene Media TV+, have focused singularly on the war in Ukraine since January, regularly publishing videos one after the other sympathetic to the Russian cause and critical of Kyiv and its Western allies.
Narrated with text-to-speech technology and interspersed with quotes, the clips are overlaid with footage from other sources, including from Russian state-funded media like RT and Sputnik. Among the headlines: “There is no space left to bury the soldiers killed by Zelenskyy”; “EU-Latin American summit: The worst has happened. Zelenskyy banned in Brussels”; and “Ukraine’s counteroffensive sours.”
While Ebene Media TV’s pages count only 20,000 followers, its videos have been amplified by multiple accounts. That includes “MR WolfSon,” a German-administered page with 302,000 followers that claims to be a journalist; “Lumière De L’info,” another German-administered page with 14,000 followers that purports to be a news site; and “Stéphane comédie Tv,” a “personal blog” administered from Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire with 10,000 followers that has changed names multiple times since it was first launched as a comedy page in 2021. This week, “LEGEOGRAPHE221,” an account with 62,000 followers administered from Senegal, shared an Ebene clip on the coup in Niger claiming that French forces fired live ammunition into a crowd protesting outside the country’s embassy in the capital Niamey — an allegation denied by Paris.
Not all the videos come from Ebene Media TV. The Cameroonian-administered “Infos Global” — an account with 285,000 followers launched last October as “Liberté Africaine” — has also shared clips originally broadcast on more reputable news outlets like France 24 that reflect positively on Russia’s war effort: for example, a discussion about Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s struggles to win support from African governments and outdated coverage about Russian tanks moving toward Kyiv. Like “Torche Mondial” (46,000 followers) and “Magasin de L’info” (17,000 followers), “Infos Global” also posts videos from Florian Philippot, a far-right French politician and former second-in-command of Marine Le Pen’s National Front who now leads a marginal party calling on France to leave the European Union.
In addition to frequent name changes, many of the pages regularly repost each other’s content, boosting their collective reach. A few have identical usernames and share the same contact details. Many have gone dormant for weeks at a time, “possibly to avoid detection of the network,” according to Reset. Some have engaged in apparent baiting techniques, sharing apolitical memes and cartoons to generate attention before posting about the war in Ukraine.
For instance, the page “Bãrøn,” which has 75,000 followers, was posting memes and crude sex jokes for much of the year, sometimes racking up hundreds of likes per post. Then in May, it shared a slew of videos from Ebene Media TV with titles like, “The United States is running out of money to continue supporting the Ukrainian army,” and “The Russian army is inflicting heavy losses on Ukrainian armed forces.” It has not posted since then.
Stéphane Akoa, a political scientist and researcher in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé, said there is a broad audience receptive to the kinds of videos shared by Ebene Media TV, owing to France’s colonial history in the region. “The anti-French sentiment in Cameroon is very, very strong,” he said, “and so anything that can be said or done that would go against France or show one’s opposition to France, you’ll find a lot of Cameroonians willing to repeat it and share it.”
Cameroon’s government maintains friendly relations with France. But last April, it signed a military cooperation pact with Moscow, and, like many African nations, it did not vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations. Contacted by phone, an official from the Russian Embassy in Cameroon referred The Intercept to email but did not respond to questions.
Since 2019, Meta has shut down multiple pro-Russia networks of “coordinated inauthentic behavior” targeting users in Africa. (It also shut down a pro-France network in December 2020, ahead of a crucial election in the Central African Republic.) Last month, France’s foreign ministry decried a video spread by a web of Facebook and Twitter accounts that accused Paris of ordering a fatal attack on Chinese nationals at a gold mine in the Central African Republic. And in February, the BBC and tech group Logically revealed a self-described Stalinist from Belgium was at the helm of “Russosphère”: a group of social media accounts praising Russian military operations in Ukraine and Africa, with over 80,000 followers.
It remains unclear who is behind Ebene Media TV or the broader network of pages identified by Reset. Contacted by email, Ebene Media did not respond to a request for comment. A man who responded to a phone number listed for “Monde Actu,” a page with 15,000 followers that shared videos from Ebene Media TV in April and May, told The Intercept that he managed the page from Cameroon but that he had lost his contract with Ebene Media TV and had stopped publishing its videos. He did not provide further details and ended the conversation.
Limonier, the Slavic studies and geography professor, stressed that it can be difficult to identify the people behind influence networks online. While the pages revolving around Ebene Media TV could be the product of a centralized strategy, Limonier said they could also be the working of a more diffuse, lower grade of actors that he calls “entrepreneurs of influence”: individuals taking initiative on their own in the hopes of winning attention or future rewards from the Russian government.
Lou Osborn, a researcher for the monitoring group All Eyes on Wagner, said the group of pages resembled previous pro-Russia influence campaigns in sub-Saharan Africa. Earlier this year, Osborn contributed to a report on Burkina Faso, documenting how a collection of Facebook pages promoted Russian interests in the country. While the report did not establish the identity of the network’s instigator, Osborn told The Intercept it was “highly likely” to have been ordered by the Wagner Group.
“One of the ways that Prigozhin’s organization works is by creating fake digital infrastructure on Facebook,” she said, referring to the leader of the Wagner Group, also indicted in the U.S. for interfering in the 2016 presidential election. “We also know that Prigozhin has worked in the African digital space using third parties, without direct links, but with companies or people that are based in Africa. … At the same time, it’s very hard to be able to say this or that page or this or that network on Facebook belongs to this organization and that this person is behind it.”
The Wagner Group did not respond to a request for comment.
The political effects of disinformation on social media can be notoriously hard to measure, but campaigns could find hospitable footholds in African countries facing political instability and various security threats. In any case, Mhalla, the tech researcher in France, stressed that architects of effective online influence campaigns understand the grievances of their audiences. “You need to tailor narratives and content based on your target,” she said. “A good disinformation campaign can’t just be built from scratch.”
Update: August 7, 2023
This article was updated to include information about Reset’s funding.