ANC stages 'go gaga' tweetstorm
ANC head of elections Fikile Mbalula has created a clandestine propaganda machine dubbed the "Boiler Room" to tweet positively about the party and counter opposition campaigns on social media.
Mbalula has recruited 60 party activists, who have been spreading ANC propaganda since last Friday.
The name of the operation is taken straight from the books of US television spy thriller Homeland.
The activists are expected to challenge opposition party leaders on their parties' manifestos when they post on Twitter. According to ANC insiders, the intention is also for the activists to call radio stations to push ANC propaganda.
The Sunday Times can reveal the ANC Boiler Room was activated last week, before the party launched its election songs album in Newtown, Johannesburg.
Mbalula confirmed setting up the structure, but said it was not a secretive operation.
"There is no underground movement about it. The ANC is fighting its war on Twitter by mobilising its members … The campaign is on social media, the digital space and out there on the ground. So we are all over, like all other political parties.
"The ANC would not do anything illegal, we are not in the business of Cambridge Analytics [sic], we are running a clean campaign."
Cambridge Analytica was a UK firm controversially involved in data gathering for political purposes.
"All political parties are running campaigns on social media that are very strong and well organised," Mbalula said. "It does not happen on its own like it is automated, people sit down and plot, so the ANC cannot fold its arms. The ANC is right there in that space to contest."
But an insider described the Boiler Room as a "clandestine operation" that forms part of the greater election campaign strategy of the party. "I have heard of it but I also know that it is sort of off the books because not everyone knows about it. At Luthuli House, the few who know it call it the 'Mbalula thing', but there are people on the elections machinery who have not been told about it," the insider said.
Mbalula issued the instruction in the ANC election hub WhatsApp group, saying: "Esethu [Hasane] activate Boiler Room. For this weekend. Let us go Gaga."
About 60 Boiler Room "activists" were trained by ANC elections deputy general manager Bandile Sizani at the Gauteng legislature two days before the ANC album launch. The activists tweeted up a storm on Saturday during the DA manifesto launch held in Johannesburg. Sizani could not be reached for comment.
Insiders say they were briefed to defend ANC leaders on Twitter but also attack leaders of the opposition - the DA and EFF in particular.
To this end, several tweets mocking DA leader Mmusi Maimane were sent out.
Agents were also provided with pro-ANC content to share in their social media accounts. That included videos and statistics on ANC "successes" in services such as the provision of clean water and houses.
Beyond tweeting, agents also retweet each other and retweet Mbalula and other ANC leaders' tweets.
Some of the Boiler Room agents had not tweeted since 2015 but have been very active since the Friday of the ANC album launch event.
Mbalula said there was nothing sinister about the operation. "The DA too is running a call centre and you may find they have a boiler room at Nkululeko House of people who are tweeting and doing all of that." - Additional reporting by Zimasa Matiwane..