A CNN investigation has revealed how Russians, through a Ghanaian citizen, employed several persons as trolls with social media accounts, targeted at manipulating elections in the United States.
The month-long investigation released by the international website revealed that sixteen Ghanaians, mostly in their 20s were employed by one Seth Wiredu running a small non-profit group that called itself Eliminating Barriers for the Liberation of Africa (EBLA).
Disguising his identity by using the adopted name Amara, Seth claimed to be South African when in reality, he lives in Russia and speaks Russian.
These employees operated from their headquarters; a walled compound in a quiet residential district near the Ghanaian capital Accra.
They were issued mobile phones, worked around a table and communicated as a group through the encrypted Telegram app, which is rarely used in Ghana. Each employee was given a specific area to work on and post about.
They focused almost exclusively on racial issues in the US, promoting black empowerment and often displaying anger towards white Americans. The goal, according to experts who follow Russian disinformation campaigns, is to inflame divisions among Americans and provoke social unrest.
The languages and images used in the posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are sometimes graphic. One of the Ghanaian trolls — @africamustwake — linked to a story from a left-wing conspiracy website and commented on Facebook: “America’s descent into a fascist police state continues.”
Referring to a Republican state senator, the post continued: “Someone needs to take that Senator out.” More than 200 accounts were created by the Ghanaian trolls — the vast majority in the second half of 2019 — and they reached hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people worldwide.
Facebook and Twitter had already been looking into some of the troll accounts when CNN notified the two companies of our investigation. In a statement Thursday, Facebook said that its “subsequent assessment benefited from our collaboration with a team of journalists at CNN” and it had “removed 49 Facebook accounts, 69 Pages and 85 Instagram accounts for engaging in foreign interference.”
Facebook said: “This network was in early stages of audience building and was operated by local nationals — witting and unwitting — in Ghana and Nigeria on behalf of individuals in Russia. It targeted primarily the United States.”
Facebook says that about 13,200 Facebook accounts followed one or more of the Ghana accounts and around 263,200 people followed one or more of Instagram accounts, about 65% of whom were in the US.
Twitter told CNN that it had removed 71 accounts that had 68,000 followers. “Most were tweeting in English and presented themselves as based in the United States,” it said in a statement.
“The accounts — operating out of Ghana and Nigeria and which we can reliably associate with Russia — attempted to sow discord by engaging in conversations about social issues, like race and civil rights.”
The activity uncovered by CNN had striking similarities to the Russian troll campaign of 2016, which created hundreds of accounts designed to pass as American. @africamustwake, for example, which described itself as a “Platform For #BLM #Racism #PoliceBrutality,” claimed to be in Florida.
One of the trolls agreed to talk to CNN, so long as her identity was disguised. She said she had no idea she would be working as a Russian troll. She said that employees were given topics to post about.
“So you get stories about LGBT, you get stories about police brutality, depends on what you are working,” she said.
The employee said they were told that the best time to tweet and post was late afternoon and at night in Ghana, times when a US audience would have been active. They were given US articles to read.
Facebook said that although the people behind the campaign had attempted to conceal their purpose and coordination, its investigation had found links to both EBLA and “individuals associated with past activity by the Russian Internet Research Agency.”
The Internet Research Agency (IRA) was responsible for much of the foreign trolling activity aimed at the 2016 and 2018 US election campaigns, according to the US government.
The IRA was funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is so close to the Kremlin that he is nicknamed “Putin’s chef.”
A CNN request for comment from Prigozhin’s holding company, Concord Management, on the Ghana trolling operation went unanswered.