Russian disinformation agents likely backed a new internet troll farm in Ghana, including a network that sought on-the-ground activists in Charleston as recently as last month, two Clemson University troll hunters and CNN reporters found.
The discovery reflects a notable shift in Russian cyber tactics — using proxies in western Africa and elsewhere to inflame American discourse, said Darren Linvill, a Clemson professor of education.
“It’s simple outsourcing.”
The Ghana network’s effort to hire activists in Charleston is a reminder of how disinformation tentacles can reach deep into U.S. cities.
The Clemson professors discovered the Charleston connection last month when they stumbled on a social media post from the suspect Ghana network. The group said it was seeking a “chapter coordinator” in South Carolina to push issues similar to the Black Lives Matter movement.
That revelation follows a Post and Courier investigation earlier this year that revealed how a bogus Russian-backed group, Black Matters US, tried to stage a divisive rally in Charleston in 2016 on the anniversary of the Emanuel AME Church shooting.
The Ghana operation “tells me that they’re following the same playbook they used in 2016,” Linvill said. “They’re working in the same communities online and in the real world.”
Linvill and Patrick Warren, a Clemson economics professor, have done groundbreaking work to expose Russian and other foreign disinformation networks. In 2017, they compiled a database of more than 3 million suspected Russian troll tweets, and later expanded it to 9 million. At the time, it was among the most comprehensive troves of Russian troll activity available.
The internet has long been populated by trolls — people who start quarrels and post provocative and irritating messages. But the Russian trolls weren't bullies, the Clemson database revealed. Russian operatives became friends and followers of real Americans with divisive views, then amplified their posts.
Many of these Russian troll accounts were designed to spread inflammatory left-leaning, pro-Bernie Sanders messages, while others amplified right-wing and pro-Donald Trump posts, Linvill and Warren found. Whether right-wing or left-wing trolls, the Russians' overarching goal was to inflame American discourse and sow chaos, sapping the country’s strength.
Then, while monitoring social media activity last summer, Linvill said he detected an unusual new network.
CNN probes African network
Like the bogus Russian Black Matters US accounts, these new Twitter accounts amplified posts about American police brutality and racism.
But he soon realized the accounts were based in Ghana.
“Interestingly, these accounts were all communicating predominantly with U.S. communities, not African, talking about U.S. issues.”
He also noticed telling patterns that he’d seen in Russian posts, as if someone from Russia’s notorious troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, had trained them.
He reported the accounts to Twitter, which suspended them. Soon, new accounts popped up. He mentioned this activity to a producer from CNN in November, “and they ran with the ball.”
In its report Thursday night, CNN discovered Russian connections with a Ghana nonprofit, EBLA, short for Eliminating Barriers for the Liberation of Africa.
The CNN report said the group also had an operation in Nigeria, and that they created more than 200 accounts, most in the second half of 2019. Twitter told CNN that 71 accounts had 68,000 followers at one point.
"They have focused almost exclusively on racial issues in the U.S., promoting black empowerment and often displaying anger towards white Americans," the report concluded.
Reporters for CNN also traveled to the Ghanaian capital, Accra, and found the headquarters in a quiet residential district. One troll told CNN she had no idea she was working for the Russians. Ghanaian security forces raided the compound in February and shut it down, CNN reported.
On its webpage, EBLA describes itself as a network of advocates for human rights where people live “freely in peace and harmony.” Its site said the group was founded in 2019 and that the group uses social media to create awareness of human rights issues. It claimed to operate more than 20 accounts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The group’s Facebook and Instagram pages were taken down Thursday. Its LinkedIn and Twitter pages also are gone.
Ghana is a country of about 30 million. English is its official language, though many speak multiple languages, as is the case with its much larger neighbor, Nigeria.
Linvill said the establishment of disinformation units outside Russia “is a natural progression,” and that Ghana was a prime target.
“Most Ghanaians speak better English than Russians, given that it's their official language."
And having multiple troll farms in different parts of the world "is just another way to spread risk, not put all of your eggs in one basket.”
Linvill said he and Warren were talking with CNN journalists when Warren found the job post. It was on multiple U.S. sites. It said the EBLA was looking in Charleston for a chapter coordinator.
“We aim to create a sustainable world where racism has no place.”
The notice included an email and WhatsApp phone number.
The Post and Courier sought comments from the group, but emails and messages through social media weren’t returned.
In 2016, an activist paid by Russian operatives flew to Charleston and met with local leaders, a meeting that came amid the anniversary of the Emanuel AME shooting.
Russian trolls using the moniker Black Matters US, a front group, urged people to meet in front of the church at the same time the shooting victims organized a unity march, a Post and Courier analysis of the Clemson Twitter database revealed. With a name similar to the real Black Lives Matters movement, the bogus Black Matters US group had attracted a large number of social media followers. But only a few people showed up for the Black Matters US gathering in Charleston.
Elsewhere, bogus Russian groups staged anti-Hillary Clinton rallies that year.
Shakem Amen Akhet, a Charleston activist who co-founded a Black Lives Matters chapter here, said he’s become more skeptical and cautious in the wake of Russian efforts to recruit in the area.
He said it’s common for groups to contact him about setting up a chapter.
“But you have to do a mini-background check.”
The disinformation campaigns have a corrosive side effect, he added.
“I’ve been called a troll a hundred times. What they’re doing hurts because it’s a way of discrediting a legitimate message.”