FIGHTING DISINFORMATION OP-ED
Media capture and information laundering – China and Russia’s propaganda assault on Africa
Russia and China actively influence African public opinion through a variety of media tactics, including ‘information laundering’. This exploits the vulnerability of African media by gaining control of the editorial narrative while obfuscating the origin of planted stories.
There is little doubt that Russia can still count on historic loyalties among South Africa’s ruling ANC. In its attempts to bolster its support in Africa, Russia often draws on its historic role in the liberation Struggle – sometimes referred to as “memory diplomacy”.
It also attempts to frame its war in Ukraine as an anti-imperialist struggle to resist Western hegemony. But apart from banking on this historical legacy, Russia has also enlisted social media influencers to help spread disinformation in Africa. This online disinformation then becomes part of the broader communication landscape, and spreads further, sometimes to be picked up and amplified by local media, in a process referred to as “information laundering”.
Russia is certainly not the only country to engage in this type of influence operations, which can range from flooding the online space with information, to subtle attempts to influence editorial agendas or outright capture of media outlets.
China has been especially active in the African media space for at least a decade. The expansion of Chinese media in Africa is part of an attempt by China’s leadership to strengthen its discursive power globally and improve the country’s image overseas.
Shaping China’s national image overseas has been a fundamental part of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy, particularly since 2013 when, at a National Propaganda and Ideological Work Conference, he emphasised the need for China to promote a set of global narratives to shape foreign public opinion, including the “deconstruction of Western discourse hegemony”.
But already under his predecessor, Hu Jintao, China sought to win “hearts and minds” of foreign audiences by telling “China’s story well”.
Chinese influence operations through the media in Africa fall into six broad categories:
- Content production (such as producing programmes for the China Global Television Network (CGTN); Xinhua wire services and Chinafrica magazine);
- Content distribution (such as the pay-TV platform StarTimes);
- Infrastructure development (such as the expansion of a South African cellphone network by Chinese telecommunications company ZTE);
- Direct investment (such as when a Chinese investment of 20% assisted with the purchase of Independent Media; the company recently announced that it is in deep financial trouble and unable to pay full staff salaries – which raises the question of whether its Chinese investors may see this as an opportunity to increase their stake or move on);
- Exchange and training programmes (such as for African journalists, student scholarships); and
- Public opinion “management” (such as social media posts by Chinese diplomats and journalists).
Studies have indicated that these campaigns to influence audiences and editorial agendas have had mixed success.
After the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong in 2019, Beijing changed its approach to communicating its global image. It started using some of the more aggressive methods used by other non-democratic regimes, such as Russia and Iran.
The belligerent tone adopted by Chinese diplomats on social media (who became known as “Wolf Warrior Diplomats”) is characteristic of this approach, as are the orchestrated, coordinated and inauthentic influence campaigns on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.
Increasingly, this communication also includes false narratives and amplified conspiracy theories.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Age of Disinformation: Building a next level bot to subvert Africa’s elections
Another strategy used by countries such as Russia and China to influence the African public sphere is “information laundering”. This exploits the economic and political vulnerability of African media platforms by gaining control of the editorial narrative while obfuscating the origin of planted stories.
Information laundering involves planting information – either an official view of news events, or downright misleading or false information – in local digital spaces. These narratives are then passed on through a network of intermediaries and eventually picked up and reported on by mainstream news organisations.
Across Africa, where information systems are often weak, Russian disinformation campaigns have exploited vulnerabilities in the media ecosystem to spread misinformation on social media platforms.
In this way, the narratives are legitimised (“laundered”) and, in turn, can be reported on by foreign media as if the origin of the story is local (for example, “South African media reports that…”). China has used information laundering in South Africa to push the theory that Covid-19 originated on a US military base, for instance.
The local news organisation Independent Online (IOL), partially owned by Chinese interests, published an article in September 2021 that repeated Beijing’s talking point that the World Health Organization should investigate Fort Detrick. The Chinese embassy in South Africa and Chinese media then amplified this point by means of a report in the Chinese newspaper People’s Daily under the headline “Investigation of US labs necessary for COVID-19 origins tracing: S. African media”.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided another opportunity for China to launder information on behalf of its neighbour. China’s state media has repeated the Kremlin line on the war, which also included misinformation about the conflict.
Again, South Africa’s China-backed news outlet, IOL, chimed in: in March 2022 it published an opinion piece by a South African student leader which repeated the Russian and Chinese government falsehood that the US operates bioweapons labs in Ukraine.
The Chinese media laundered this story to create the illusion of global support for the theory. The news agency Xinhua published an article which referred to the opinion piece in IOL as if it had articulated a widely held viewpoint in South Africa with the headline “U.S. biolabs in Ukraine raise worldwide concerns: S. African youth leader”.
Russia has also used this technique in Europe, for instance in Germany, where Kremlin messaging was translated into German to facilitate their spread into that media environment. In the US, Kremlin messaging was laundered by creating fake personas to contact freelance writers to write stories fitting its narrative, thus obscuring the origin of the planted information and making it seem authentic.
In Africa, Russia has been promoting narratives that would resonate with Africans, such as putting the blame for spiking food prices on Western sanctions and a long-standing Western disregard for Africa. Russia has also drawn on the historical loyalties of liberation movements in Africa, referring to South Africa as a “friendly state”, lending military support and engaging the South African Navy in exercises alongside China.
Mainstream South African media have pushed back against this narrative, but users of social media may have been more receptive. Across Africa, where information systems are often weak, Russian disinformation campaigns have exploited vulnerabilities in the media ecosystem to spread misinformation on social media platforms.
Read more in Daily Maverick: New Frame’s demise shines a light on China-aligned unions, parties and disinformation networks
This is not to say that Russia has focused its attention only on social media. After the feed of its flagship television station, RT, to the satellite television platform MultiChoice was halted due to European sanctions, China’s Starsat started carrying the channel on its platform, but nine months later it too fell afoul of European sanctions and RT was removed from Starsat. RT, however, recently announced that it would be establishing its own Africa bureau in Johannesburg, headed by a former South African journalist, Paula Slier.
As was the case with China, Russia’s influence operations on the continent therefore span a range of platforms and approaches, requiring a multilevel response.
Spotting planted stories
The increasingly complex web of disinformation tactics underlines the importance of journalists and news consumers doing due diligence on the origins of stories.
This would include news consumers having a better understanding of the role of syndication and content credited to organisations rather than individuals.
Training for journalists and news consumers in how to identify posts and stories that amplify foreign influence talking points and disinformation narratives is imperative.
Another counterstrategy would be for fact-checking organisations to form more partnerships with news organisations to strengthen internal vetting procedures with the objective of identifying and debunking planted stories aimed at laundering foreign disinformation.
In the long term, strengthening local news organisations to make them more resilient against information laundering should be one of the main goals. DM
Herman Wasserman is a professor of journalism at Stellenbosch University.