Editor’s note: This article was written by Eren Ersozoglu and originally published on Grey Dynamics. 

This Grey Dynamics African Intelligence Report analyses the ‘troll factory’ established in Africa as a means for hybrid warfare.

Key Judgments

KJ-1. The Russian Web Brigade has increased sophistication of the ‘troll factory’ to avoid detection. By outsourcing to Africa, operations have become increasingly difficult to detect and intercept. It is likely outsourcing to avoid detection will continue.

KJ-2. Psychological Operations being conducted are focusing on increasing political polarisation in the U.S., focusing mainly on topics of racial tensions. Disinformation is a key strategy to produce a chaotic situation.

KJ-3. Grey zone tactics are utilized to seek a strategic and economic advantage over the U.S. without triggering all-out conflict. Russia is likely to increase bot activity in 2020-2025, peaking before and after U.S. elections. Activities targeting private companies will likely increase.

The Internet Research Agency primarily based in St Petersburg is accused of running fake news for election interference in the 2016 US elections. Owner of the company Yevgeny Prigozhin is identified to be head of the web brigade. The 22-month Mueller investigation concluded on the 17th March 2020 with charges being dropped. The U.S. Justice Department has communicated the difficulty proceeding with the case as it classifies evidence-based US intelligence risks exposing secrets. The troll farms are also being utilized for the aid of Pro-Russian regimes in Africa.

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Relocation

The prior location of the web brigade was discovered in an office block in St Petersburg. Following a CNN linked investigation, outsourcing beyond the country has been discovered to avoid similar discoveries. Troll farms were discovered and raided in Nigeria and Ghana. One farm was discovered operating under an NGO named Eliminating Barriers to the Liberation of Africa (EBLA), with over 200 Ghanaian trolls found with up to 1 million followers.

Facebook and Twitter have removed a network of fake accounts with links to Russian troll farms. Facebook had found one fake network linked to Sudan for the purpose of propaganda in the country. In 2018 troll farms attempted to prop up Russian ally President Omar al-Bashir, who was later deposed in April. The relocation is an effective strategy to avoid detection. It is possible to create similar farms outside of the U.S. in other countries. Being outside of the U.S. zone makes detection problematic for their intelligence, relying on diplomatic channels to break up farms in countries.

Assessment: The Russian Web Brigade has increased sophistication of the ‘troll factory.’ By outsourcing to Africa, operations have become increasingly difficult to detect and intercept. It is likely outsourcing to avoid detection will continue.

Grey Zone

FBI Director Christopher Wray has stated that Russian troll farms are spreading disinformation and waging “information warfare”. Of 278,000 followers on the fake account networks, 65% of these found based in the US. The Russian Web Brigade has been focusing on topics that will ignite racial tensions in the US. Facebook and Twitter removed 49 Facebook accounts, 69 pages, and 85 Instagram accounts, as well as 71 Twitter accounts. The existence and knowledge of Russian troll accounts by the public aid the intent of Russia trolls.

Actual legitimate sources and accounts become undermined as ‘fake news’, creating a climate of uncertainty even with reliable sources. The increase in craftmanship by outsourcing to Africa makes the hybrid tactics of the troll farms difficult to trace. Deputy press Secretary of the White house Hogan Gidle labels the data behind Russian meddling in the US election “absolute lie”. The evidence suggests this is likely not the case. Disinformation on a mass scale indicates state sponsorship or at least Russian private company involvement. The two interests are at many times interchangeable and can be attributed to hybrid warfare.

Assessment: Psyops conducted are aimed at increasing political polarisation in the U.S. Focusing mainly on topics of racial tensions. Disinformation key strategy to produce chaos.

Intent

The U.S. intelligence community assessed that Russian disinformation tactics are focusing on creating and encouraging existing dissent. This is orchestrated by undermining public faith in the democratic process and trusted institutions. The politicization of disinformation discredits actual sources and individuals. The very knowledge of the existence of the bots by the public discredit’s reliable sources. Russian bots have targeted the U.S. fracking industry. This is a strategy to undermine the economic interest of U.S. private companies while protecting Russian oil interests. In 2015 Russian bots targeted Koch’s family farm in the U.S., Pennsylvania.

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The Wall Street Journal later reported that the Internet Research Agency had pushed the narrative that a large corporation targeted a minority group (African Americans). Disinformation warfare is inexpensive for the perpetrators and coincidingly provides a source of revenue for Russia. The Global Disinformation Index reported that websites pushing disinformation, through advertisement, have produced $235 million worth of revenue. Russian bot activity peaked before the U.S. elections and directly after to maximize polarisation.

Assessment: Grey Zone tactics are utilized to seek a strategic and economic advantage over the U.S. without triggering all-out conflict. Russia is likely to increase bot activity in 2020-2025, peaking before and after the U.S. 2020 elections. Activities targeting private companies will likely increase.

Although we stand by our research, we do not advocate that the current BLM protest around the world are completely fabricated by Russian Troll Farms. We believe that systemic change is needed to improve the lives of people of color around the world.