ABUJA, Nigeria—When Coby, a 29-year-old Nigerian studying in Russia, was first added to the WhatsApp group “One Africa, One Success” in late February, he thought he was on a platform for like-minded students looking to discuss issues about their continent and "offer solutions to Africa's unique problems,” as the group description put it.
But Coby soon discovered that posts by many of the platform's participants had very little to do with the real problems facing Africa. Instead they were filled with conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus, many of them claiming the Democratic Party and various philanthropists in the United States—especially Bill and Melinda Gates—were behind its spread.
“In virtually every post,” says Coby, who asked that his last name not be published, “either someone in the U.S. is blamed for the coronavirus or an American is accused of trying to exploit the situation."
Messages on the platform seen by The Daily Beast push the notion that COVID-19 was created by Democratic Party politicians in the U.S. specifically to discredit President Donald Trump, and medical solutions proposed for the pandemic, including vaccines, aim to decimate Africa’s population.
Such incendiary claims appear to be part of a broader phenomenon: a Russian government effort to use “troll factories” in Nigeria and Ghana to push divisive messages onto Facebook and Twitter that inflame racial tensions globally—and especially in the U.S. as it approaches elections in November.
Some of this was revealed by a detailed CNN report earlier this year that drew heavily on research by two professors, Darren Linvill and Patrick Warren, at Clemson University in the United States.
In many cases, as Linvill and Warren showed, the trolls claimed to be Americans posting from within the U.S. when, in fact, they were holed up in an Accra bungalow. In other instances they used their African connection on accounts with tags like @africamustwake to try to gain credibility. Largely as a result of the CNN reporting, Twitter and Facebook took down scores of accounts and pages.
But campaigns on WhatsApp and other messaging services open new doors for toxic disinformation.
One of the key selling points of WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, is end-to-end encryption of text, voice, and video communications. The app, which can be downloaded for free, is hugely popular around the world. There were 2 billion monthly active users as of March 2020, according to Statista.com, and it appears the vast majority access it several times a day. Statista counted 68.1 million users in the United States alone last year.
Recently, WhatsApp has moved to limit the ability of users to “broadcast” messages to hundreds or thousands of recipients. A company spokesperson told The Daily Beast that 90 percent of communications on WhatsApp are between two people, and most groups are fewer than 10 persons. (The one Coby joined had about 80.)
Still 10 percent of 2 billion is 200 million communications that are not just between two persons. So WhatsApp has begun to move aggressively to limit the number of people to whom you can send a message. The spokesperson says as many as 2 million accounts are banned for infractions every month, mainly when people try to use WhatsApp for bulk mailings.
The company also has begun limiting the number of times a message can be forwarded, noting that WhatsApp is supposed to be for personal and private communications, and is not intended as a “social medium” in the Facebook or Twitter sense. As a result, said the spokesperson, there has been a 70 percent reduction in highly forwarded messages. The move was taken, said the spokesperson (speaking on background on a long-distance WhatsApp call) partly because of “our concern about misinformation, including COVID misinformation.” As the spokesperson put it, “We don't want really anything to go viral on WhatsApp.”
In fact, this is basically a business judgment, not a political or moral one. Because WhatsApp is a free download with no advertising, so the long-term business model depends on developing relations with companies that will pay to use the app, presumably, for targeted or mass communications.
So, what WhatsApp monitors is not—emphatically not—the actual content of the messages sent through its encrypted system. It may respond if someone ticks a box to “report this message,” but it monitors only volume, not content. “We very much value that people use it in a private way,” said the spokesperson.
All that said, one group can connect to another, individuals can share with other like-minded individuals in unobserved and untraceable communications until, soon enough, the messages make the jump, rather like a viral pathogen, from one host to another.
INTO AND OUT OF AFRICA
In sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous countries, WhatsApp leads the pack among various social messaging apps (including Facebook Messenger), which are far more popular than classic forms of social media. As early as 2017, for instance, nearly half of all internet traffic in Zimbabwe went to WhatsApp. There are even WhatsApp knockoffs capitalizing on its popularity.
Linvill says he and Warren at Clemson have not conducted specific research on WhatsApp, partly because detailed data are so difficult to pry out of Facebook, but Linvill says it is not at all surprising that Russians and other propagandists are exploiting it.
“The trolls go where the people are,” Linvill told The Daily Beast in an email. “The Russians are being forced to be creative. The happy days of 2016 are over and their job is at least somewhat harder than it was in the past. WhatsApp is built to be difficult to monitor, FB [Facebook] has marketed a wonderful weapon for them.”
That said, the conspiracy theories being pushed on WhatsApp in Africa are considerably wilder than many of those that Linvill and Warren have tracked on their original database of more than 3 million tweets related to Russian influence campaigns in the United States, plus those generated out of the troll factories in Ghana and Nigeria.
Those focused on much the same issues—especially police brutality and shootings—used by the Russian influence campaign in 2016 while, overall, on conventional platforms the latest generation of trolls is increasingly hard to distinguish from all the other viral vituperation spreading across the Web from both left and right.
Indeed, Linvill and Warren often make it clear the most successful strategies for Russian and other bad actors (notably China and Iran) are no long based on the origination of crazy conspiracy stories and denunciations, but developed to pick up on what is already out there. Some of it’s true, some not, but the poste are always meant to provoke a reaction. Then the trolls amplify the hell out of them.
“Most of the people that are awful on social media are real,” Warren told a reporter earlier this year. “The person who is most likely a Russian or Iranian or Chinese troll is the person who agrees with you.”
