Russia has been testing new disinformation tactics in an enormous Facebook campaign in parts of Africa, as part of an evolution of its manipulation techniques ahead of the 2020 American presidential election.
Facebook said on Wednesday that it removed three Russian-backed influence networks on its site that were aimed at African countries including Mozambique, Cameroon, Sudan and Libya. The company said the online networks were linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch who was indicted by the United States and accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
Unlike past influence campaigns from Russia, the networks targeted several countries through Arabic-language posts, according to the Stanford Internet Observatory, which collaborated with Facebook to unravel the effort. Russians also worked with locals in the African countries to set up Facebook accounts that were disguised as authentic to avoid detection.
Some of the posts promoted Russian policies, while others criticized French and American policies in Africa. A Facebook page set up by the Russians in Sudan that masqueraded as a news network, called Sudan Daily, regularly reposted articles from Russia’s state-owned Sputnik news organization.
The effort was at times larger in volume than what the Russians deployed in the United States in 2016. While the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency posted on Facebook 2,442 times a month on average in 2016, one of the networks in Africa posted 8,900 times in October alone, according to the Stanford researchers.
“They are trying to make it harder for us and civil society to try and detect their operations,” Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy, said of the Russian actions.
The campaign underlined how Russia is continuing to aggressively try different disinformation techniques, even as it has come under scrutiny for its online interference methods. By spreading the use of its tactics to a region that is less closely monitored than the United States and Europe, researchers said Russia appeared to be trying to expand its sphere of influence in Africa, where it has started distributing propaganda and building a political infrastructure.
Alex Stamos, director of the Stanford Internet Observatory and a former Facebook executive, said the campaign had implications for the United States ahead of next year’s presidential election.
He said it was highly likely that Russian groups were already using the same model of working with locals in the United States to post inflammatory messages on Facebook. By employing locals, he said, Russians did not need to set up fake accounts or create accounts that originated in Russia, making it easier to sidestep being noticed.
“We will see a model where American groups are used as proxies, where all the content is published under their accounts and their pages,” Mr. Stamos said.
For Facebook, the evolution of Russia’s disinformation techniques means it cannot afford to lose vigilance. The Silicon Valley company faced a barrage of criticism after Russians abused the social network in 2016 to plant divisive content to influence the American electorate. Since then, Facebook has set up war rooms and hired more security experts to head off foreign interference in elections.
But Russia has kept up a steady stream of influence efforts on Facebook. Last week, the company revealed it had taken down four state-backed disinformation campaigns, three from Iran and one of which started in Russia.
Facebook is dealing with other issues related to the 2020 election. For weeks, it has been under attack by presidential candidates, lawmakers and even its own employees over how it treats political advertising. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has said he will allow politicians to post any claims they want in an ad — even if they are false — in the name of free expression.
Facebook faces a difficult adversary in Russia. The country had previously indicated that its disinformation techniques were changing and that it was aiming to work with locals on online influence campaigns.
In Ukraine, which held a presidential election this year, local authorities announced in March that they had arrested a Russian agent in the capital, Kiev. The agent, they said, had been ordered by his Russian handlers to “find people in Ukraine on Facebook who wanted to sell their accounts or temporarily rent them out.”
The latest campaign in Africa is the first well-documented case of Russia “franchising,” or outsourcing, its disinformation efforts to local parties, said Facebook and the Stanford researchers. It’s unusual for a nation to try to influence so many countries at once, they said.
Shelby Grossman, one of the Stanford researchers, said that Russians in some cases set up local media organizations in the African countries to employ locals who would post the propaganda and false content on Facebook. In other cases, the Russians hired existing media groups to do so.
Facebook said it was unclear specifically when the Russian activity in Africa started because the Russians took over some existing pages on the social network. But the posts ramped up last year when the influence networks bought Facebook ads. In total, the networks spent more than $87,000 on Facebook ads.
The networks often posted about political news, including elections in Madagascar and Mozambique. They sought to drive Facebook users from the platform and into public groups on WhatsApp and Telegram, which are encrypted messaging apps, to increase interaction. And they used Facebook Live videos, Google Forms and quizzes to draw people into their Facebook pages and groups.
Some of the Facebook pages pushing Russian disinformation were not sophisticated. A cluster of pages posing as Libyan news entities posted about Libyan issues, but the page managers were in Egypt, the Netherlands, Germany and other countries, said the Stanford researchers. Some of the pages experienced unnatural jumps in followers and other telltale signs of inauthentic behavior.
Mr. Gleicher said some of the Russian-run pages and groups also used compromised Facebook accounts that once belonged to real people but had been stolen and repurposed by hackers. He said that Facebook is still building out its automated systems for detecting compromised accounts, so the company still misses some and pulls in its investigative team to catch them.
Facebook said its investigation had “connected these campaigns to entities associated with” Mr. Prigozhin, but the company declined to say how. Mr. Prigozhin controlled the entity that financed Russia’s Internet Research Agency.
In all, the social network said it took down 66 accounts, 83 pages, 11 groups and 12 Instagram accounts related to the Russian campaign. Mr. Gleicher said hundreds of thousands of Facebook accounts followed the pages, groups and Instagram accounts.
Ben Nimmo, head of investigations at the social media analytics company Graphika, said Russia’s new tactics revealed the “dirty tricks and black ops that are underpinning the Russian outreach in Africa.” He called it “the new KGB playbook for foreign influence.”