One of the ways in which foreign influence operations gain traction in African societies is through influencing local media. This influence can range from subtle attempts to influence editorial agendas to 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 falls into six broad categories, namely content production (e.g., producing programs for China Global Television Network (CGTN) from Nairobi, news reports for Xinhua wire services and the publication of Chinafrica magazine from its regional bureau in Johannesburg); content distribution (e.g., the establishment of pay-TV services by companies like StarTimes offering Chinese and non-Chinese TV content in multiple African countries and the signing of agreements with national broadcasters to distribute Chinese TV shows locally); infrastructure development (e.g., the expansion of a South African cellphone network by Chinese telecommunications company ZTE or the provision of digital TV access to rural communities in Kenya; direct investment (e.g., a Chinese investment of 20% in the South African media company Independent Media); exchange and training programs (e.g., various training programs for African journalists and media officials offered by the Chinese government and the provision of scholarships to pursue graduate studies at Chinese universities) and public opinion “management” (e.g., direct engagement with audiences via social media by diplomats and journalists, reactive publicity campaigns on domestic African print, radio, and television).
After the pro-democracy demonstrations that took place 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, inauthentic influence campaigns on social media such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Increasingly, this communication also includes false narratives and amplified conspiracy theories.
One of the key strategies used by countries such as Russia and China to influence the African public sphere is that of ‘information laundering’. This strategy 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 the planting of information – either offering 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. 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 (e.g., ‘South African media reports that…’). China has used information laundering in South Africa to push the theory that Covid-19 originated in a US military base, for instance. The local news organisation Independent Online (IOL), partially owned by Chinese interests, published an article in September of 2021 that repeated Beijing’s talking point that the WHO 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 ally. China’s state media has repeated the Kremlin line on the war, including misinformation about the conflict. Again, South Africa’s China-backed news outlet, IOL, chimed 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, like putting the blame for spiking food prices on Western sanctions and long-standing Western disregard for Africa. Russia has also drawn on 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 social media poses the biggest threat. 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.
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. However, RT recently announced that it would establish 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 multi-levelled response.