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FIGHTING DISINFORMATION OP-ED

Media capture and information laundering – China and Russia’s propaganda assault on Africa

Media capture and information laundering – China and Russia’s propaganda assault on Africa
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow on 21 March 2023. (Photo: Contributor / Getty Images) | Unsplash

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.

Exploiting vulnerabilities

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. 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Aslam Dasoo says:

    The author appears blind to the irony that his analysis, while insightful, applies equally in respect of the opposite political pole. But making it seem that only Russia and China indulge in this sort of media manipulation as though they are uniquely mendacious in this regard is quite an insult to our intelligence.
    Change the names Russia and China to US and UK and the article still holds its own.
    There are no good guys or bad guys in the zero sum geopolitics of “you are either with us or against us”.
    Africa has been plundered and remains under the poorly disguised jackboots of its colonial plunderers, ably abetted by a comprador political elite who enjoy its largesse.
    Russia and China cannot be accused of having done the same as Europeans to African nations, but Africans must be wary of the imposter syndrome, in which the mercantilist or political exigencies of new friends may have an equally pernicious effect.
    But to position this threat as unique is to be economical with the truth.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    In SA when the so-called liberation movement of the ANC gained control of the “Independent” media group (which was regarded unwittingly as the counter to media 24 outlets … instead of the smaller outlets like WM) via its cadre Surve, it falsely thought it could control the ‘narrative’ of ‘liberation’ as they have done in authoritarian countries. As for the observations of dr Feelgood … yes the efforts to ‘control’ the message of media happen in all domains, liberal or authoritarian … what is undeniable is that it is far more ruthless and mendacious in authoritarian ones. For how long the really ‘critical’ voices in SA will still be allowed to function, is anyone’s guess.

  • David Forbes says:

    I actually can’t believe the blatant bias in this story by a PROFESSOR OF JOURNALISM, nogal! Wasserman makes out that Russia, Iran and China are only capable of mis/disinformation/laundering, and that historical alliances/liberation mean nothing to those who were oppressed by the Nationalists and big business/liberals. Should we talk about the extra millions of pounds the UK government has allocated to the BBC to “improve it’s image” and propagate the UK worldview? Or maybe we could talk about how the Pentagon is weaponizing e-girls on YouTube and TikTok to improve its image and recruit new soldiers to go and die in far-off places where the US Imperial Hegemony has failed? Everyone uses psyops, the CIA has been using it for decades. Everyone, including Fox and CNN propagate the views of their governments. This kind of one-sided Russia- and China-bashing is the last thing I would expect from an academic. It’s a shocking indictment of the way journalism students are indoctrinated into the narrative dominated by America. People are starting to see through the bs, Covid ripped that veil away, and now a multipolar world is possible, with a prospect of greater world peace. Shame on Stellenbosch University, shame on Prof Wasserman the Imperial Apologist.

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