By: Dan Sanaren
Picture credits: Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung via Flickr
Africa is currently undergoing a rapid digital transformation. While it is true that Africa is still the least digitalised continent in the world, information is becoming increasingly accessible. This process comes with challenges to stability and calls for strong regulatory frameworks that allow institutions and states to manage the negative effects of digital transformation.
One of the most pressing problems related to Africa’s digital transformation is the enhanced vulnerability to misinformation and disinformation, the latter referring to the spread of false information with the intent to deceive. Foreign actors have been continuously exploiting new digital opportunities to reach the general public in African nations and exert influence. Russia is emerging as one of the most important foreign actors engaging in disinformation campaigns in Africa, yet other countries, such as Turkey and China, have reportedly also engaged in such tactics to present a more appealing image of themselves and strengthen their endeavours on the continent.
Moreover, local actors have benefited from the repressive possibilities of new technologies to advance their agendas as well. The recent wave of military coups in West Africa, which are legitimised through an anti-Western and anti-European discourse, came about with junta-led disinformation campaigns and attempts to monopolise the flow of information in the respective countries.
While disinformation and misinformation are prevalent issues across the African continent, this article will concentrate on specific examples linked to particular nations or regions. Nevertheless, these examples may be associated with comparable trends seen throughout Africa.
A history of disinformation and foreign interference
Disinformation in Africa is not a new phenomenon, as highlighted by experts gathered at the Stockholm Security Forum of 2022. Disinformation is strongly tied to the post-independence context on the continent, where former colonial powers have continued to exert pressure and authoritarian regimes have monopolised the media industry. The past two decades allowed for the relative liberalisation of the media industry; with the diversification of private news agencies and the arrival of the internet, the radio, the online press, and social media.
However, this process of liberalisation has also allowed media outlets, sometimes tied to foreign actors, to weaponise information and spread alternative narratives. A prime example of foreign involvement in media campaigns is the case of Cambridge Analytica. The firm is known for its involvement in Donald Trump’s campaign, Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign, the 2013 and 2017 general elections in Kenya, and the 2015 Nigerian general election. In the latter, the company was hired to support the campaign of the incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, who eventually lost his bid to Muhammadu Buhari. Cambridge Analytica was the source of a smear campaign against Buhari, to depict the then-candidate as a supporter of Boko Haram and as someone who will force Islamic Law on Nigeria. The firm used sources gathered illegally by Israeli hackers.
The spread of disinformation also coincides with an overall decline of the security situation on the continent, and more specifically in conflict-affected areas such as the Sahel, Central Africa and the Horn of Africa. Controlling the narrative is therefore key to supporting security interventions in conflicts.
Russia’s offensive informational campaigns in Africa
Russia has become the leading perpetrator of disinformation in Africa, employing media campaigns that align with its “ambiguous warfare” strategy. This approach aims to build on local grievances and fuel social distrust by presenting false information and launching media attacks on competing actors. As such, Russia’s media campaigns in Africa have conveyed strong anti-Western and anti-United Nations sentiments, especially in countries with peacekeeping missions, such as the Central African Republic or Mali. These have also aimed to instil doubts about the relevance of democratic institutions, as well as promote a positive image of Russia as a country that supports African liberation from neo-colonial influences.
The most aggressive Russian campaigns have taken place in countries where the Wagner Group, a private military company owned by a Russian oligarch, has also been present. The group has been contracted and deployed in several countries including the Central African Republic, Mali, Mozambique, Sudan, Libya and allegedly Burkina Faso.
In Mali, for instance, Russia and France have been waging an information war that reached its pinnacle in April 2022, after Mali accused France of massacres in the Gossi debacle, by staging a mass grave near a military base been vacated by French soldiers. Mali’s authorities accused France of human rights violations, to which the French army responded by releasing aerial images of the staging. The incident, which resonated even with the UN Security Council, strongly impacted the popular opinion in Mali, with social media continuously depicting France and the UN as occupying forces in the country. The smear campaign against France was accompanied by publications celebrating the Russo-Malian partnership and thanking Wagner Group members for their service.
Not only was France strongly denounced by the media in Mali, but similar trends have emerged in other Sahelian countries. In Burkina Faso, videos and cartoons have circulated in which the French are portrayed as rats invading households or as zombies threatening the security of the population. In these videos, the Wagner Group is presented as the solution that protects the country against France.
Such campaigns benefit Russia as its image is improved in different African countries, thereby breaking the diplomatic isolation that the West has tried to impose since the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian efforts in repairing their image appear somewhat successful, as illustrated when the UN General Assembly discussed the vote condemning the annexation referendums of Ukrainian territory, 19 African countries abstained from condemning Russia.
Beyond foreign interference: the domestic use of disinformation
Russia’s involvement in disinformation campaigns is a reflection of the current state of media in some African countries. Several regimes have imposed crackdowns on the free press, as was seen in Mali with the suspension of broadcast stations Radio France Internationale (RFI) and France24 in March 2022. Similarly, RFI was suspended in Burkina Faso in December 2022, after being accused of broadcasting terrorist messaging. These measures contribute to the creation of a media environment suitable for the fast propagation of fake news and rumours, which often benefit military governments in place.
Moreover, disinformation is also becoming a common tool used by local actors to gather popular support for political figures, often by stirring social tensions and sowing discord between communities. Such campaigns are typically launched during election periods, promoting vigilance on social media platforms. During the 2021 Presidential Election in Uganda, over 400 inauthentic pages and profiles were removed by Facebook and Instagram, some of them linked to the incumbent President Museveni.
In 2023, dealing with disinformation will continue to be a significant challenge for the continent, considering that several countries, notably the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are heading to the polls. It is advisable that African institutions and their partners pay strong attention to these countries and eventually address the issue of disinformation upsetting the democratic processes in African countries. Similarly, even though efforts have been made, the African Union and its regional blocs should continue to improve fact-checking mechanisms and continuously monitor foreign and domestic disinformation campaigns.