Russia’s war propaganda and disinformation: Recentring African agency

Emmanuel Ikwuegbu via Unsplash


The Russian war in Ukraine, which is also playing out online, has stressed the urgent need to address disinformation. While both Russia and Ukraine have used the internet and digital platforms to garner support, Russia has particularly targeted Africa and the global south in its war propaganda. As the West intends to fight Russia's disinformation in Africa, it should do so without masking double standards or dismissing the diversity of positions in Africa on how the war should be managed.
In this commentary, we identify how disinformation – a challenge that long precedes Russia's war in Ukraine – is addressed by African governments and the private sector. We look at how the EU and Africa could work together better to combat disinformation. 

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    Russian disinformation is more sophisticated and harder to detect in Africa

    Russia, like many other international actors, has used propaganda and disinformation to push its geopolitical priorities worldwide through pro-government media outlets. Disinformation is the spread of false or misleading content aimed at deceiving or causing harm, including in the pursuit of economic, political or security interests.

    As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensified geopolitical tensions, Russia tripled its spending on local and international mass media in the first quarter of 2022 to earn support for its war. The state-owned global news outlet RT (Russia Today), one of the most heavily funded outlets, has been banned from broadcasting in Europe for spreading misleading information on the war in Ukraine. South Africa’s leading broadcasting agency, MultiChoice, distanced itself from RT for the same reason. Although the level of pro-Ukraine disinformation is lower, misinformation by pro-Ukraine social media accounts have also been reported.

    Russia’s growing presence in Africa coincides with the increase of disinformation on the continent. There have been many documented cases of Russian disinformation campaigns used to advance geopolitical gains. These have thrived because they tap on long-held frustrations and anti-Western and anti-democratic sentiments. 

    These campaigns have become more intense and sophisticated with the rise of social media platforms. Pro-Russian platforms subcontract African media and social media influencers to publish false information that is responsive to local context and disseminated in African languages, which makes it very hard to detect them.

    NewsGuard, a tool that tracks disinformation, debunked more than 100 false narratives and identified more than 350 sites spreading Russian and pro-Ukrainian disinformation. This, for instance, includes claims that "Russia was not stealing grain from Ukraine or blocking shipments, as reported by Ukraine", when in fact satellite images and reliable Western media outlets proved otherwise. ​

    Misleading footage of a Ukrainian aircraft pilot shooting down a Russian fighter jet was also circulated on social media, under the title ‘Ghost of Kyiv’. This video was created from a video game, miscaptioned on social media, and later retweeted by the Ukrainian defence ministry and other official accounts.

    The EU and the US have been increasing their resources to target Russian and Chinese disinformation in Africa, worried that these are damaging their image and shrinking their influence on the continent. Indeed, several African countries have developed close military and economic – but also ideological and historical – ties with Russia.

    Instead of addressing African governments’ long-held grievances and recognising their pragmatic geopolitical calculations, Western actors have largely focused on increasing their capacity and resources to counter Russian disinformation. Canada and the US have pledged to invest $3 million and $120 million respectively to counter Russian disinformation and propaganda.

    This growing competition over narratives – and the use of information warfare and disinformation to further geopolitical gains – will have major societal and political implications in Africa.

    Russian online disinformation and wider propaganda thrives among some African audiences because it resonates with existing narratives and grievances.
    Ennatu Domingo and Maëlle Salzinger

    Russian propaganda amplifies existing grievances in Africa

    Russian online disinformation and wider propaganda thrives among some African audiences because it resonates with existing narratives and grievances. To deflect attention from its own violations, Russian propaganda uses ‘but what about…’ arguments to highlight Western double standards, such as unequal attention to different conflicts or refugees. The reasons why this strategy has been effective should not be overlooked by European policymakers.

    Russian propaganda also stresses the ‘threat’ of Western gender norms for societies with strong traditional family and gender roles. Social media ‘echo chambers’ of like-minded people help spread this discourse and polarise societal views on controversial topics like feminism and LGBTQI+ rights. Putin’s viral speech after the referendums in Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine warned against ‘perversions’ such as gender reassignment surgery.

    To distract from Russia’s responsibility for the war, the speech also used a critique of Western normative imperialism, which has been boosting Russia's soft power even before the invasion of Ukraine. This critique resonates with existing perceptions in several African countries that feminism and openness to homosexuality are ‘unAfrican’ and Western constructs that Europe wants to impose on others. These shared perceptions against the West foster sympathy for Russia, which presents itself as a beacon against Western hegemony.

