Facebook suspended three networks of Russian accounts attempting to interfere in the domestic politics of eight African countries and tied to a Russian businessman accused of meddling in past US elections.
The campaigns used almost 200 fake and compromised accounts to target people in Madagascar, Central African Republic (CAR), Mozambique, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya, Facebook said. Between them, the accounts amassed more than a million followers.
All the networks were connected to “entities associated with Russian financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin,” a Russian catering tycoon indicted by US special prosecutor Robert Mueller as backer of an alleged Russian effort to sway US elections with covert social media campaigns.
Prigozhin and lawyers representing him did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the latest Facebook accusations. He has previously denied any wrongdoing.
In some of the African countries, Russian-run networks worked with local citizens to disguise their origins and target internet users, said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cyber security policy.
“There’s sort of a joining of forces, if you will, between local actors and actors from Russia,” he told Reuters. “It appears the local actors involved know who is behind the operation.”
Facebook declined to identify people or organisations which worked with the accounts or which companies it connected to the activity and Prigozhin, nicknamed “Putin’s cook” by Russian media because of banquets he organised for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Researchers at Stanford University, who worked with Facebook on its investigation, said the companies included the Wagner Group – a firm of military contractors that sources have previously told Reuters has carried out clandestine combat missions on the Kremlin’s behalf in Ukraine and Syria.
Reuters reported last year the group had expanded into economic and diplomatic work in countries including the CAR as part of a push by Russia to increase its influence in Africa.
Russian authorities deny Wagner contractors carry out their orders and Moscow repeatedly rejected Western allegations of election meddling.
The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Wagner has no public profile and has never commented about its activities. Prigozhin denied links to Wagner.
Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet’s Google vowed to step up the fight against political manipulation of their platforms after facing criticism for failing to counter alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
Despite increased scrutiny, US officials repeatedly warn of the threat posed by Russia and other countries, who they say may still attempt to sway the result of the November 2020 presidential contest.
The campaigns shut down for meddling in Africa posted local news and geopolitical issues, as well as sharing content from Russian and local state-controlled media, Facebook said. Some accounts were active as far back as 2014.
They also spent money on advertising with Facebook estimating the total at less than $90,000. Paid social media advertising markets in African countries are small.
Researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, the research lab at Stanford University, said the networks used a variety of techniques across different African countries.
Some accounts supported a specific party or candidate, they said, while others backed multiple figures. In other cases, pages appeared geared to building support for Wagner activities or Russian deals for natural resources.
In Sudan, said Observatory Research Scholar Shelby Grossman, “the tone is generally supportive of government, but not transparently so. It suggests the strategy is different across countries.”
The activity marks a shift from previous alleged efforts by the Internet Research Agency to target US voters, said Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former security chief and now head of the Stanford Internet Observatory.
The “franchise” model of working with local people in target countries makes activity more difficult to detect, he said and may have been developed to circumvent a move by Facebook to publish locations of administrators of some political accounts.
The action over the African networks is Facebook’s second move against groups it linked to Prigozhin in a week.
The company last week said it suspended a network of 50 Instagram accounts linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency, an organisation US prosecutors say was funded by Prigozhin to attempt to sway the 2016 US presidential vote.