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Facebook said it removed three Russian-backed influence networks aimed at African countries. The activity by the networks suggested Russia’s approach was evolving.

The Radio Africa Facebook page, which masqueraded as a news page in Sudan, was part of a Russian-backed influence network in central and northern Africa. (Credit...Stanford Internet Observatory).
The Radio Africa Facebook page, which masqueraded as a news page in Sudan, was part of a Russian-backed influence network in central and northern Africa. (Credit…Stanford Internet Observatory).

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.

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Author: Davey Alba and Sheera Frenkel
Davey Alba
is a technology reporter covering online disinformation and its global harms.

Before joining The New York Times, Ms. Alba was a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News, writing about artificial intelligence and the invasive effects of tech in people’s lives. In 2019, her feature on how Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, used Facebook to fuel the drug war in the country won a Livingston Award for excellence in international reporting. The article also won a 2019 Mirror Award for best story on journalism in peril.

Ms. Alba has covered tech for the last decade, writing about topics as diverse as facial recognition’s civil rights problems, the industry’s practice of using forced arbitration in employee contracts and sexual harassment in tech. She has written for various publications, including Wired, Gizmodo and IEEE Spectrum.

She moved to the United States in 2010 after attending De La Salle University in Manila and has a master’s degree in science journalism from Columbia University. She lives in Brooklyn.

Sheera Frenkel covers cybersecurity from San Francisco. Previously, she spent over a decade in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent, reporting for BuzzFeed, NPR, The Times of London and McClatchy Newspapers.

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