This is how Russia is using social networks to exploit the coup in Niger

Social media channels associated with the Russian state are attempting to exploit last month’s military coup in Niger, trying to bolster Moscow’s influence in the country and possibly create an opportunity for intervention.

The Wagner group in Africa: atrocities, support for dictators and exploitation of natural resources


On July 26, Mohamed Bazoum, the pro-Western president-elect, was overthrown by senior army officers and has since been detained at his official residence in Niamey. African leaders have threatened military action to overthrow the new regime, but supporters of intervention have so far been unable to muster enough support.

Niger-focused activity on channels linked to the Wagner paramilitary group has declined sharply since the death of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose plane crashed north of Moscow last week, according to an expert analysis.

However, according to a study by Logically – a technology company based in the United Kingdom, India and the United States focused on the fight against disinformation and content on-line potentially harmful – pro-Russian Telegram channels have generally continued to spread or comment on disinformation about Niger at the same level as before the death of the number one Wagner group.

Prigozhin, who led a rebellion in Russia in June, led a disinformation offensive in Africa that has played a key role in expanding Russian influence in strategic areas such as the Sahel.

Drastic increase in content about Niger

Content about Niger on 45 Russian Telegram channels affiliated with the Russian state or Wagner increased by 6,645% in the month after the coup, suggesting great interest from Moscow in exploiting the revolt.

Logically located just 11 Niger-related content in the month before the coup, and 742 content since. The company detected a significant increase in the amount of content promoting anti-French discourse on these accounts, although it noted that the feeling of hostility towards Paris in Niger, a former French colony, was already widespread before the coup.

The investigation will heighten fears that Russia will try to gain influence, lucrative contracts and access to key resources in Niger after Bazoum’s ouster.

“There is a large audience for pro-Kremlin narratives”

The overthrow of civilian rule by soldiers in neighboring Mali in 2021 marked a turning point in the battle for influence between Russia and Western countries in the Sahel.

Mali’s new regime quickly struck a deal with the Wagner group that led to the withdrawal of Western forces stationed in the country, in what was seen as a major victory for Moscow in Africa.

The July coup caught most analysts by surprise, as Niger was considered a relatively stable country, with stronger democratic institutions than many of its neighbors. The country is a key base for Western forces and its Army has been a partner of the United States and other armies in the turbulent Sahel region.

There is no evidence of a concerted Russian effort to destabilize Bazoum’s government immediately before the coup, which analysts have attributed to internal power struggles.

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However, Niger had already been the target of influence campaigns on social media. In mid-February, social media was flooded by a wave of misinformation when Bazoum traveled to Paris to meet with Emmanuel Macron. A video that was widely circulated on TikTok and Facebook in February featured fake footage taken during a March 2021 coup attempt in Niamey as a new shooting incident surrounding the president’s residence. Below were messages from collaborators harshly criticizing Bazoum and his support for France.

Other images were used in the same way to mislead viewers. Fake news reports showed a French attack on a Nigerien military convoy and contained accusations that French forces were secretly working with Islamist extremists.

Similar examples found by Logically in recent weeks include a message from a Russian “fact-checking” Telegram channel with more than 600,000 subscribers that claimed instability in Niger and other countries was being fomented by Western powers as a result of their desire. to join the BRICS group of emerging economy countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, which has supported Russia since the outbreak of war in Ukraine).

A second message from a Russian state media outlet, with more than 360,000 subscribers on Telegram, amplified claims made by the Niger regime that two countries in the regional bloc of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) were about to launch a military intervention to restore Bazoum to power.

“Social media accounts quickly focused on Niger… [con] some serious misattributed image issues. There is a large audience for pro-Kremlin narratives that contradict pro-Ukrainian narratives from Western countries,” says Kyle Walter, head of research at Logically.

Social media has been blamed for fueling growing hostility towards France, which led Paris to withdraw its troops from Mali and the Central African Republic in 2022 and from Burkina Faso this year.

The future of Wagner

The future of the Wagner group on the continent remains uncertain. The networks of companies created by Prigozhin have been very successful in extracting gold, diamonds, valuable timber and many other goods in African countries, as well as obtaining contracts as mercenaries in the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Libya and elsewhere.

“It is not clear if there will be a complete takeover of Wagner by the Russian state or if Moscow will try to use a constellation of other groups to maintain the influence it has gained,” said Dino Mahtani, an independent analyst specializing in African affairs. “There has been a rise in pro-Russian sentiment in many of these countries that Moscow will want to reinforce,” he adds.

The continued effort by Russian state-linked accounts to exploit the turmoil suggests that the Kremlin will seek to ensure continuity while gaining control of influence operations, as well as networks and companies run by Prigozhin.

Several Facebook pages that shared disinformation about the recent crisis in Niger had previously spread pro-Russian material or attacked the French presence in the Sahel.

In April 2022, a page on Facebook and Twitter spread false information accusing French troops of committing atrocities in central Mali and showing alleged images of a mass grave being dug in Gossi, near a French military base that had just been returned to the Malian army.

The French military revealed that it had used a drone to film what appeared to be Russian mercenaries burying bodies several days earlier.

The Central African Republic has also hired Russian mercenaries, and Burkina Faso is believed to be able to do the same.

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In January, an animated video showing a Wagner agent helping West African countries fight zombie French soldiers began circulating on social media and pro-Kremlin Telegram channels. According to the Atlantic Council, a think tank American that tracks disinformation, the origin of the video has not been identified, but it appears that it was first posted on Twitter on January 14, and then moved to alternative video platforms before being shared elsewhere.

Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, told the BBC last week that he did not believe Russia or Wagner had instigated the coup in Niger, but that they were “trying to take advantage of it.”

Forty-eight hours before Prigozhin’s death, Wagner’s boss posted his first speech on video since he led a short-lived riot in Russia in June, appearing in a recording – possibly shot in Mal – on Telegram channels affiliated with the Wagner group. In the video he claimed that Wagner was carrying out reconnaissance and search operations and “making Russia even greater on all continents, and Africa even freer.”

Translation by Emma Reverter.

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