When military officers were first spotted in the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and linked by Western media to Russia, the Kremlin called the reports “complete nonsense”. And as concerns were increasing around a possible incursion into Ukraine, Russia presented a different scenario.
Using traditional and social media, Russia attempted to create a single, unchallenged narrative: a humanitarian crisis was unfolding in Ukraine and Russian-speaking Ukrainians needed protection from extremists and radicals.
Fast forward eight years and Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine followed a similar modus operandi. Announcing on 24 February 2022 that he intended to carry out a “peacekeeping operation” in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said citizens of Ukraine needed protection from an “abusive” regime.
The move was straight out of Russia’s media playbook. By now, Russia’s use of media to leverage broader influence campaigns has gained notoriety in Ukraine and beyond.
Combating Western narratives
Information operations are the first crucial step in many of Russia’s pursuits, used to sow doubt on the very notion of truth itself and build trust in alternative news sources. In Ukraine, it was about painting Kyiv as the aggressor and framing Moscow’s invasion as liberation.
In Africa, it’s about combating Western narratives and providing a more balanced image of Russia on the continent. Russian state-owned media outlets like RT and Sputnik are key to this strategy. They provide content in English, French and Arabic to African countries where they also swap content with local media. Their ability to cover issues marginalised by the so-called “mainstream media” finds resonance among African news outlets. Russian media shared “positive stories” about Africa, in contrast with the Western media narrative of “Ebola and civil war”, the head of Ghana’s state news agency said in 2019.
Controversially, Russia has also used the media to amplify support for African dictators. Russian communication specialists were active in Sudan during the January 2019 protests. Official channels spread fake news linking protesters to foreign powers such as Israel. Official Russian media also presented the protests as being a result of foreign influence, warning against “external intervention” and the destabilisation of the country. Mirroring its activities elsewhere in Africa, Russia has exploited vulnerabilities in Sudan to secure itself a seat at the negotiating table.
Pro-Russia sentiments growing in Africa
Like other countries that use strategic narratives to advance state interests, attempting to influence through the media is not a new phenomenon for Russia. The Soviet Union practised “dezinformatsiya” for years. But digital technologies and social media are new, increasing the reach and impact of Russian influence campaigns. The ability of the Kremlin to convey messages directly to foreign publics has become easier and cheaper than ever.
Interestingly, much of the content being shared on social media by Russian networks in Africa is not “fake news” but is in most cases hyper-partisan and polarising.
For example, when supporters of the August 2020 coup in Mali spilled into the streets to celebrate, inexplicably some were carrying Russian flags and photos of Putin. At the time Russia did not have any strong bilateral, cultural, or historical ties with the country. But the groundwork for pro-Russian sentiment was laid a year earlier when social media sites started blaming France for Mali’s militant Islamist insurgency in the north.
Since the August coup, several more protests have sprung up in parts of Mali, all denouncing France’s presence in the country and, in some cases, calling for further cooperation with Russia. In February 2022, France officially removed its forces from the country.
Similar scenes were witnessed after Burkina Faso’s January 2022 coup, with some supporters calling for their country to switch alliances from France to Russia. A day after the coup, Alexander Ivanov, who has been linked to the private military company Wagner in the Central African Republic (CAR), offered training to the Burkinabe military. Wagner mercenaries have been employed in the CAR since at least 2017. Their presence has been framed as helpful despite widespread allegations of human rights abuses levelled against them.
With tech companies like Meta and Twitter now wise to online influence campaigns, Russia has sought to outsource the creation of content to local actors in Africa. This gives the influence campaigns more cultural context while also making it difficult for ordinary citizens to identify inauthentic accounts.
Success up for debate
Whether any of these influence campaigns had real impact is up for debate. Although users who claimed to be from Africa engaged with many of the posts and were active commenters, it is important to keep in mind one major aim of Russian information operations in Africa: to convey that the country’s presence on the continent is larger than it really is. After all, Russia is in many ways struggling to increase its economic and political foothold in Africa, particularly when compared with the Chinese, British or French presence. The success of online influence campaigns also depends on how connected societies are to the digital world.
At home in Russia, there are also signs that the Kremlin’s current information war is not going as planned. State media continues to push narratives that frame Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine as legitimate, resulting in many countries banning Russian TV channels from their networks. While outlets such as RT are clear drivers of the Russian narrative, it’s important to understand what information they share and why. We can treat that information with caution without blocking it out altogether.
Indeed, many Russian citizens have come out in opposition to the war, recognising that what is being presented is not always truthful. And efforts by the Kremlin to restrict access to social media platforms have not stopped anti-war messages from being shared widely.
While this is unlikely to stop the Kremlin’s efforts to influence the media landscape in countries of interest, the fight to control perceptions seems more evenly matched than before.
Click here to download the Policy Insight on which this op-ed is based.