A sizable social network that supports pro-Kremlin and anti-Western ideologies is assisting Russia in displacing France in several of its former colonies in Africa.
Known as Russosphère (Russian Sphere), typical posts there follow the official Russian line and accuse France of contemporary “colonialism,” praise Vladimir Putin, and refer to the Ukrainian army as “Nazis” and “Satanists.”
Additionally, they extol the virtues of the Wagner mercenaries from Russia, even providing recruiters’ contact information for those who wish to enlist.
According to experts, such false information fosters mistrust between African countries and the West and lessens support for Ukraine on the continent.
The BBC’s Global Disinformation Team collaborated with the tech company Logically to hunt down the network’s mysterious mastermind: a 65-year-old Belgian politician who identifies as a Stalinist.
Defending Russia and thanking Wagner
Russosphère describes itself as “a network in defense of Russia.” Made up of several social media groups on different platforms, it was created in 2021 but fully launched in February 2022 – just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The network swiftly gained over 40,000 followers.
Image caption, A typical post on Russosphère
Following the invasion, access to Russian official media was either limited or prohibited on all popular social media platforms. As opposed to this, Russosphère immediately started using Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, as well as Telegram and VK, Russia’s equivalent of Facebook.
The finding comes at a time when relations between France and several African countries are rapidly deteriorating, which analysts partly ascribe to the Kremlin’s influence and a rising pro-Russian mood fueled by propaganda.
The director of US investigations at Logically is Kyle Walter. Logically traced the network back to a man named Luc Michel using information from their artificial intelligence-powered platform and open-source intelligence.
In the past, Mr. Michel has worked to legitimize votes in Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories and been linked to PMC “Wagner” a group supporting the work of the Russian mercenaries.
BBC contacted Mr. Michel, and he agreed to discuss Russosphère. He told us he created it but said it received no financial support from Russia, saying it is funded by “private money.”
He also insisted that he had no connections with Wagner and its head Yevgeny Prigozhin. “I manage the cyber war, the media war… and Prigozhin conducts military activities,” he said.
IMAGE SOURCE, LUC MICHEL’S WEBSITE Image caption, Luc Michel is little known in Europe but promotes himself in Africa
According to Mr. Walter, a co-author of Logically’s report, this campaign is the first time Mr. Michel’s efforts have had a real-world impact. “Russosphère is the first time Luc Michel and the general influence operations he runs have had significant success,” he says.
“Even if the groups have been helped by bots in the beginning, they are now an authentic organic influence operation, with a large portion of real followers from across Africa.”
An admirer of Gaddafi and Putin
Mr. Michel’s early history may seem unusual for a self-proclaimed friend of Africa.
Born in 1958, he was politically active from a young age, first in the neo-fascist groups of his native Belgium, and later as a follower of Jean Thiriart, a former Nazi collaborator who envisioned a “Euro-Soviet empire from Vladivostok to Dublin”, united against America.
His career took him to Libya in support of the country’s leader at the time, Muammar Gaddafi. He also went to Burundi as an advisor to then-President Pierre Nkurunziza.
Image caption, Mr. Michel interviewing the CAR President Touadéra
Throughout, he maintained a Russian connection, working with “Nashi”, the Kremlin’s youth movement, and creating a self-styled “election-monitoring group” that declared Moscow’s 2014 illegal referendums in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk “free and fair”.
“I am a Stalinist,” he told the BBC. “I have defended Russia since the 1980s. I think that Russia is the only force left in Europe that is anti-American. I am nostalgic for the Soviet Union. I want a free world without America.”
From social media to the streets
It is difficult to assess the impact of specific disinformation campaigns, but in Africa, the pro-Russian message is being heard – amplified, say, analysts, by local influencers cultivated by Russia.
“The success of people like Luc Michel is because of his opposition to France. It taps into real grievances on the ground,” says Kevin Limonier, an associate professor at the University of Paris-8 studying Moscow’s information operations in Africa.
“Russian disinformation was a factor helping to drive the French forces out of Sahel countries, especially Burkina Faso,” according to Ulf Laessing, from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a center-right German think tank.
In 2013, some 5,000 French troops had been deployed to fight militant jihadist groups in Mali as well as in Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania. But last year, they pulled out of Mali and are preparing to leave Burkina Faso.
IMAGE SOURCE, AFP Image caption, A Russian flag at a protest in Chad in October 2022
They have been under pressure from the military governments in the two countries but Beverly Ochieng from BBC Monitoring agrees that popular sentiment may have had something to do with it.
“Russian flags were waved at protests in Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, and that is in part due to pro-Russian info-ops,” she says.
In Burkina Faso, protesters attacked the French embassy and were heard demanding closer ties between Ouagadougou and Moscow.
This chimes directly with Mr. Michel’s aims. “I think that Russia must replace the French in all of Africa,” he told the BBC.
“Estimating the impact of information operations is almost impossible,” says Mr. Limonier, an expert in the Kremlin’s influence campaigns.
But one thing is clear: such operations worry the West.
So will France resist the influence of Russian disinformation under its nose, or will it wait for the complete failure of its information companies?