Washington — As Russia makes significant gains in its disinformation campaigns in Africa, experts say civil society groups and private organizations may hold the key to counter such propaganda.
Since Moscow's invasion of Ukraine two years ago, analysts say the Kremlin has been using disinformation spread through social media to court other nations as it faces global isolation.
Dan Whitman, a foreign policy analyst and fellow at Philadelphia-based think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute, told VOA that Moscow has recently made "tremendous successes" in its disinformation campaigns on the continent, exploiting political instability in regions like the Sahel and Central Africa, and in nations like Mozambique.
"I would say (in) two or three years, (Russia) has made the most rapid propaganda successes in the history of propaganda," Whitman said, adding "instability is the Garden of Eden for disinformation."
Whitman says Russia doesn't cause instability but takes advantage of existing instability, unlike other major powers. He said the difference is that "Russia is much more systematic, consequential, and much more strategic in the way they do this," he said questioning Moscow's true intentions in Africa. "Less than 1% of commercial exchange comes from Russia. So, in terms of material wealth, infrastructure, or really anything else, they have nothing to offer Africa."
Trade between Russia and Africa has increased, but it remains relatively small compared to trade with the European Union, China, and the United States.
According to Washington-based think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS, trade between Russia and Africa has nearly doubled to $17.7 billion by 2021, but Africa's trade values with other regions are significantly higher: $295 billion with the EU, $254 billion with China, and $65 billion with the U.S.
Whitman also highlighted the worry of possible Russian interference in the 2024 U.S. elections, as in previous elections, emphasizing the need for a mechanism to hold the Kremlin accountable for its disinformation activities. He suggested empowering civil society groups and private organizations, with support from the U.S. government and Western European governments, to counter Russian disinformation.
"I believe that small start-ups, private organizations and community groups like debunk.org in Lithuania, should be empowered to counter Russia's disinformation. I hope they have open and transparent support from the U.S. government and governments of Western Europe," Whitman told VOA.
Neil Melvin, director of International Security Studies at the London-based Royal United Security Institute, or RUSI, says while Russia seeks to advance its propaganda narrative, describing its efforts as the "biggest propaganda victory ever," may be an exaggeration -- even as Russia takes an opportunistic approach in regions with instability, aiming to establish partnerships with military groups seeking power.
"We saw that in Sudan, we've seen it recently in parts of Sahel and West Africa. Historically, they (Russia) have done it with Ethiopia," he said. "I think that's certainly part of the model, that's quite disruptive, because, of course, it just accelerates instability."
Melvin says the primary objective of these partnerships in Africa is to secure resources, and Russia, through its paramilitary, the Wagner Group, seeks access to these resources.
"It's almost like a scavenging approach," Melvin said.
Melvin said disinformation is not solely a Russian effort, as China and Iran also engage in state-backed disinformation campaigns, which many countries struggle to effectively counter.
"Civil society becomes almost a security asset because they challenge the disinformation that sometimes is coming down mainstream channels," he told VOA's English to Africa Service. "Maybe this is the moment for the African Union or some of the regional organizations to try and set up their own independent media monitoring organizations to make sure that the population can push back on Russian disinformation."
According to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies, an academic and research program focused on security, in 2022, 60% of Africa's more than 50 documented disinformation campaigns were externally coordinated.
However, the center says, figures of externally driven disinformation campaigns in Africa may not be entirely accurate with the growing trend of using local influencers to disseminate content, making their origins harder to trace.
Silas Jonathan, the lead open-source researcher at Nigeria's Center for Journalism, Innovation, and Development, which operates the fact-checking platform Dubawa, said though official data on the number of fact-checking platforms in Africa is lacking, a number of fact-checking coalitions have noted increasing efforts by Russia and China to "influence Africa's conversation."
"In the past five months, what I have been seeing is a calculative spread of disinformation that seems to glorify Russia and the Wagner Group as if they're the only way out to Africa's problems," Jonathan told VOA. He said he has observed social media users posting disinformation-and-misinformation to counter African democracy, emphasizing rhetoric for Africa to align with Russia.
Jonathan said organizations and coalitions should be working to raise awareness of Russia's disinformation efforts on social media.
"What I have been doing is to assess social media awareness of Russia's disinformation in Africa, and to find out whether Africans are even aware of such subtle influences."
This story originated in VOA's English to Africa Service.