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A pro-Russian social media campaign is trying to influence politics in Africa

A banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during a protest to support the Burkina Faso President Captain Ibrahim Traore and to demand the departure of France's ambassador and military forces, in Ouagadougou, on Jan. 20, 2023. Russia has been trying to expand its influence throughout Africa in recent years.
Olympia de Maismont
AFP via Getty Images
A banner of Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen during a protest to support the Burkina Faso President Captain Ibrahim Traore and to demand the departure of France's ambassador and military forces, in Ouagadougou, on Jan. 20, 2023. Russia has been trying to expand its influence throughout Africa in recent years.

Close to a year since the invasion of Ukraine, activists aligned with Russia are pushing pro-Kremlin messages in Africa using a coordinated French-language network spanning Facebook, YouTube, Telegram and other online channels.

The network, dubbed "Russosphere," is connected to a far-right Belgian political activist who was involved in overseeing contested Russian-backed referenda in Crimea and Donbas in 2014, according to researchers at Logically, a company that tracks online misinformation and disinformation. The activist, Luc Michel, was also involved in a 2021 effort to create a breakaway "Republic of Detroit'' in the U.S., which garnered little attention but could serve as a blueprint for Russian-aligned efforts to influence American politics, Logically says.

It's the latest example of how influence campaigns connected to Russia capitalize on social and political divisions – a continuation of the tactics the Kremlin used during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And it shows how social media remains a potent channel to spread pro-Russian messages, even as the big technology platforms have tried to crack down on manipulation and state-backed propaganda.

"The nexus of these individuals with known platforms espousing extremist and often Russia-associated propaganda and misinformation, indicates the potential that Russia-state affiliated misinformation campaigns are being directly or indirectly expanded to target specific U.S. communities, in addition to influence operations in Africa," Logically researchers Kyle Walter and Nick Backovic wrote in a report about Michel's activities published on Wednesday .

Michel's election-monitoring organization, the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections, "gave legitimacy to the expanded invasion of Ukraine [in 2022] and then oversaw an independence referendum in the U.S.," Walter said in an interview.

Russia has worked to build influence in Africa

Russia has been expanding its efforts to build influence in Africa for years through arms deals, economic investment and military support in the form of the Wagner Group, a private Russian mercenary force believed to be financed by an oligarch with close ties to President Vladimir Putin.

Michel has long focused on Africa, according to Logically as well as reporting from The Daily Beast, running a series of websites posing as local news organizations in countries including Chad, Equatorial Guinea and the Central African Republic.

"The majority of Michel's operations in Africa promote pan-Africanism and anti-colonialist sentiment as a rallying point to support Michel's central thesis: that African countries would benefit from distancing themselves from their European colonizers and developing closer ties with Russia," Walter and Backovic wrote.

Russosphere emerged in mid-2021 and has amassed more than 65,000 followers and subscribers across platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, as well as the messaging app Telegram and the Russian social network VKontakte.

Logically linked the social media accounts and website domain ownership records to Michel and fellow Belgian activist Fabrice Béaur, who is also involved with the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections.

But they differ from Michel and Béaur's previous efforts in Africa in their "unified branding" under the Russosphere name, in the level of coordination between the different channels, and in the traction they've gained online, Walter said.

Logically found the accounts frequently share content from Michel, who has ties to European neo-Nazi groups and founded his own political party, the Parti Communautaire National-Européen, in 1994.

The Daily Beast reported Michel also has ties to the Wagner Group. Logically says it has identified a pro-Wagner Telegram group with some 800 members, administered by Michel and Béaur, promoting the mercenaries and sharing contact information for recruiters.

Michel founded the Eurasian Organization for Democracy and Elections, or EODE, in 2006. The group claims to monitor elections and "audit" political systems. It says it specializes in former Soviet republics as well as the regions of Transdniester in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan – territories whose status is disputed and where Russia has encouraged separatist movements. EODE also claims to have "provided many missions" in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the Balkans and Black Sea region, and north Africa, especially Libya.

A campaign to declare Detroit an independent republic

Logically also identified a separate campaign involving Michel and EODE targeting Americans. EODE claimed to monitor a referendum in Detroit attempting to create a breakaway republic inside the U.S., without success.

The "Republic of Detroit" movement appears to be the creation of Ramzu Yunus, an American whom Detroit's city attorney has described as a "snake oil salesman". In 2021, city officials warned Detroit residents that Yunus was pushing a hoax claiming to offer free houses.

Yunus and Michel also serve as co-chairs of the North Atlantic Peace Organization, which claims to be an alternative to the NATO military and security alliance, focused on "Afrodescendants in the United States who are asserting their right of self-determination and citizens of the Russian Federation."

Walter, of Logically, said while Yunus's separatist efforts in Detroit amounted to a "weird sideshow" that failed to have impact or influence, its message echoes the ones Michel and the Russosphere accounts have been pushing in Africa: anti-colonial narratives focused on the need to break from the West and align with Russia.

Walter described this as Russia's "firehose model" of propaganda: repackaging narratives to use over and over again. The efforts in Detroit and across Africa are likely to be used to identify and refine techniques that generate the most engagement, which will be reused in future campaigns, he said.

Russia is "looking for a subset of the global population that is receptive to these messages," Walter said.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.