As It Happens

How researchers linked 'Putin's chef' to Facebook pages meddling in African politics

Facebook shuts down three networks that it claims have been meddling in African politics on a scale that rivals the 2016 disinformation campaigns in the United States. Researchers say the same architect is to blame: Vladimir Putin's former chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Shelby Grossman connected Vladimir Putin's former chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, to African disinformation campaigns

Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin has been accused of running online disinformation campaigns throughout Africa. (Sergei Ilnitsky/The Associated Press)

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His nickname is "Putin's chef."

Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prighozin started his career as a hotdog vendor. He eventually wound up doing the catering for the Kremlin. He became a billionaire businessman who maintains close ties to Vladimir Putin.

But he may be most notorious for funding and overseeing the Internet Research Agency — the Russian operation that meddled in the 2016 U.S. election campaign. And now, researchers say he's also behind a vast online effort to meddle in the politics of eight different African countries.

This week, Facebook announced it had shut down three networks of accounts it says are associated with Prigozhin.

Shelby Grossman is a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory, which helped uncover the online influence campaign.

As It Happens guest host Megan Williams spoke to Grossman about the campaign and how her team linked dozens of accounts to Prigozhin. Here is part of their conversation.

How vast was this online influence campaign that you uncovered?

My team at the Stanford Internet Observatory uncovered one set of the operation, which was an operation that was targeting Libya and that included 12 Facebook pages.

But Facebook had previously already been investigating other pages tied to Yevgeny Prigozhin and the operation in its entirety included dozens of pages. We analyzed 73 of them.

The operation targeted Libya, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Central African Republic.

Grossman says some of the disinformation accounts are similar to Russia's meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

So how did that campaign compare to say what you saw in the United States — those efforts to meddle in the U.S. campaign in 2016?

So in some respects they're similar and in some respects the strategies are different. So some of the strategies that we saw being used in the operation against Africa included not just Facebook pages, but also the creation of news websites in Sudan that were employing actual Sudanese reporters.

They created telegram groups. There was a WhatsApp group. There was actually a contest on one of the Mozambique pages. There were Facebook live videos.

And, like what we saw the Internet Research Agency doing in the U.S. in 2016, we also saw the creation of seemingly original country-specific memes.

But I do think one thing that's important to note, and we saw this happening in the U.S. as well, I think sometimes we have this idea in our heads of social media users uncritically just absorbing this information. And what we saw happening in a lot of these pages were Facebook users actually calling out stories as being untrue.

That's interesting. So what were some of the messages that were being disseminated through these networks?

So it really varied across countries.

The 12 Libya pages included two pages that are best conceptualized as Gaddafi nostalgia pages. So these were pages that tried to remind ordinary Libyans about how great things were under Gaddafi.

And then every once in a while they would throw in posts that were supportive of one of Gaddafi's surviving sons, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who's considered someone who might run for for president one day.

So that's an example of some pages that weren't necessarily fake news but were hyper-partisan and existed to support a particular individual.

And then there were also pages that did share fake news and existed around a specific election. So the Mozambique pages were created just last month and they existed to bolster the ruling party, which won elections two weeks ago.

Were the influence campaigns always necessarily aligned with the same politician or political side of the equation? Or did they move around or switch sometimes?

Yeah, not not necessarily.

So some of the pages were clearly aligned with Russian state interests. For example, the Libya pages. But then there were pages like the Sudan pages where they were very confusing and it was hard to figure out really what the agenda was.

And then there were pages that seemed to actually go against Russian state interests.

So it seems possible that in some of these instances Prigozhin-linked entities were maybe working on behalf of the Russian government and in others maybe they were working on behalf of Prigozhin's commercial mining interests in Africa. 

How did you actually manage to link all of this to Prigozhin?

There were two strategies. So for the set of the Libya pages, the Dossier Center shared with us a leaked internal Wagner Group document. The Wagner Group is a company linked to Prigozhin. 

And in that document Wagner employees were boasting about having created these 12 Libya Facebook pages and Facebook confirms that that those pages are linked to Prigozhin entities.

And then for the rest of the pages we are relying on Facebook attribution using whatever standards they're using.

Businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, left, is shown with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin is also among several Russians indicted in Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. (Alexei Druzhinin/Pool Photo via AP)

What you discovered, I'm curious what kind of insight you think it gives you and people doing the kind of work you're doing, into how Russia might leverage disinformation or propaganda campaigns in other parts of the world?

I think the most important takeaway that this research provides for other countries is that what we see happening is essentially the franchising of these disinformation campaigns.

So there is some evidence that these Prigozhin entities hired an Egyptian digital marketing firm to manage the Libya pages. And so, it's really hard to imagine how any ordinary Libyan citizen would have looked at these Libya pages and been able to find any link to Russia.

If you were to have taken advantage of Facebook's page transparency feature you would just see a plurality of admins located in Egypt.

And so I think it's strategies like that that we might see them using more going forward. And I think that's important because these strategies actually make it really hard to identify disinformation campaigns and the actors behind them.

And your organization of course worked with Facebook on uncovering these operations and Facebook has now removed them from the platform. But how proactive do you think the company really is being about dismantling disinformation networks?

I think they are being proactive. To emphasize, you know, we found one of these Libya pages, which then led to the discovery of the other Libya pages. But they had previously been investigating dozens of these that were that were related. So I think they're actually being quite proactive.


Written by Alison Masemann and John McGill. Interview produced by Alison Masemann. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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