    The March 2022 UN vote has also revived the strong historical sentiment that Africa should not be used as a proxy in ‘cold wars’ between the West and the East. This sentiment gave birth to the non-aligned movement (NAM) in 1961, which asserts member states’ independence and refusal to be drawn into conflicts between global powers to this day.

    Yet, Africa being the largest block to abstain from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sparked outrage in the West. It showed that Western politicians and media still see the continent as a homogenous block despite its diversity, and assume it will align with its ‘traditional’ Western partners. This assumption was deeply problematic and offensive to African public opinion. African diplomats denounced Western pressures ahead of the vote, the West's silence on deadly conflicts in Africa, and the fact that “Western colleagues have said that we listen to the media too much”.

    There are not enough tools and cooperation to track disinformation across Africa

    Disinformation is a global challenge that long precedes the Russian war in Ukraine, but there is no overarching framework to address it. In Africa too, due to the absence of a regional policy on disinformation, governments have set up very different responses. While Mauritania and Ethiopia have proposed disinformation-specific legislation, others only have general speech legislations (for instance, Nigeria relies on its Cybercrimes Act).

    Some of these laws have been criticised for lacking clear definitions of disinformation set by an independent judiciary, proportionate sanctions and content restrictions that are linked to legitimate goals. This risks the abuse of disinformation legislation for civil and political repression, as journalists and political opponents can be targeted for sharing information or analysis that contradicts government narratives or goes against the political interests of high-level officials.

    The legal and procedural ambiguity around disinformation legislation coupled with crackdown on civic space make it difficult for civil society to hold governments accountable on the appropriate use of these legislations.

    The private sector is leading in developing innovative solutions to support civil society organisations (CSOs) that push African governments to improve legislation on disinformation. For example, LEXOTA (Laws on Expression Online: Tracker and Analysis), launched in 2022, is the first comprehensive tool to analyse government laws, policies and action on online disinformation across sub-Saharan Africa.

    The legal and procedural ambiguity around disinformation legislation coupled with crackdown on civic space make it difficult for civil society to hold governments accountable on the appropriate use of these legislations.
    Ennatu Domingo and Maëlle Salzinger

    Nevertheless, because digital platforms do not dedicate enough resources to address disinformation and identify only a fraction of local and foreign disinformation cases online, increased cooperation and investments are urgently needed.

    The EU could be part of this improved cooperation, but its efforts to address disinformation are too narrow, which risks reducing disinformation to a fight between the West on the one hand and Russia and China on the other.

    During the Conference on Foreign Information Manipulation and Interference, organised by the European External Action Service (EEAS) in early February this year, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borell stressed the threat posed by Russia in Africa. The EU’s launch of the Information Sharing and Analysis Centre within the EEAS will be a good start, but we should not forget the fact that Western actors are increasingly using disinformation in Africa to pursue their interests.

    In 2020, Facebook reported 84 Facebook accounts, 6 pages and 9 groups as well as 14 Instagram accounts disseminating misleading information in the Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Chad. The users, who used fake accounts, posted from France and were allegedly linked to the French military.

    While Africa has largely been portrayed as the victim of Russian and Chinese disinformation, social media data from 13 African countries showed that users were mostly indifferent to the war, or against Russia’s invasion, while at the same time critical of Western interference in Africa. The EU should help scale up existing initiatives to counter disinformation, with honest political dialogue on what the war in Ukraine means for Africa.

    Fighting disinformation requires more coordination, resources and diplomatic fair play

    The war in Ukraine and growing geopolitical tensions have intensified the use of propaganda and disinformation as a form of warfare. This has brought attention to some of the challenges faced by governments to mitigate the impact of disinformation and foreign propaganda as they deepen their digitalisation.

    At the AU level, governments should promote a unified framework to address disinformation, which provides guidance on how to regulate social media platforms and how to hold state and non-state actors accountable. Social media platforms need to deepen collaboration with CSOs to better identify, debunk and moderate disinformation, and urgently scale up resources to fight disinformation in African countries.

    If the EU wishes to build a partnership to tackle disinformation with Africa, it too needs to engage with local CSOs and governments. Additionally, the EU should address the legitimate concerns about Western double standards and the use of Africa as a proxy in geopolitical struggles. This means that it should use diplomacy to attract African support for Ukraine without overlooking Africa’s pragmatic ties with Russia and its agency in making foreign policy choices in a multipolar world.

    The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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