ABUJA, Nigeria—To many people, especially those she hires to dig into U.S. politics, Tammy is a media consultant whose job is to recruit young journalists with strong research and reporting skills to write about global affairs for local and foreign news outlets. But, in reality, she runs a troll factory that uses young men and women in Ghana and Nigeria to spread disinformation about U.S. Democrats as well as amplify racial issues in the U.S. with the aim of instigating social unrest.
The so-called media consultant, who is based in Ghana’s capital city of Accra and whose real name is Atam Boateng, oversees a firm known as Caliwax Media. Active in Accra and Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, it uses articles submitted by writers it pays to create WhatsApp messages it sends to random people in the U.S. through their American phone numbers. Caliwax workers also send pro-Trump news stories scraped from conservative news websites like The Federalist and Breibart to numerous Americans via WhatsApp.
People hired by Caliwax as writers and messaging app handlers, especially in Ghana, are mostly university students who appear to be in their teens. One such young writer is a 19-year-old communications student at the University of Ghana in Accra who prefers to be identified by his nickname, Tim.
Last December, an anonymous caller reached out to Tim asking him to contact Boateng if he was interested in writing about international politics for a fee. The caller later texted Boateng's contact details—including her secured email address provided by the Moscow-based Yandex Mail—to Tim, who immediately emailed her.
“She (Boateng) got back to me the following morning and set up a meeting with her in the evening at a restaurant in the University of Ghana,” Tim told The Daily Beast. “She said, ‘Make sure you come alone and not with anyone else.’”
On arrival at the restaurant, Tim said he met Boateng already seated and having a chat with five others—a girl and four boys—about writing articles that analyze racial issues in the U.S., especially those affecting Black people, and that promote Black empowerment in America. He and the five others were offered the equivalent of $40 for articles of about 1,000 words.
“She said we could bring in more people who could do the same job,” said Tim, who quit writing for Caliwax in anger following the group’s failure to pay for the three articles he has written. “I even brought in my classmate who’s my age mate.”
Tim began to submit articles to Caliwax in January and his writings were mostly aimed at inflaming divisions among Americans. In one article he filed to Boateng, who indicated in her Linkedin profile that she studied at the Moscow-based Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia, he wrote that Black people had begun to move to Africa in high numbers to escape U.S. racism and even cited a story published last year by Narratively that gave examples of African-Americans who’ve moved to Ghana in recent years.
In another piece he submitted to Boateng in early April—the last he ever wrote for Caliwax—he wrote that the U.S. had set up Black communities to be harder hit by the coronavirus. The article referenced Chicago—where 70 percent of people who died of COVID-19 at the time were African Americans, who only make up just over a quarter of the city’s population—and Michigan, where a third of all coronavirus cases and 40 percent of deaths at the time were African Americans, who make up just 14 percent of the state’s population. Tim also noted in the article that less than a third of Louisiana’s population is Black but African Americans accounted for 70 percent of people who’ve died of COVID-19 there, as he made an argument that health inequalities in the U.S. are worse in places run by Democrats. The teenager had been instructed by Boateng to search for reports that show Black people “performing badly,” especially in cities and states run by Democrats, and reference those reports while writing about racial inequalities in the United States.
Tim’s writings have also included reports about racial inequality in America. In one of the three articles he filed to Boateng, he cited a study from last year (PDF) by the National Academy of Sciences that revealed that Black men are more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white men and a 2019 report by Pew Research, which stated that Black people make up one-third of the U.S. prison population despite being just 13 percent of the entire population.
“What makes your article accepted is if it contains lots of statistics and case studies, and can make a strong case that Black people are being stereotyped by white Americans,” said Tim, who hasn’t been in contact with Boateng or anyone from Caliwax since he submitted his last piece in April. “You have to put in so much time and effort in researching, otherwise your work is rejected and you don't get paid.”
Tim’s articles were not placed on local or foreign newspapers or news websites as Boateng initially made him believe. Rather, as he found out from a close friend at Caliwax who works closely with Boateng, excerpts are from time to time taken from the drafts he submits and sent via WhatsApp to hundreds of American phone numbers.
