That's the premise behind "Disinformation" - with award-winning Evergreen host Paul Brandus. Get ready for amazing stories - war, espionage, corruption, elections, and assorted trickery showing how false information is turning our world inside out - and what we can do about it. A co-production of Evergreen and Emergent Risk International.
Hearts and Minds in Africa - Russia's International Disinformation Campaign
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Russia may be losing the public opinion battle in North America and Europe, but it has plenty of support elsewhere. Featuring Thea Gioe, Director of Training, Emergent Risk International; Meredith Wilson, Chief Executive Officer, Emergent Risk International.
Civilians running for cover, running for their lives in Kyiv, as the Ukrainian capital comes under yet another Russian assault.
Schools, hospitals, apartment blocks, all fair game for the Russians who make no distinction between civilian and military targets.
The orchestrator of this brutal campaign, now, deep into its second year, is of course, Vladimir Putin branded nothing less than a pariah in the West, and now, formally accused of war crimes by an international criminal tribunal.
But in other parts of the world like Africa, such views are hardly universal. A robust Kremlin campaign has seen to that, a campaign fueled by disinformation.
I'm Paul Brandus, and that's the name of this series, it's called simply, Disinformation.
And I'm Meredith Wilson, Founder and CEO of Emergent Risk International, and I'll be providing analysis throughout each episode.
Draft resolution A/ES-11/L7 is adopted.
On the wars first anniversary, the United Nations voted again to condemn Russia, but it was hardly unanimous.
The result of the vote is as follows, in favor, 141, against seven.
The six nations that supported Russia, no surprise, their fellow pariah states like North Korea and Syria, but two were from Africa, Eritrea and Mali. The 32 countries that abstained included Asian heavyweights, China and India, but half were from Africa. The list literally running from A to Z with countries like Algeria and Zimbabwe refusing to condemn Moscow.
How to explain this, Meredith Wilson of Emergent Risk International says history plays a role and for the West, not in a good way. She's referring to the West's history of colonization and brutal treatment of many African countries, a history that Russia and China, by the way, are eagerly taking advantage of.
They have really grabbed onto the sort of post-colonial discontent with some of the Western powers, and they're very unfortunate and really brutal history in Africa. So, the French, Belgians the Portuguese, there is still to this day, a lot of leftover animosity there.
So, Russia and China have played upon that to essentially say, “Well, you don't want the Americans here. You don't want to work with the Americans because it's just more colonialism with a different name.”
In actual fact, that's actually exactly what is happening with China and Russia right now, is actually colonialism under a different name. But the way that the information is provided and just as you see disinformation grabbing onto resentments here to divide people, it's a similar method in Africa, just aimed at different people.
This resentment, Wilson says, spills over into one big reason the U.S., Russia and China are competing for African influence in the first place, namely access to critical raw materials.
Africa has some of the fastest growing populations in the world. Nigeria will be the fourth largest country in the world within the next 20 years. And disinformation there is everywhere because you have the U.S. and Russia and China buying for influence there.
It is absolutely vital that the U.S. maintains a good relationship with Africa. And part of that is because this is a primary source of the minerals that we need to build technology. So, anything from your phone to your computer, most of that is going to come from Africa.
It's going to come from Zimbabwe, Congo, any number of other states that have these rare earth minerals like cobalt available. Right now, the majority of that is mined and goes to China for production. But as we get to this deeper conflict with China, we will increasingly lose access to that if we do not build our own pipeline for those minerals.
And so, Africa, a place often out of mind for Americans (which is a mistake, by the way) can be considered a front in an ongoing and accelerating competition between the U.S. on one side and China and Russia on the other.
Moscow and Beijing, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are drawn together in a mutual desire to weaken the United States, to dissolve the world order that America has led since 1945, and that so many nations in Africa abstained where flat out opposed Western efforts in Ukraine shows us that the Russians and Chinese are seeing some success.
That being said, and with respect to their disinformation efforts, Russia and China are pursuing their objectives a bit differently. Thea Gioe is ERI's director of training, she just gave a major presentation on this at a conference in South Africa.
We started looking at it from a purely disinformation element, but what you quickly realize is that disinformation is one covert tool of a much larger influence campaign, most of which is taking place very overtly and for a variety of reasons, and through a variety of means.
And so, to sum it up very quickly, our findings were essentially that we see both Russia and China pedaling disinformation with similar sounding goals on the surface, but some different nuances in there.
And then the great powers are all also very interested in how they can create allies or continue to invest in allied relationships that are going to support them in international forums, like in the UN for example.
And we saw how relevant that was played out when we looked at the 2022 UNGA resolution to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and we saw 35 nations abstain from that. Of those 35 nations, 17 of them were African.
So, we see that Russia particularly is really leveraging those influence campaigns to carry favor with African governments, in order to have greater legitimacy in the international forums where they are vying for power particularly against the West. And China does a very similar thing though, with different issues like human rights issues around exploited labor, for example, or environmental issues.
But the Kremlin effort involves more than its vaunted influence efforts. It also involves boots on the ground in Africa. More on that after this short break.
This series on Disinformation is a co-production of Evergreen Podcasts and Emergent Risk International, a global risk advisory firm. Emergent Risk International, we build intelligent solutions that find opportunities in a world of risk.
Welcome back, we've been talking about Russian and Chinese disinformation efforts in Africa.
