Cyber analysts uncover campaign to push xenophobia agenda on Twitter

09 September 2020 - 11:59 By Ernest Mabuza
Analysts at UCT have found that narratives concerning xenophobia are being curated and amplified by a dedicated network of connected users on South African social media platforms.
Analysts at UCT have found that narratives concerning xenophobia are being curated and amplified by a dedicated network of connected users on South African social media platforms.
Image: 123RF/dolgachov

There is a co-ordinated attempt to manipulate South African conversations with a xenophobic tone on social media platforms.

This is the finding made in an interim report released by analysts from the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) at the University of Cape Town.

The report has found that key narratives around xenophobia are being curated and amplified by a dedicated network of connected users on South African social media platforms.

CABC was established to foster social cohesion through healthy online interactions among active citizenry.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, analysts at the centre were, in part, focusing on possible disruptions to social cohesion that might emerge under lockdown, when they noticed a sudden and drastic increase in online xenophobic mentions on Twitter.

“Whereas xenophobic mentions generally hovered around 100 per day at the beginning of March, within two weeks there was a significant uptick to around 9,000 mentions per day, peaking at around 15,000 mentions at one point,” said Dr Camaren Peter, the director and executive head of the CABC.

Peter said of key significance was that the hashtag #PutSouthAfricaFirst emerged on April 27 and was used more than 16,000 times in a single day.

“This amplification was due to 80 accounts responsible for around 50% of the use of the hashtag. This indicated that the conversation was not growing organically but was being amplified by a co-ordinated network.”

Peter said this malicious, co-ordinated social media campaign was similar to the Bell Pottinger scandal.

The UK-based public relations firm was exposed in 2017 as being the mastermind behind a large-scale social media campaign which used a network of fake bloggers, commentators and Twitter users to sow racial division on behalf of the Gupta family.

“This is a similar network, but we do not think these accounts are bots [software applications programmed to perform certain tasks],” said Peter.

The centre suspected they were rather paid accounts manned by either individuals or a team co-ordinating their activity. The centre said many of these accounts had been dormant for long periods and were reactivated on April 27 2020, “tweeting no other meaningful messaging other than xenophobic messaging”.

The report said many of these accounts serve no other purpose but to “signal boost” negative sentiments about foreign Africans. There was no meaningful personal content from any of the accounts. The report said the network’s playbook was anti-EFF and anti-ANC, which had publicly opposed xenophobia.

“The network is so sophisticated and highly organised. They know how to jump hashtags to allow people in the know to continue to follow them, while frustrating attempts to track their activity.”

The report said the network tweeted at former Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and EFF leader Julius Malema, who are not an integral part of the network.

“It appears they want to capitalise on the extensive online following of these two prominent politicians,” the report said.

The CABC’s investigation is ongoing and further reports will be released in due course.

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