“Professional trolls know that you persuade an audience by telling them what they are already inclined to believe; they pull you along, they don't push you away,” Linvill told The Daily Beast. “Influence on social media comes through making friends, not enemies. People need to understand that the digital world operates by the same basic rules as the real world. Strangers with candy don't always have your best interest at heart.”
The Russian intent was and remains more focused on dividing the United States than on backing one particular candidate, although Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly wanted to take down Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Trump is such a hugely divisive figure that he tends to serve Russia’s objectives with or without help from its trolls.
The latest crop of suspect sites on Twitter in the U.S., provided to The Daily Beast by Warren and Linvill, shows a mastery of vernacular thinking on sites purporting to belong to leftist feminists, right-wing gun advocates, LGBTQ advocates, Latinx voices, and African-Americans fighting injustice.
The origins of the accounts are determined by “a combination of technical and content markers,” says Warren. “The technical markers give them away as a coordinated operation. The content markers tie them to former generations of Russian efforts.”
The pinned tweet of the now-closed @KerrrryC account, for instance, picked up on the true story of an elderly couple in Oak Park, Illinois, who were swarmed by police and handcuffed as suspected bank robbers at the end of February. “He's 86-yo and nearly blind, his wife is 67-yo and can barely walk. When you're black, you're never too old or young to be a criminal,” says the March 3 tweet.
The @KerrrryC account, opened in September last year, had more than 8,300 followers when it was suspended last month, but replies to its tweets remain all over the internet. Linvill notes that among those who retweeted at least one of @KerrrryC's fact-based posts: basketball legend LeBron James (@KingJames), who has 45.9 million followers.
The messages The Daily Beast has seen coming out on WhatsApp from putative African students in Russia are highly Africa-centric in tone and content. But once they have been spread far and wide, someone somewhere in the United States is likely to pick up on them, whether to share on messaging apps or on Twitter and Facebook accounts that have not been taken down. All this as COVID-19 conspiracies are developing into a central theme.
A number of posts to the One Africa, One Success group claimed that the so-called Illuminati secret society and U.S. Democrats created the coronavirus for the purpose of pushing Trump out of power, and even high profile politicians in Nigeria have picked up on that narrative.
“One of the many objectives of the Illuminati & those that are behind the coronavirus pandemic & the emergence of a New World Order is to get @realDonaldTrump out of power in this year's pres. election by sparking off a massive recession & crashing the American & world economy,” tweeted Femi Fani-Kayode, a former Nigeria aviation minister, at the end of March. “They also want as many Americans to die from coronavirus as possible & blame it all on Trump. Despite all their efforts I've got news for them: they will fail miserably & @realDonaldTrump will be back in power after the 2020 election.”
THE 15 PERCENT
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which pledged $100 million to fight the coronavirus outbreak, comes in for special bashing by trolls who claim that the billionaire Microsoft founder is pursuing a vaccination program aimed at reducing the world's population by 15 percent.
"He wants his 15 percent to be taken out of Africa through his evil vaccine," one post read on March 27. "Africa has to reject his coronavirus vaccine."
Several posts incorrectly quoted Melinda Gates saying in an April 10 interview on CNN that she envisions "dead bodies all over Africa." In fact she said the example of dead bodies in the streets of Ecuador is something we should not want to see in Africa.
“They hate Africa,” read one post referring to the foundation. “They don't have good intentions for Africans.”
Much the same line of thinking can now be found on Twitter, building not only on the kind of reasoning (or un-reasoning) in the WhatsApp posts, but on real events.
When two prominent French lab researchers speculated on a cable news broadcast at the beginning of April that Africa might be a good place to test an anti-tuberculosis vaccine thought to have some promise against COVID-19, the story prompted viral outrage in the United States as well as Africa—some of it with the hashtag #AfricansAreNotLabRats.
Several of the more recent posts with that tag, especially those attacking the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are similar in content to those we have seen on WhatsApp. Among the accounts posting with the #AfricansAreNotLabRats hashtag is one that calls itself “Unapologetic AFRICA” (@Apologetic_much), which joined Twitter just this month and has at the moment 17 followers. Interestingly, it also attacks Chinese racism. It’s a complicated landscape out there in the social media sphere.
Propaganda aimed at sowing hatred toward the West in the hearts of vulnerable Africans and swaying voters in the upcoming U.S. presidential elections is a trick we know the Russians have used in the past, and the Chinese, who are in a ferocious propaganda war with the Trump administration, may be using at present.
In October 2017, The Daily Beast reported that two Nigerian video bloggers, who called themselves Williams and Kalvin Johnson on social media, posted videos on YouTube in which they claimed that the Clintons are “serial killers who are going to rape the whole nation” and that Trump can’t be racist because he’s a “businessman.” The Nigerians, who purported to offer “a word of truth” to African-American audiences, were part of the broad Russian campaign to influence American politics. Williams Johnson later admitted in a video he uploaded on YouTube late in 2018 that he had been employed by the notorious Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), whose activities were exposed in detail and several of whose members were indicted by the Mueller probe in the United States.
In December 2017, The Daily Beast reported on two men who claimed to be independent political and public affairs journalists with programs they said aired on RT (formerly Russia Today), a Kremlin funded television network, met three Nigerian students studying in universities around Moscow to discuss Hillary Clinton and the U.S. presidential elections a month before the 2016 polls were held. They unsuccessfully tried to convince the students that most Nigerians disliked Clinton and preferred Trump, and said that they were going to create a platform for them to air their views on video concerning the American candidates.
The Kremlin has invested heavily in programs that bring Africans to study in Russia’s higher institutions, and of the 17,000 currently at Russian universities, 4,000 are supported by Russian government scholarships. President Vladimir Putin was sure to mention that at a summit with African leaders in October.
Philip Obaji reported from Abuja, Christopher Dickey reported from Paris.