/ 17 April 2024

Are African elections manipulated by foreign disinformation campaigns?

The Columbia Journalism Review's 'misinformation News Stand'
A recent study by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) has found that disinformation campaigns to manipulate African information systems have surged nearly four-fold since 2022. (Photo by Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

2024 is touted as the biggest election year in history. More than 80 national elections are scheduled to take place, affecting 52% of the global population. Furthermore, in a recent survey by Ipsos, 87% of respondents from 16 of these countries expressed concern that disinformation could affect election results, with social media identified as the leading source of disinformation.

The Global Risks Report 2024 identifies disinformation as one of the top risks the world will have to contend with, predicting that “…over the next two years, the widespread use of misinformation and disinformation, and tools to disseminate it, may undermine the legitimacy of newly elected governments. Resulting unrest could range from violent protests and hate crimes to civil confrontation and terrorism”.

The report goes on to posit that the rise of disinformation may be increasingly embolden governments to control information “…based on what they determine to be ‘true’”. This is concerning in an environment in which internet freedoms are already in decline.

So who is behind this spike in disinformation?

Foreign sponsored disinformation campaigns

A recent study by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), Mapping a Surge of Disinformation in Africa, has found that disinformation campaigns to manipulate African information systems have surged nearly four-fold since 2022. The study identified 15 North African Campaigns, 33 East African Campaigns, 25 Southern African Campaigns, 21 Central African Campaigns, and 72 West African Campaigns. The study also identified 23 trans-African campaigns linked primarily to the Kremlin and, to a lesser extent, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The 23 campaigns identified are sponsored by a range of actors, including Kremlin-linked actors, CCP-linked actors, other (unidentified) foreign actors, Militant Islamist group actors, Military actors (includes juntas), domestic political actors, and other (undetermined actors).

Foreign manipulation by region

  • In North Africa, there was evidence of Kremlin-linked interference across the region, in addition to domestic political actors.
  • In East Africa domestic political actors bore the primary responsibility for disinformation campaigns, though there was also evidence of campaigns orchestrated by militant Islamist groups and the military.
  • The Southern African region also witnessed a significant number of Kremlin-linked and CCP-linked disinformation campaigns. Interestingly, campaigns across Southern Africa propagated by domestic political actors only featured in 2 instances in Zimbabwe.
  • Kremlin-linked influence also dominated the Central African region, along with four domestic political campaigns in DRC.
  • In West Africa, Kremlin-linked campaigns were most prevalent alongside CCP-linked campaigns and a number of domestic political campaigns.

Social media and disinformation

This clear and targeted obfuscation has important ramifications for the social media space in Africa. As highlighted by the ACSS report:

  • 300 million Africans have come onto social media in the past 7 years;
  • There are over 400 million active social media users and 600 million internet users on the continent;
  • Africans online rely on social media for news content at among the highest rates in the world;
  • Social media users in Kenya and Nigeria, for example, are near the top of the scale in terms of hours per day spent on social media platforms. These countries also report the most concern about false and misleading information.
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[Source: Digital 2024: Global Overview Report]

With this background, it is clear that a significant proportion of the African electorate will make political choices based on information consumed on social media. Indeed, African elections have proved to be prime fodder for disinformation and influence campaigns. Deploying mercenary disinfo-ops teams, one Israeli group, “Team Jorge” has reportedly carried out disinformation campaigns influencing over 20 African elections since 2015.

Jurisdictions with stronger checks and balances such as those that uphold presidential term limits appear to be less vulnerable to foreign-sponsored disinformation campaigns. In Kenya and Nigeria, for instance, domestic actors were much more prevalent in their respective 2022 and 2023 elections.

Politicians need to stand up against these bad actors

All these reports make it clear that foreign state actors are heavily invested in influencing the African political space and elections for their own purposes through disinformation. African politicians must therefore rise to the occasion and act to safeguard our democratic space.

They need to sensitise voters on the extent of disinformation on social media and online, as well as consider and implement effective and robust legislative and policy measures. This situation is all the more daunting as a result of the speed at which disinformation trends evolve, as evidenced by the rise of generative artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, Africa does not lack the intellectual capacity to address these challenges; that prowess need only be combined with the commensurate political will to address one of the most critical challenges of our time.


Tom Mboya is a governance professional with a broad range of experience in the field, specifically in anti-corruption, parliamentary development, public sector reform, political affairs, research and advocacy.


The Digital Afrikan – This article is part of The Digital Afrikan’s Elections Series – 2024. The Digital Afrikan is a journalism organisation with a mission to drive digital transformation in Africa. Visit our website or contact us on [email protected]