A Russia-linked Facebook influence campaign has targeted African countries where Russian military advisors, mercenaries and political consultants are reportedly operating, including Libya and Mozambique, according to cyber threat experts.
The allegations come after Vladimir Putin hosted 43 African heads of state in Sochi on the Black Sea last week, signing deals on arms, energy and mining as the Kremlin tries to increase its clout on the continent.
In a report, the Stanford Internet Observatory and Facebook attributed the operation to entities tied to “Putin’s chef” Yevgeny Prigozhin, a catering magnate who was hit with US sanctions for allegedly funding the Internet troll factory that promoted Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Mr Prigozhin has also been linked to the Wagner mercenary outfit, which previously fought alongside Kremlin-backed forces in eastern Ukraine and Syria. Three Russian journalists were killed last year while investigating Wagner activities in the Central African Republic.
Working with data provided by Facebook, the observatory identified 73 pages that tried to “foster unity around Russia-aligned actors and politicians” in the CAR, Libya, Sudan, Madagascar, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They were liked by more than 1.7 million accounts and had 9.7 million interactions on 48,800 post put up since December.
While the pages have been deleted, The Telegraph found similar pages posting paeans in French to Mr Putin and Russian military instructors in Africa.
The observatory’s report analysed 11 Facebook pages run from Egypt boosted Libyan general Khalifa Haftar and Muammar Gaddafi’s son Saif while denigrating the UN-backed government of national accord. With names like “Voice of Libya” and “Falcons of the Conqueror,” the pages posted frequently, sometimes sharing the same content.
An ally of the late Gaddafi, Russia’s defence minister hosted Mr Haftar in Moscow this year for talks that Mr Prigozhin also attended.
The Telegraph reported in March that Wagner mercenaries had been deployed to Libya to back Mr Haftar’s forces.
Leaked emails in September appeared to show that Mr Prigozhin’s operatives had been advising the general as well as Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and said Russian soldiers were operating in Libya. The emails also said they had created a dozen Facebook pages to curry influence.
Four pages targeting Mozambique posted about the government’s supposed success in fighting the Cabo Delgago Islamist insurgency ahead of elections this month.
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Local media reported this week that five Russian Wagner mercenaries had been killed fighting jihadists in Mozambique. The Kremlin denied deploying any troops to the country following reports last month that 200 Russian mercenaries had arrived there.
In the CAR, 13 pages that Facebook attributed to Mr Prigozhin’s companies trumpeted the country’s president and Russia while disparaging the UN and colonial power France.
They also attempted to discredit media reports alleging abuses by Wagner mercenaries in the country, accusing outlets like CNN of "bribing CAR residents for defamatory material".
While Russia received UN permission to send arms and military advisors to help the CAR government fight rebels, the Wagner mercenaries have reportedly worked on both sides of the lines to develop Russian business interests. A Russian linked to Mr Prigozhin has become the president’s security advisor.
The social media campaign also peddled its content on Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and Telegram.