A former Caliwax team member who was introduced to the group by Tim, his university classmate, admitted to The Daily Beast that he was given hundreds of U.S. phone numbers by Boateng during the period of George Floyd’s death to send excerpts from articles by Caliwax writers via WhatsApp. He said he was also told to often visit conservative U.S. news websites to get similar articles and send via the messaging app to the phone numbers he was given.
“The numbers were emailed to me on July 1,” the former Caliwax team member who prefers to be identified by his unofficial name, Kofi, told The Daily Beast. “There were about 500 phone numbers.”
On July 13, the same day U.S. President Donald Trump shared a tweet from former game show host Chuck Woolery that said “everyone is lying” about the coronavirus, Kofi sent WhatsApp messages targeting Democrats and journalists to random American phone numbers. The messages seen by The Daily Beast contained news articles from The Federalist and Breitbart.
In one message sent via WhatsApp to American phones, Kofi shared a link to a July 10 story from The Federalist that praised Trump for stating that the media is the enemy of the people and quoted a sentence from the article: “While rioters and looters desecrated major cities across the United States, many journalists downplayed the violence and tried to convince Americans most of the actors were simply peaceful protesters.”
In another message, he sent a link to another article from The Federalist published on July 7 that claimed that violent killings had surged in Democrat-run cities across the U.S. and commented that cities like Minneapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Nashville, Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and New Orleans have all witnessed murders go up over 20 percent this year mostly as a result of protests seeking defunding of the police in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
One recipient, in an apparent endorsement of Kofi’s message, responded with a quote from the article that read: “It’s likely these disturbing numbers for the cities above only captures a fragment of the lives lost during unrest in which many protesters chant ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
Kofi also shared a link to a Breitbart story posted on July 12 that claimed that the Democratic Party has brought the U.S. to the brink of socialism and that the party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden, whom the author described as the most left-wing frontrunner in American political history, has “promised to raise taxes immediately, end the use of fossil fuels, and use federal taxpayers’ money to pay for abortions.”
“Those were the last four messages I shared,” said Kofi, who ended his three months’ association with Caliwax in the middle of July after not receiving pay at all from the group. “They always made promises they were going to pay but never mentioned when. I just couldn’t trust them anymore.”
Both Kofi and Tim said they had no idea they would be working as a foreign troll and no one told them that, by their actions, they were in some ways interfering with U.S. politics.
“I was made to believe that Caliwax was in the business of informing people the world over on the most important issues in their country,” said Kofi. “I just did what they asked me to do without thinking what their true motives were.”
As for Tim, who said he suspected there was something fishy going on at Caliwax when he found out that excerpts from his articles were being sent to WhatsApp users in America rather than his full stories being published in newspapers as he was told, he initially didn’t want to stop submitting articles because he needed the money the group offered him for his upkeep in school.
“I said to myself, it didn't matter whether or not my articles got published somewhere provided I’m paid for what I've submitted,” said Tim. “If I wasn’t being owed, I would have continued sending articles to them.”
The Daily Beast was unable to trace Caliwax to any physical office, either in Ghana or Nigeria, as it appears members of the group work remotely. The group also doesn’t seem to have real presence online.
Another key member of the troll campaign is a so-called journalist who goes by the name “William Gyado” or “Bill Gyado” and who uses the internet to promote QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory that posits that top U.S. Democrats and persons disliked by QAnon fans are cannibal-pedophiles who will soon be arrested and executed by Trump in an event they know as “The Storm.”
In August, The Daily Beast reported that Gyado, who disclosed in his LinkedIn profile that he works for Caliwax and claimed to live in New York, sent an email using Yandex Mail depicting U.S. Democrats as anti-Black to multiple journalists in Nigeria, including news staff of Cool FM, Wazobia FM, and Nigeria Info FM—Nigeria’s three biggest private radio stations. He attempted to justify why Africans should embrace the QAnon conspiracy theory by referring to a Nov. 2019 study by the African Child Policy Forum which found that the continent is experiencing an increase in child sexual exploitation, including “tourism marriages” between young girls and male tourists in North Africa and the online recruitment of young girls in West Africa “into pornographic films and bestiality,” as evidence that kids on the continent are also being targeted by the world-ruling, Satan-worshipping pedophiles of QAnon’s imagination.
