Facebook said it has shut down three Russian-backed accounts that were being used as influence networks to spread misinformation in nations across Africa. The New York Times reports the tactics used the Facebook platform to target Mozambique, Cameroon, Sudan, and Libya, among others, and appear to have evolved out of its operation in the United States during the 2016 election. According to Facebook, the networks were all linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch known as “Putin’s chef” who was indicted by the U.S. for allegedly financing the Internet Research Agency, which worked to influence the American election, and is a key funder of the Russian mercenary group Wagner. A key difference between Prigozhin’s apparent African campaign and his 2016 effort in the U.S. is its newfound reliance on local people. The networks reportedly employed locals to set up fake Facebook accounts so that the accounts didn’t originate in Russia, making them harder to detect as frauds.
The African operation also had more than double—with regards to volume of misinformation sent out each month—the IRA’s average output in the U.S. After hooking people with misinformation on Facebook, Russia then reportedly drove users onto encrypted platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram. According to researchers, Russia appears to be trying to expand its sphere of influence in Africa, where it has already built political infrastructure, but the new model will also likely be deployed on the U.S during the 2020 presidential election. “They are trying to make it harder for us and civil society to try and detect their operations,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.