‘The Russians use a narrative in Africa that claims the West is decadent and perverts our children to turn them gay’

Justin Arestein, South African disinformation expert, explains how African and foreign political actors are pushing claims that support their geostrategic interests with the help of artificial intelligence and cheaper technology

Justin Arestein
Justin Arestein, disinformation expert and director of Code for Africa, at the National Museum in Nairobi last February.JONAH NJOROGE

Talking to Justin Arestein requires close attention. He speaks quickly and more importantly, he shares a lot of very valuable information. He has a deep understanding of the sewers through which political and military disinformation circulates in Africa — fake news that comes to the surface in campaigns to discredit opponents, on the battlefield in the Sahel or even to bring forth coups d’états. Arestein follows the trail of disinformation that begins in Africa, but also comes from Moscow and Beijing, heavily impacting the continent as it seeks to achieve its political objectives. “The Russians use a narrative in Africa that claims the West is decadent and perverts our children to turn them gay,” he says.

Arestein is the founder and director of Code for Africa, a platform specialized in disinformation that has 140 workers across 26 African countries and develops sophisticated journalistic investigations with drones and artificial intelligence (AI). This interview takes place on a terrace in Nairobi, where Arestein points out the brand new buildings and toll roads. “China has been very smart in investing in visible infrastructure that improves the lives of Africans,” he argues.

Question. How much has misinformation in Africa changed with artificial intelligence?

Answer. We have seen clumsy attempts to spread misinformation using videos made with generative artificial intelligence that create apparently real people, who express polarizing arguments. They use companies where for $40 you can buy an avatar and give it a script to make it look like it’s human. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, it was directed against U.N. peacekeepers to mobilize the people against them, and in support of the M23 rebel movement.

Q. What is the biggest threat?

A. The big threat today is not the things that people really focus on, like deepfake videos. The real threat is the way AI is being used to make it incredibly cheap and fast to produce seemingly authentic propaganda messages. In text — especially on WhatsApp and Telegram — it is practically undetectable.

Q. How?

A. We are seeing a greater influence in the industrial-scale use of large language models capable of creating different versions of existing information. For example, the Russians use a very powerful narrative throughout Africa that claims that the West is decadent has lost its way in the eyes of God and perverts our children to turn them gay. They say that they, the Russians, are the model of morality, rather than decadent Europeans. With AI you can retell that little story in a hundred different ways in seconds. And ask it to translate it into different languages. Then you can ask it to say it in the voice of an old woman, in that of a young rapper... you can have a thousand different versions of that message in minutes. Doing that with humans would cost weeks and a lot of money.

Q. What other disinformation campaigns are circulating in Africa?

A. Generative AI is capable of using a type of machine learning to analyze what problems cause polarization. In South Africa, for example, it is xenophobia, because the working class has a deep-rooted belief that other Africans steal their jobs and disrupt their cultural norms. They find hot topics and develop opportunistic propaganda that exacerbates the problem. There are consultancies that are hired to discredit a political opponent or to amplify a narrative and influence elections. You can see how they have discredited individual politicians and even the Red Cross to make it appear that they support the jihadists.

Q. You mentioned Russia. Is it the main geopolitical source of disinformation in Africa?

A. Russia is an opportunistic client of people who spread disinformation, and has geopolitical objectives, but it does not have the machinery to do the job on its own. We are seeing how combat troop are subcontracted from organizations like Wagner or the security forces of parastatal oil companies, which in turn subcontract propaganda from so-called keyboard warriors or digital mercenaries. They are often Africans or Israelis and other nationalities, who receive a commission from a Russian actor affiliated with an African state. They will say that a politician in Mali or Burkina Faso must be questioned and that the public must support the military junta, because the junta will then hire Wagner as an advisor. We are also seeing many propaganda campaigns from Turkey and religious messages from countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Q. To what extent do Russian destabilization efforts explain last year’s coups in African countries?

A. Russia has been very successful in the Sahel region in identifying citizens’ fear of jihadists. These are usually Wagner-led campaigns about how governments and peacekeepers, like the French ones, are ineffective. From there, they build public support for more overt military action against incompetent democratically elected governments. This creates a climate in which a coup d’état with broad support can occur. There are campaigns in which Russia and Wagner project themselves as the saviors of the citizens. Every small victory for Wagner is amplified, and anyone who criticizes Wagner and its mining or wealth-extracting activities is smeared with coordinated messages.