Gyado uses Opera News Hub, an online media platform that helps authors and bloggers create content and share it with a user base of more than 360 million users globally, to promote QAnon conspiracy theories and misinformation about U.S. politics. The news platform, which is very popular across Africa, is provided by Opera, one of the world’s major browser developers based in Norway but owned by China’s Golden Brick Capital private equity fund.
Despite claims by Opera staff that articles submitted by authors who’ve signed up to the Opera News Hub are first checked by editors for copyright infringement and fake news before being posted on the Opera News app and Opera Mini browser, articles by Gyado that suggested that Trump is fighting an evil cabal that “control almost everything in the world—from politicians to Hollywood and to the media,” and that Biden as president would expand the U.S. Supreme Court with liberal justices and force countries in Africa to adopt rulings made by the court in the same way Barack Obama pressured African nations to legalize gay marriage, were approved and published on all Opera news platforms.
The URL for Gyado's Opera News profile page and the two articles he has so far written has a Nigerian file name, indicating that his Opera News Hub account was created from Nigeria using a Nigerian phone number (a phone number is one of the basic requirements for anyone seeking to create and publish content on via the Opera News Hub) and perhaps Nigerian identification documents.
The Gyado articles published by Opera are primarily intended for readers in Africa, where more than 120 million people use the company’s news platforms. But the author clearly does know that once they have been spread far and wide, they are likely to make their way to the United States via like-minded readers sharing them on messaging apps or on Twitter and Facebook accounts that have not been taken down. All this as QAnon conspiracies are developing into a central theme in the U.S. elections.
In response to an email from The Daily Beast requesting comments on Gyado’s writings and true identity, Opera’s Product Manager Scot Eritemu said the company’s editorial team had been instructed "to do a check" on the author’s articles and Opera News Hub account “and take necessary actions.” But he did not give details on whether Gyado provided an authentic phone number and identification documents when creating his account. Gyado’s articles remained on all Opera News platforms as of the time of publishing this story.
The Daily Beast reached out to both Gyado and Boateng for comments on the trolling operation but neither responded to the emails sent to them.
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.
The activities of the Caliwax team are very similar to the Russian troll campaign of 2016, which set up hundreds of social media accounts, including some run by West Africans, designed to pass as American—a move that formed part of a broad Russian campaign to influence American politics.
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 for taking part in the foreign trolling activity aimed at the 2016 U.S. election.
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, and who 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.
In this election cycle, a Russian government effort to use “troll factories” in Nigeria and Ghana to push divisive messages onto social media that inflame racial tensions in the U.S. as the presidential election approaches has long been established.
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 rented by a small nonprofit group that called itself Eliminating Barriers for the Liberation of Africa (EBLA). 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, which found links to both EBLA and persons associated with the IRA, an organization funded by Russian oligarch Evgeny Prigozhin (a close friend to President Vladimir Putin), took down scores of accounts and pages.
But campaigns on WhatsApp—popular around the world in part because of its end-to-end encryption of text, voice, and video communications—open new doors for toxic disinformation. A spokesperson for the Facebook-owned company earlier told The Daily Beast that WhatsApp doesn't monitor 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.
Linvill previously told The Daily Beast that 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.”
It’s not clear if the people at Caliwax work with those at EBLA or have any links with the Prigozhin-funded IRA, but individuals who run the former, just like the latter, appear to have Russian backgrounds and connections.
According to both Tim and Kofi, Boateng, who wrote in her Facebook profile that she's director at Caliwax, speaks fluent Russian and had told them she was in Moscow last December. The teenage boys, who've never met Gyado in person, suspect he's the person Boateng refers to as "Bee" during frequent phone conversations in the Russian language.
On social media, neither Boateng nor Gyado displayed original photos in their profiles, which mostly carried animated images.
The Daily Beast reached out to Concord Management, a company majorly owned by Prigozhin, for comment on any link with Caliwax but did not get any response.
Regardless of their motivation, these trolls in Africa share the same intent as Russia's IRA and appear to be focused on dividing the United States and boosting Trump—himself a hugely divisive figure—whether or not he needs their help.