Mailyn Fidler is an affiliate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and is currently writing a book on African cyber politics. You can follow her @mailynfidler.
Russia’s recent disinformation campaign in African countries presents a new stress test for emerging internet policy in Africa. Most coverage of the campaign has focused on what Russia’s actions augur for Western politics, without delving into the ramifications in African countries. Particularly, the campaign highlights the tension that African states face in crafting internet policy that is responsive to both external threats and internal political dynamics. Emerging African disinformation laws have been criticized as a tool of autocrats to suppress domestic dissent, but the Russian campaign, as a form of “disinformation colonialism,” shows that African states have real external threats to counter. This kind of disinformation campaign requires African countries to balance political autonomy, resistance, and control in their responses.
To recap, in late October, Facebook announced it had discovered and removed three Russian-backed disinformation campaigns linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, best known for his interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election. The campaigns targeted Cameroon, Libya, Madagascar, Mozambique, South Africa, and Sudan and seemed to be testing new techniques for later deployment elsewhere. Such techniques included working with local proxies to disguise the source of the information, expanding the volume of content disseminated, and using a wider range of languages (including Arabic, for the first time). The messaging itself varied, with some promoting Russian policies or business interests in the area, some criticizing French and American policies in the region, and others backing certain parties or candidates in elections.
Disinformation campaigns flummox Western countries, but African countries must deal with additional layers of challenges. The Russian campaign essentially used African politics as a laboratory for perfecting the country’s influence elsewhere. This feature introduces an element of subjugation that is absent from Muscovite disinformation campaigns in the West. African nations are sensitive to such exploitative dynamics. That Moscow is not only interfering in African politics, but also using African countries as a staging ground for more important campaigns could be seen as doubly demeaning and demand a stronger response.
That said, countervailing considerations may prevail. African countries must also deal with the actual attempts to influence activities within their own borders. Russia is indeed attempting to rebuild influence on the continent: it held the first-ever Russian-Africa summit in October 2019, has stationed peacekeeping forces in central Africa, and is cultivating a network of future leaders and undercover agents, according to leaked documents. As in Western countries, this aspect of the disinformation campaign places any response in the context of ongoing geopolitical maneuvering. But, unlike the West, African countries have a more limited set of responses available; broadly speaking, they can reject the interference in the name of seeking autonomy, or accept the influence and attempt to leverage it to their economic or strategic benefit. The scales tip towards the second option, especially given Russia’s willingness to use its influence in Africa to marginalize the United States and France, which many African actors desire.
Third, African countries must deal with the intersection between disinformation and ongoing domestic dissent. In many cases, external meddling like this gives governments cover to craft laws that are actually tailored to curtailing domestic dissent. This element, too, presents an incentive not to push back too strongly against the Russian campaign.
Disinformation laws are nascent across the globe, but several African countries already have domestic laws in place. Kenya adopted a law in May 2018 broadly criminalizing disinformation. Burkino Faso’s parliament adopted a law in June 2019, pending presidential approval, that punishes select disinformation (compromising security operations and regarding rights abuses, destruction of property, or terrorist attacks). Ethiopia’s cabinet approved a disinformation law in November 2019, but details are scarce. Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe have broader media laws that have been or can be used to target fake news. National laws on cybersecurity and data privacy were not so readily enacted, leading in part to the African Union Convention on Cybersecurity and Data Protection, the flagship African continental policy on digital matters. That Convention is silent on disinformation. That absence, combined with the initial popularity of national approaches to addressing disinformation, suggests the domestic incentives may be the controlling factor in responding to the disinformation campaign.
Overall, the balance of factors suggests that African countries will not push back strongly against Russian disinformation campaigns, but rather will try to exploit the campaigns for their own international and domestic political goals. The meddler, after all, is Russia, not a former colonial power, resulting in less pressure to denounce the actions. The domestic upsides, in particular, suggest that action on this issue will remain national, rather than continental. We will likely not see an African Convention on Disinformation anytime soon.