Wagner uses very well-produced animated short films in which they are portrayed as avenging angels who come down from heaven to kill French zombies.

Q. Is this still true after the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner’s mercenaries?

A. Wagner in Africa has never stopped operating. We have seen the withdrawal of some commanders loyal to Prigozhin and the restructuring of troops into new units. What has changed is that jihadists have also built very large communities on social media. What we see on those dark social platforms is that Wagner’s mercenaries are suffering many casualties on the battlefield. It is the result of the disorganization after Prigozhin’s death. The jihadists have invaded several military bases of Wagner and have also ambushed convoys. There are videos we have verified of Russian corpses strewn across African battlefields and armored vehicles blown up.

Q. You say religious extremists also use disinformation.

A. Wagner uses very well-produced animated short films in which they are portrayed as avenging angels who come down from heaven to kill French zombies. Now we are starting to see jihadists on Telegram and other encrypted channels using the same-styled videos and animations, but they show Africans, villagers with machine guns chasing Wagner’s troops so that they no longer steal their gold, crops and women. We are starting to see jihadists adapt and use the same type of narrative against Wagner.

Q. To what degree is AI used to fuel anti-Western sentiment?

A. Another narrative is the one that presents the French as colonialists. They argue that resisting them is a pan-Africanist necessity, that it is not a problem of a single country.

Misinformation is not an education problem; it is an organized crime problem.

Q. Is the West doing enough to counteract all this information?

A. The West has been a little confused and has invested a lot in public literacy programs, but in reality, what it does is shame the victim. You are telling those who have been the target of propaganda that it is their fault, that they have to be smarter and read and know how to detect propaganda. Misinformation is not an education problem; it is an organized crime problem and the reason it succeeds is because it has become cheap and easy. Europeans and Americans are beginning to understand that the only way to combat it is to disrupt the economy of disinformation and that digital mercenaries, sitting in a hut or a garage, cannot be allowed to subvert a government’s national policy.

Q. How much misinformation surrounds the votes on resolutions condemning Russia at the U.N.?

A. Europeans and Americans find it difficult to understand that Africans do not see the geopolitical world in the same way as they do. There are wars in Africa of greater magnitude than the one in Ukraine, with more civilian victims, which do not receive nearly the same attention. It’s the perception that Europeans and Americans don’t value Black lives as much as white lives. It must be remembered that Russia and China liberated Africans from colonial occupation. The boogeymen that Europe sees from an African perspective were our liberators. We are talking about the 1970s, 1980s. Those who were children then are now adults who are told that we must vote against Russia at the U.N. to support the end of a war that does not affect us. Many Africans believe that what is happening in Ukraine is not our problem and that food and the cost of living have been weaponized against us to try to get us to support Europe. It is not my personal opinion, but it is a zeitgeist that opportunists exploit.

Q. And China?

A. We see that the Chinese have a slightly different approach. They recruit African experts to write opinion pieces in Chinese state media. They are commissioned by a Chinese news editor on a topic aligned with Beijing’s policy. They are published in China, but then they are distributed through syndication in African media without warning them that it comes from a state media agency and then the Chinese media write about it as if it were news of Africa’s support for Chinese policies, without supposedly any interference. This message is then amplified until it is perceived as the dominant public opinion in Africa. It is a very effective tactic in shaping African countries’ policies. It’s a longer-term view.

Q. And beyond the media?

A. Look here, in Nairobi. Until very recently, traffic in Nairobi was impossible and it took between two and three hours to get anywhere. Not anymore, because now there are highways. And who built them? China. There is a construction boom in Nairobi. Many of these buildings you see here are built or financed by China. We can argue about the debt implications, but China is a very active player in our economies that the people can see. And that makes the public perception of China very different from the one in Europe or the United States. Opinion is not based on their human rights record, but on how they are helping us out of poverty and growing our middle class. And we don’t see the same thing with the U.S. or the EU, because often, development aid from those countries goes to education systems and improving governance. It’s a bigger investment, but less visible to citizens. China has been very smart in investing in visible infrastructure that improves the lives of Africans.

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