Russia uses disinformation on different continents for varied purposes, often through proven proxies that indirectly serve the Kremlin’s foreign policy goals, leaving the door open to denials. In parts of Africa – notably, more recently, Mali – proxies linked to the Kremlin are exploiting instability to expand their influence, particularly through disinformation and the deployment of Wagner Group forces.
The group Wagner and Yevgeny Prigojine
The Kremlin-backed Wagner group exploits insecurity to expand its presence in Africa, at the risk of stability, good governance and respect for human rights. Yevgeny Prigozhin, also known as “Putin’s boss” because of his catering contracts with the Kremlin, is a Russian oligarch and Wagner’s boss and financier. While Russian authorities refuse to admit any connection with the Wagner Group, the Russian government is at least aware of the activities of this group or is using this group and other entities owned by Prigozhin as representatives to spread false information and carry out covert and armed operations. abroad, namely in Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya, Syria and Ukraine. The US, EU and UK have sanctioned Prigojine, including imposing retaliatory measures against his network of malign influence in Africa.
Wagner arrives in Mali plagued by disinformation
In late 2021, there were reports of the likely deployment of Wagner Group forces to Mali, a country whose military had seized power twice in less than a year and which continued to fight a growing terrorist threat that exploits marginalized and historically weak populations. . Wagner Group forces deployed to Mali in December 2021 present themselves as capable of countering the terrorist threat, amid a flood of disinformation aimed at hiding their arrival and activities.
The February 2022 report by the Digital Forensic Research Lab revealed that in the months leading up to Wagner’s deployment, a coordinated network of Facebook pages in Mali presented Russia as a “viable partner” and “an alternative to the West”, encouraged the postponement of democratic elections and tried to generate local support for Wagner. . Local media often echoed these stories, publishing interviews with Russian officials who praised Wagner’s “advisers” while claiming the group was the “unfair victim” of an “information war”. Maxim Shugaley, president of the Foundation for the Protection of National Values (FZNC), a Russian think tank linked to Prigozhin and sanctioned by the United States, criticized the UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA) in Mali (deployed since 2013 to support the implementation of a peace agreement, protect the civilian population and facilitate humanitarian aid) falsely claiming that the UN “creates terrorist organizations”.
President Putin admitted that private Russian military organizations operate in Mali, but denied that his government plays any role in their activities. In May 2022, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also admitted that Wagner was in Mali, but on a “purely commercial basis”. Despite these confessions, Mali’s transitional government currently in power, led by the August 2020 coup plotters, continues to deny the presence of Wagnerian forces.
Wagner’s involvement in atrocities in Mali
Despite growing reports of atrocities committed by the Wagner Group in Mali since its arrival in 2021, Russia’s disinformation and propaganda ecosystem continues to spread false narratives to distract and avoid any responsibility.
- Moura: In late March 2022, reports emerged of the massacre of at least 300 civilians in the village of Moura in central Mali. Witnesses reported that Malian forces and about 100 Russian-speaking men lined the victims in lines of 15 to 20 people, told them to kneel down and executed them. BIG ONES Human Rights Surveillance called the Moura killings Mali’s worst atrocity in more than a decade. Mali’s transitional government denied the involvement of its army and claimed the troops were participating in counter-terrorist operations in the region. Russian overseas disinformation media, RT, assumed this false version of events.
- Gossie: On the outskirts of the Malian village of Gossi, French forces withdrew on April 19 from a military base from which they had conducted joint operations with their Malian counterparts for several years. A few days after the withdrawal of French forces, a Twitter account by the name of “Dia Diarra” posted pixelated images of corpses that were said to have been unearthed near the base and affirmed that French troops were responsible for these deaths. French military officials responded that Dia Diarra’s Twitter account was “a hoax … created by Wagner” and part of a “disinformation operation”. France then showed videos showing a dozen people, likely members of Wagner, and Malian soldiers near Gossi’s base as white soldiers covered the bodies with sand. FZNC President Shugaley tried to distract himself by accusing France of having “fabricated video material” to falsely accuse Wagner so that French forces could “carry out massacres with impunity”. A regional security analyst said the video from France “thwarted this Russian disinformation effort”.
Misinformation related to Prigozhin all over Africa
Prigozhin’s disinformation activities go far beyond Mali and extend to parts of Africa in the service of Kremlin goals or Prigozhin’s vested interests. Through corporations that exploit Africa’s natural resources, political actors that undermine democratic actors, shell companies posing as NGOs, and through the manipulation of social media, Prigojine spreads false information to influence African politics in Russia’s favor.
Prigozhin is best known for funding theInternet Research Agency (IRA), a troll factory known to have repeatedly interfered in US elections, but also active in disinformation around the world, including in Africa. Social media companies’ responses to Prigojine’s disinformation activities in Africa show the extent of their activities:
- Facebook/Meta account takedown operations in January 2022 revealed IRA-linked entities targeting African journalists primarily in the Nigeria, Cameroon, Gambia, Zimbabwe and Congo to trick them into publishing articles unknowingly on behalf of the IRA.
- An operation to delete Twitter accounts in Central African Republic (CAR) in December 2021 revealed a mix of inauthentic and real accounts linked to the IRA that aimed to introduce a pro-Russian point of view into CAR political discourse.
- A Russian operation aimed at RCA and to a lesser extent, Madagascar, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, South Africa and the Central African diaspora community in France, came to light during a Facebook/Meta account takedown operation in December 2020. It revealed fake accounts and compromised IRA-linked accounts that purported to solicit articles from local journalists, influence the upcoming Central African elections, positively discuss the presence of Russia in Sub-Saharan Africa and criticizing French foreign policy. One of the main objectives of this operation was to undermine democratic elections.
Russia’s growing disinformation and use of the Wagner Group across Africa has led to a trail of lies and human rights abuses. Despite sanctions from the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom, and the exposure of entities linked to Prigojine that spread false information, these actors continue to operate in Africa and exploit instability using disinformation to bring public opinion together. to the Russian government, which thus extends its influence.
See original content: https://www.state.gov/disarming-disinformation/wagner-group-yevgeniy-prigozhin-and-russias-disinformation-in-africa/
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