Russian and African Media: Exercising Soft Power
Under President Vladimir Putin, there has been a resurgence of Russian interest and involvement in Africa. The October 2019 Russia–Africa Summit in Sochi was reported as being a key milestone in Russia’s return to the African continent. Like other countries which use strategic narratives to advance state interests, attempting to influence through the media is not a new phenomenon for Russia. However, in recent years – particularly since the 2014 Ukraine conflict – Russia’s use of media to leverage broader influence campaigns has gained notoriety, both domestically and internationally. Russia’s state-owned media outlets are central to the Kremlin’s strategy and are drivers of its soft power in Africa. Services like Sputnik and RT (formerly Russia Today) find resonance among African editors. Building on anti-imperialist credentials and positioning itself as an alternative news source, state-owned media is able to provide a more balanced image of Russia in Africa, while combatting Western narratives. The Kremlin has successfully adapted to the digital age, broadening its operations to include online news sites in several languages. African news websites are, in turn, re publishing content from Kremlin-sponsored media on a large scale. The narratives are amplified far beyond their original source, the main message being that Moscow is ready to engage with Africa on mutually beneficial terms. Influence-building using social media is another key aspect of Russia’s media strategy in Africa. It is used to sow doubt and build trust in alternative news sources. And, Russian networks are increasingly working with local actors in African countries to better disguise their activities. Interestingly, much of the content being shared on social media by Russian networks is not ‘fake news’, but in most cases is hyper-partisan and polarising. The success of online influence campaigns depends on how connected societies are to the digital world. Russia is therefore increasingly using a combination of social media and other public diplomacy instruments to build influence in Africa. In the Central African Republic, for example, the production of audiovisual content, the financing of the local press and the sponsoring of local activities is helping to present Russia as a new and helpful development partner. Nevertheless, as in other parts of the continent where Russia attempts to extend its influence, it must do so on a limited budget.