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Review: Great Power Competition, Disinformation, and Subversion in Africa, Caroline Baylon (20/11/23)

The CCW Emerging Threats Group convened on November 20th, 2023, for a discussion on Great Power Competition, Disinformation, and Subversion in Africa. The session was led by Caroline Baylon, Director of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Future Generations and Research Associate with the Emerging Threats Group. The session explored growing disinformation in Africa, particularly how Russian disinformation promotes anti-Western sentiment, and its role in a series of coups toppling democratically-elected governments.

Russian Strategic Influence

Africa is an important geostrategic continent with a large wealth of natural resources, such as gold and diamonds. Consequently, Russia has a long history and strong interests in the region, accelerated by Western sanctions and the Russo-Ukrainian War.

Russia is now the market leader for arms in Sub-Saharan Africa, providing 26 percent of weapons. Whilst this African arms market is not particularly large, Russia’s control of markets in Africa will likely prove valuable in the long term, particularly given the expected rapid African population growth. Accordingly, to exert influence, Russia has used private military companies like Wagner and spread misinformation about the West whilst offering military protection and assistance with coups in vulnerable African nations.

Disinformation Playbook

In West Africa, disinformation campaigns and deep fakes have been used to paint a poor image of the West, particularly France, due to its colonial history in the region. Russian narratives emphasise the Western colonial past while falsely claiming that Russia has never been a colonial state. Russia’s influence playbook utilises diverse tactics. For example, Russia produces traditional propaganda, such as films, TV, newspapers, and radio messages, to convey pro-Russian narratives while it foments street demonstrations to portray the anti-Western movement as grassroots. Using local influencers and shaping social media trends enables Russian disinformation to attract support from new networks of younger people.

West Africa is vulnerable to Russian influence due to internal conflict from terrorist groups and military coups. Focusing on several country case studies, the session unpacked how Russian private military companies have provided military aid against coups and threats in order to gain control and access to valuable resources. Once African governments facing coups are re-entrenched, Russia has used misinformation campaigns to create an anti-West agenda and solidify their dominance.

AI-Enabled Disinformation

Looking broadly at both Russia and China, artificial intelligence (AI) introduces major challenges. By cloning voices convincingly, creating authentic deepfakes, and devising high-quality fake news articles, new technology can be used to paint false narratives of the West. With AI, custom resources can be mass-produced cheaply to quickly target individual groups. This creates real issues in this region as false narratives can be convincingly created with ease. The West has been slow to respond to such advancements. Moving forward, the West needs to learn from Russian techniques and implement better methods of discrediting and discounting disinformation, as well as methods to actively counter harmful messages.

Looking Ahead

We are grateful for all the support over the last year and look forward to seeing everyone again in the new year. Our first session of 2024 will be on January 15, kickstarting our new AUKUS Seminar Series, which will be led by Samuel Murison, a Ramsay Scholar and DPhil Candidate at St Antony’s College. The series will explore the Advanced Capabilities Pillar (Pillar II) of the trilateral strategic partnership between Australia, the UK and the US, looking specifically at collaboration and development across advanced military capabilities. Please ensure that you have subscribed to our mailing list in order to keep updated with future talks and seminar updates.

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