Researchers Uncover New Pro-Russian Influence Campaign Targeting AfricaExBulletin
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Nearly a year since the invasion of Ukraine, Russian-aligned activists are sending pro-Kremlin messages to Africa using a coordinated French-language network that includes Facebook, YouTube, Telegram and other online channels.
The network, dubbed “Russosphere,” is linked to a Belgian far-right political activist who was involved in overseeing contested Russian-backed referendums in Crimea and Donbas in 2014, according to researchers at Logically, a company that tracks misinformation and misinformation online. The activist, Luc Michel, was also involved in a 2021 effort to create a breakaway “Republic of Detroit” in the US, which attracted little attention but could serve as a blueprint for Russian-backed efforts to influence in American politics, says Logically.
It is the latest example of how Russia-linked influence campaigns capitalize on social and political divisions, a continuation of tactics the Kremlin used during the 2016 US presidential election. And it shows how social media remains a powerful channel to spread pro-Russian messages, even as major tech platforms have tried to crack down on manipulation and state-backed propaganda.
“The association of these individuals with platforms known to support extremist propaganda and disinformation, often linked to Russia, indicates the potential that Russian state-linked disinformation campaigns are expanding directly or indirectly to target specific American communities, in addition to influence operations in Africa. “Write logical researchers Kyle Walter and Nick Backovic in a report about the activities of Michel published on Wednesday.
Michel’s election monitoring organization, the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections, “gave legitimacy to the extended occupation of Ukraine. [in 2022] and then oversaw a referendum on US independence,” Walter said in an interview.
Russia has been working to build influence in Africa
Russia has expanded its efforts in create influence in Africa for years through arms deals, economic investments and military support in the form of the Wagner Group, a private Russian mercenary force believed to be funded 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 Beastrunning a number of websites posing as local news organizations in countries including Chad, Equatorial Guinea and the Central African Republic.
“Most of Michel’s operations in Africa promote pan-Africanism and anti-colonial 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. has written
The Russosphere emerged in mid-2021 and has amassed more than 65,000 followers and subscribers on platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, as well as messaging app Telegram and Russian social network VKontakte.
Logically linked social media accounts and website domain ownership records to Michel and fellow Belgian activist Fabrice Baur, who is also involved with the Eurasian Observatory for Democracy and Elections.
But they differ from Michel and Baur’s previous efforts in Africa in their “unified brand” under the name Russosphere, in the level of coordination between different channels and in the traction they have gained online, Walter said.
Logically, the accounts were found to often share content from Michel, who has ties to European neo-Nazi groups and founded his own political party, the Parti Communautaire National-Europen, in 1994.
The Daily Beast reported that Michel also has ties to the Wagner Group. Logically says it has identified a pro-Wagner Telegram group with about 800 members, administered by Michel and Baur, promoting 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. He says he specializes in the former Soviet republics, as well as the regions of Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, whose status is disputed and where Russia has encouraged separatist movements. . EODE also claims to have “secured many missions” in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, the Balkans and the Black Sea region, and North Africa, particularly Libya.
A campaign to declare Detroit an independent republic
Logic also identified a separate campaign involving Michel and EODE that targeted Americans. The EODE purported to monitor a referendum in Detroit attempting to create a breakaway republic within the US, without success.
The “Republic of Detroit” movement appears to be the brainchild 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 running a scam claiming to be offering free homes.
Yunus and Michel also serve as co-chairs of the North Atlantic Peace Organization, which purports to be an alternative to NATO’s military and security alliance, focused on “Afrodescendants in the United States who assert the right to for self-determination and the citizens of the Russian Federation”.
Logically’s Walter said that while Yunus’s separatist efforts in Detroit amounted to a “weird sideshow” that had no impact or impact, his message echoes what Michel and the Russosphere narratives have been pushing in Africa: the anti- -colonialists focused on we should break away from the West and align with Russia.
Walter described this as the “fire pattern” of Russia’s propaganda: repackaging narratives for repeated use. Efforts in Detroit and across Africa will likely 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.
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