[Speaking in French 00:09:08]
“People of the Central African Republic,” this man says at a rally, “Today, we say loud and strong, that we will support Russia until our last breath.” The Central African Republic is a former French colony.
The locals hold Russian flags and signs saying that they support Moscow's war in Ukraine. In this report by France 24, a Paris-based TV network, interviews show just how effective Moscow's lies have been.
Russia asked Ukraine to stop the attacks, but they didn't comply. Then Russia attacked Ukraine, you should know that.
The protests run by an anti-French group financed by Russia.
Russia is having a hard time, so we must support them. This protest is only to show them the Central African Republic supports Russia at all costs.
Much of this propaganda is spread via Afrique Media, a television channel based in Cameroon that reaches millions of people across the continent. Pundit's lavish praise on Vladimir Putin, and the channel just signed a partnership with RT, the state-funded Russian television network. There are other examples of this, but you get the idea.
The question I put to Thea Gioe: how much of this support for Russia actually concerns the war in Ukraine? Don't they see what the Russians are really doing there? And how much of their backing stems from lingering resentment of Western colonialism in Africa, which frankly was exploitative and often brutal.
Certainly, that is one of the key refrains that Russia is playing over and over again, and they're doing it both overtly and through disinformation campaigns. So, we hear them talk, very directly to leaders around the world, but African leaders in particular, we’ll talk about that here since that's sort of my area of expertise and where I was focused last week.
And they're saying, “Hey, you are sovereign nations, you should get to determine how you run your own business. We are not here to moralize about human rights or democratization. We are here to help you achieve your aims, whatever they may be.”
And they portray themselves as therefore, treating African governments as equals. Not having that neo-colonial patronizing stereotype playing out there. In some cases, that has bought them those abstentions, in some cases it did win them support.
Meanwhile, we have learned, albeit inadvertently, more about Moscow's African strategy in recent days. At least one document among the trove of U.S. intelligence material allegedly leaked in early April.
Reportedly describes ongoing planning and operations by the GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency to plant stories in African media with two goals. First, turn public support against African leaders who support Ukraine, and second, discredit the United States and France. Meredith Wilson, again.
This really goes right along the lines of what Thea has described in terms of influence operations. And it's not a single strategy of just disinformation, it's disinformation, it’s influence, and its military action. And these things all wrap up as part of a much grander Russian military strategy.
In Africa, the military portion of that strategy is carried out by the Wagner Group, Vladimir Putin's shadowy private army.
[Speaking Russian 00:13:15]
This Russian advisor is teaching infantry tactics to soldiers from the Central African Republic. Wagner Group is run by a longtime comrade of Putin's, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former prison convict, chef, and caterer turned international warlord.
You've undoubtedly heard of his brutal tactics in Ukraine, but his footprint in Africa, in the Middle East is vast, encompassing, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Mozambique, Madagascar, Central African Republic, and Mali among other places. Here again, Thea Gioe.
Wagner's been in Africa since at least 2015, 2016, in various countries and various guises. It pops up again more overtly in some areas than in others. But Wagner Group is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian oligarch, very close to Putin, who also runs the internet research agency.
And so, we need to keep that in mind because Prigozhin is not only an expert at deploying mercenary forces across Africa, but he's an expert at running the disinformation that enables that to happen.
Meanwhile, Russia's influence campaign has also found traction with its claim that high food and fuel prices and high levels of debt are the West's fault. Here again, Thea says, China comes into play with its own disinformation.
So, Russia has been able to really work on this theme of if you're feeling the pinch of food insecurity now, if you're feeling the pinch of higher prices, blame the West for sanctioning us. Because it's those sanctions that are keeping you from getting your grain shipments, or they're keeping those food prices elevated, that are causing that backlash from local populations who are concerned about food security.
And similar to that, they're an exporter of fuel and fertilizers. So, again, the fertilizers are impacting the ability to increase domestic food production and the fuel is impacting the ability of countries to run their businesses. And we're seeing a number of countries also struggle with high levels of debt this year.
And again, a lot of that goes back to China, that's where China comes into this because they're also massaging the information environment to shift the blame for those debt default risk countries, from the large amount of loans that they have taken out with various Chinese institutions and shift that back onto the West.
And so, there's a lot of common ground here for Russia and China to work together and for China to amplify those messages about, “Oh, you're struggling importing fuel, you're struggling with these high prices, you're struggling to get enough food, blame the West in those Western sanctions.”
And we're seeing that again at the overt level, but also just blasted out time and time again, in a number of different ways and across every social media platform you can think of to reach a wide dispersal of audiences.
Which brings us back to the United Nations and its recent vote on whether to condemn Moscow for its war in Ukraine.
The result of the vote is as follows, in favor, 141 against seven, abstentions 32.
And so, thanks to Russian and Chinese influence efforts in Africa and elsewhere, the United States and its allies find themselves for now, at least, struggling in the battle for hearts and minds.
If you like this show and this series, I hope you'll go to the Apple or Spotify page or wherever you're listening to this, and give us a review.
And if you have questions, comments, or ideas or an example of disinformation that you'd like us to check out, my email is [email protected].
Thanks to Thea Gioe and Meredith Wilson, audio from Turkey's Anadolu Agency, the United Nations and France 24. Our sound designer and editor, Noah Foutz; audio engineer, Nathan Corson, executive producers Michael DeAloia and Gerardo Orlando.
And I'm Paul Brandus, thanks so much for listening.