By Mark Duerksen
February 8, 2023
Rapidly shifting information pathways have created vulnerabilities that foreign powers—led by Russia, China, and the Gulf States—have aggressively exploited.
From Libya to Mali to Mozambique, a precious resource in Africa is being mined, manipulated, and clandestinely used to claim and consolidate power. Information is under systematic attack across the continent as anti-democratic actors seek to distort and undermine the connective and shared resource on which vibrant democracies depend. This war on reliable, authentic, and constructive information sharing takes the form of coordinated disinformation campaigns designed and deployed by external actors—and increasingly by domestic autocrats, elites, and militant groups—toward destabilizing ends.
In the past year, the scale and sophisticated nature of these operations in Africa have become increasingly recognized as they have been detected and mapped. There have been over 50 (and counting) campaigns documented, which have utilized a variety of tactics, including weaponizing social media algorithms into amplifying disinformation messages through coordinated releases of false and misleading content from inauthentic (fake and front) accounts.
These attacks come at a moment when there is a hunger for actionable information from a growing cohort of young people online on the continent. Nigerians, South Africans, and Kenyans follow the news at some of the highest rates in the world—and use social media to ﬁnd news at a higher rate than any other region. The number of social media users on the continent has quadrupled since 2016 to nearly 400 million people today. These users want to know what is happening in their cities, countries, and the world including: information about their political representatives, elections, democratic transitions or backsliding, the economy and job market, climate change, COVID-19, inﬂation, conﬂicts—and what the future might hold for them and how they might improve that trajectory.
“Roughly 60% of documented disinformation campaigns on the continent are externally driven.”
These rapidly shifting information pathways have created vulnerabilities that foreign powers led by Russia, China, and the Gulf States have aggressively exploited: roughly 60% of documented disinformation campaigns on the continent are externally driven. Anti-democratic sponsors of disinformation seek to distort, confuse, polarize, and sow distrust into public communications in ways that neutralize the exchange of competing ideas, transparency, and accountability fostered by democratic societies. The resulting warped information landscape enables the purveyors of disinformation to shape societal narratives conducive to their political interests.
African actors have begun developing innovative and effective initiatives—including accessible disinformation research, fact-checking networks, and digital literacy and media training sessions—to build guardrails and resilience for Africa’s shifting information ecosystems. These efforts need further strengthening and interconnecting with one another and with policy strategies. Otherwise, as one African counter-disinformation expert recently remarked, divided “they are chasing the wind.”
Originally appeared in Africa: Year in Review 2022 by the Wilson Center Africa Program.