Three disinformation campaigns spanning hundreds of Facebook pages with millions of followers targeted Africa and the Middle East, according to a series of reports released Tuesday by Facebook, the social media analysis firm Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory.
The reports tied two of the campaigns to Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the Russian oligarch nicknamed "Putin's chef" for his close ties to Russia President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin was sanctioned by the U.S. government after Russia's Internet Research Agency, which he financed, tried to meddle in the 2016 and 2018 elections.
"Although the people behind this campaign attempted to conceal their identities and coordination, our investigation found links to individuals associated with past activity by the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and previous operations we attributed to entities associated with Russian financier Yevgeniy Prigozhin," Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook's head of security policy, wrote in a company blog post.
But Facebook also noted something it said it hadn't seen before: two influence operations squaring off against each other.
"While we've seen influence operations target the same regions in the past, this was the first time our team found two campaigns — from France and Russia — actively engage with one another, including by befriending, commenting and criticizing the opposing side for being fake," Gleicher wrote.
Facebook said it has removed the pages involved in the campaigns.
Facebook and other social media companies are thought to have been broadly successful in limiting the impact and reach of foreign disinformation campaigns the 2020 U.S. election. The campaigns, however, are still finding traction in other parts of the world.
While Prigozhin's influence operations targeted at Americans appear to be struggling, the recently removed campaigns focused on Africa and the Middle East had far more reach. They appear to have mixed goals of promoting the Russian government's interests and Prigozhin's own interests, said Shelby Grossman, who led the Stanford report.
In civil conflict-torn Libya, where the U.S. has accused Russia of sending arms to mercenaries who support the Libyan National Army (a claim the Russian government has denied), three Facebook groups, all active since early in the year, pushed a pro-Putin message to more than 100,000 followers.
The same broader campaign had a Putin fan page with more than 27,000 followers.
In countries where Prigozhin has invested heavily in mining operations, self-proclaimed news and entertainment Facebook pages that presented themselves as local — but that were largely maintained from Russia — often focused more on the benefits of opening up the countries' mining opportunities to Russia, the Stanford report found. In Sudan, news-focused Facebook pages presented as Sudanese but largely run from Russia lamented people's food insecurity and inflation, but they also praised Russian mining, like how one company had provided Covid-19 aid.
Prigozhin wasn't immediately reachable for comment. He told Reuters that he considered Facebook a CIA tool. A defense spokesperson for the French Embassy in the U.S. didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the Central African Republic, where Prigozhin has had mining and logistics operations since 2017, online trolls used faked and hacked accounts to push political messages, according to the Stanford report. They also hired unknowing local journalists, a tactic IRA-tied actors used against the U.S. and U.K. earlier in 2020. CAR is set to have general election on Dec. 27
In some cases, the Prigozhin-linked trolls in the Central African Republic would get in online arguments with a different online influence operation targeting the country, this one believed to be run from France, according to a report released by the New York firm Graphika, which tracks online influence operations.
Without necessarily realizing that the other was an influence operation, the French and Russian groups appeared to get into something of an internet war.
"Each side trolled the other with insulting videos and memes; each side made false accusations against the other; each side used doctored evidence to support their accusations," the Graphika report found.
In a call with reporters Tuesday, Gleicher said that while Russian online influence campaigns have targeted Africans for a while, he believes they're finding it harder to avoid getting caught.
"We know they have cared about public debate in Africa. We know that they've been targeting the region," Gleicher said.
"They continue to evolve their techniques," he said. "We expect them to continue to try."