Russian-led troll network based in west Africa uncovered

Fake Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts seemed to aim to inflame divides in US

A newly discovered Russian-led network of professional trolls was being outsourced to Ghanaian and Nigerian operatives, according to Facebook and Twitter, who removed the network’s accounts on Thursday.

The network was small: just 49 Facebook accounts, 85 Instagram accounts and 71 Twitter accounts in question. But it marks the first time that a Russian information operation targeting the US has been found to be run from Africa.

Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of security policy, said the company believes it was such a small network because it was disrupted in the early stages of building its audience. It was, Gleicher said, “operated by local nationals – some wittingly and some unwittingly – in Ghana and Nigeria on behalf of individuals in Russia.

“The people behind this network engaged in a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts … to manage pages posing as non-government organisations or personal blogs, and post in groups,” Gleicher added.

“They frequently posted about US news and attempted to grow their audience by focusing on topics like black history, black excellence and fashion, celebrity gossip, news and events related to famous Americans like historical figures and celebrities, and LGBTQ issues. They also shared content about oppression and injustice, including police brutality.”

Although the Facebook network posted a significant amount of content, it steered clear of explicitly political postings. Instead, the desire seems to have been to post content that would grow the audience, while also inflaming contemporary American divides.

“Although the people behind this activity attempted to conceal their purpose and coordination, our investigation found links to EBLA, an NGO in Ghana, and individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA),” Gleicher said.

The Twitter accounts shared many similar traits. But an archive of the messages posted by the fake accounts, shared by Twitter, offers extra insight into how Russian information actors are exploiting the coronavirus pandemic for their own ends.

Hundreds of messages in the archive, which covers late January and early February, mention the pandemic, mostly in replies to influential accounts and individuals.

One, bizarrely, warns British reality TV star and 1980s computer magnate Alan Sugar to “be careful” of the coronavirus. Another shares the news that “health officials fear that misinformation about the virus could spark a run on medications”. But most of the tweets simply reflect an urge to jump on popular topics to gain more followers, a reflection of how early the network was discovered.

“These 71 removed accounts, operating out of Ghana and Nigeria and which we can reliably associate with Russia, attempted to sow discord by engaging in conversations about social issues, like race and civil rights,” said Twitter’s safety team in a statement.

During the cold war, the KGB sought to exploit smouldering racial divisions in the US with a series of “active measures”. According to Oleg Kalugin, Moscow’s former spy chief in America, the KGB carried out a series of dirty tricks.

These included writing anonymous racist hate letters to African diplomats in New York, purporting to come from American white supremacists. Kalugin and his fellow KGB officers, posing as journalists, published these letters, quoting them as examples of rampant American racism.

Kalugin said he “lost no sleep” over such tactics, “figuring they were just another weapon in the cold war”. The KGB also planted stories in US publications saying Washington sided with the racist regime in South Africa, he said.

The Soviet Union may be long gone but Moscow’s strategic thinking remains largely unchanged. There is compelling evidence that the Kremlin has sought to reboot KGB methods of propaganda and disinformation via anonymous posts on social media.

According to the US special counsel Robert Mueller, in 2016 trolls working out of the notorious factory in St Petersburg made contact with a number of American black activists.

The Russians posed as a grassroots group, Black Matters US. In February 2017, a Russian troll using the persona Black Fist even hired a self-defence instructor in New York to give classes to black Americans, Mueller reported.

Leaked documents reported on by the Guardian last year showed that Russia was engaged in a renewed push for influence in Africa.


Alex Hern and Luke Harding

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Facebook to tell users if they interacted with Russia's 'troll army'
Social network says tool will let users see if they have liked or followed accounts created by organisation that carries out misinformation operations

Alex Hern

23, Nov, 2017 @9:45 AM

Article image
Canadian shames teenage troll in UK over burlesque photo insults
Jessica Davey-Quantick wrung apology from 15-year-old for stream of abusive comments on her Instagram post

Ashifa Kassam in Toronto

08, Feb, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Spanish politicians try to woo voters over WhatsApp
As Spain readies for elections, mainstream politicians have followed Indignados and Podemos on to smartphone app in attempt to reconnect with a disenchanted public

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid

17, Feb, 2015 @7:00 AM

Article image
Facebook hanging on to its adult users in the US, claims study
Pew Research survey finds more adults using LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter alongside Facebook, but teens’ app habits aren’t included

Stuart Dredge

12, Jan, 2015 @2:36 PM

Article image
Donald Trump suspended from Facebook indefinitely, says Mark Zuckerberg
Facebook CEO accuses president of intending to undermine peaceful transition of power

Alex Hern and Kari Paul

07, Jan, 2021 @6:59 PM

Article image
Russian troll factory paid US activists to help fund protests during election
Investigation in RBC newspaper finds Russians posing as Americans made payments to activists to help with the organisation of protests and events

Shaun Walker in Moscow

17, Oct, 2017 @4:13 PM

Article image
Facebook removes Africa accounts linked to Russian troll factory
Fake networks in eight nations are connected to man allegedly behind disinformation empire

Luke Harding

30, Oct, 2019 @6:13 PM

Article image
Russians seek to evade social media ban with virtual private networks
After Russia put a block on access to Facebook and Twitter, internet searches for ways around it shot up

Dan Milmo Global technology editor

12, Mar, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Opinion divided over Trump's ban from social media
Actions spark debate on free speech and whether chief executives of tech firms are fit to act as judge and jury

Alex Hern

11, Jan, 2021 @6:17 PM

Article image
Tech firms could face new EU regulations over fake news
EU security commissioner says new regulations may have to be brought in if tech firms fail to tackle issues voluntarily

Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

24, Apr, 2018 @8:45 AM