As with the rest of the world these days, South Africa is caught in a bittersweet feedback loop between its mainstream politics and what happens on Twitter. Sweet because platforms like Twitter democratise access to political debates; bitter because such platforms also provide an avenue for bad actors to spread propaganda, division and hate. Indeed, some have argued that social media platforms are better at the latter.
I’d previously summarised what our political landscape looked like at the end of 2016 and I think it’s time for an update so let’s take a look at the main groups that shaped South Africa’s political discourse on Twitter in 2018.
A high level summary of the insights in this research includes the increasing merger of local far right elements with the international Alt-Right movement, and the firm entrance of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction into our politics along with their race invective, but also the observation that, unlike the USA, we have not been completely polarised as a country yet, despite these groups’ efforts.
The research also highlights the communities where under-handed interference (bots, sockpuppets, etc.) is most likely to be happening. The bigger observation here though is that the entire South African discourse appears to be riddled by suspicious behaviour whereas the international conversations weighing in on our politics demonstrate hardly any signs of suspicious behaviour, with the exception of the international Alt-Right which is widely considered to be the poster-child for such interference. This seems to imply that a silent online war is currently raging across our country’s entire political discourse.
Given that most of the international communities in this data do not display notable signs of suspicious activity, is South Africa unique in that all of its factions are employing disinformation techniques against each other on Twitter? Or, are we all the target of a single broader campaign? One can easily think of the possible players and reasons for why this second scenario might be the case. Effective social media warfare opens multiple fronts simultaneously and variously works to divide and bolster camps to achieve an objective. This is what we saw in the USA where Russian sockpuppets and bots employed a multi-prong strategy to divide the Left and drive the Right towards Donald Trump (with or without his knowledge; we’ll have to wait for the Mueller report to find our more about that). I hesitate to say that the same is happening in South Africa but it does seem to be a plausible possibility. If this is the case, it begs the questions, who is being divided and what are we being driven towards?
… the entire South African discourse appears to be riddled by suspicious behaviour […] This seems to imply that a silent online war is currently raging across our country’s entire political discourse.
This article is based on a dataset of 4,060,456 tweets generated by 784,801 users. The combined dataset is made up of numerous individual datasets collected throughout the year around specific social and political issues. The data actually starts with the ANC54 elective conference in December 2017 because I consider this to be the event that closed the 2017 political year and set the tone for what was to come in 2018. I’ve included the following topics:
Adam Catzavelos, ANC54, Cape Town water crisis, Corruption & state capture: VBS Bank, Duduzane Zuma, EFF’s Indian racism, Far right groups, Farm murders, Helen Zille, Herman Mashaba, Jacob Zuma, Johan Rupert, Land expropriation, Listeriosis outbreak, Nhlanhla Nene, Nuclear power and renewables, Patricia de Lille, Pravin Gordhan, Soweto xenophobia, State of the Nation Address (SONA), Stratcom, The Dros rape, White genocide, and more…
While by no means a complete picture of everything discussed in South African politics, this combined dataset gives us a good cross-section of politicians, crooks, protests, race outrages and generally polarising topics to work with.
Here’s what the data looks like over time. As we can see, it is spread throughout the year, giving us decent coverage:
The main players
Two main trends have occurred since my 2016 summary of the South African political landscape on Twitter:
Firstly, South Africa’s main Twitter communities were pretty stable (i.e. the same communities appeared in most datasets) up until mid-2016 when the Guptabot disinformation campaign was unleashed upon us and, in the process, introduced us to the pro-Zuma, Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the ANC and terms like “white monopoly capital”.
Secondly, 2018 brought a new dynamic to the table in the form of the international community weighing in on our local politics, particularly around the issues of farm murders and “white genocide”, but also around the time of Winnie Mandela’s death.
Here’s what the network of the overall landscape looked like for 2018 (see the image caption for how to read it):
The below chart provides a more simplified picture of the above network. It shows us how large each community is and which ones are the most passionate and vocal. Communities that sit above the diagonal line generated more tweets than we would have expected given how many users were in that community. Thus, these were the particularly vocal, passionate and engaged communities:
Black Twitter (incl. EFF) is the single largest community. It includes many musicians, actors, television & radio personalities, influencers and other celebrities, and it appears to be deeply intertwined with the EFF. This community was less vocal than other communities though which is surprising since it is often the standout community in smaller datasets. This is not to say that it is not particularly vocal community; it was just eclipsed by the following communities:
The Mainstream media and political leaders community is the second largest community which is very encouraging. Unlike the USA, for example, this community’s prominence demonstrates that South Africans still have a common media touch-point which means that we still derive our political arguments from common facts rather than from mutually exclusive filter bubbles. Given the surprisingly high proportion of tweets generated by this community (and assuming that most of this volume isn’t generated by bots and sockpuppets), this says that we are a country engaged in robust debate from a common departure point. Our destinations might differ but we still, by and large, start from the same place.
We next come to the two most extreme communities, which also happen to exhibit high levels of suspicious behaviour, as we shall see shortly.
While a significant proportion of the DA’s support base is black (given that the party received 22% of the vote in the 2014 general elections and white South Africans only represent 8% of the population), it’s presence on Twitter skews towards white Twitter users. As such, the Liberals (incl. DA) and conservatives community is made up of a wide swathe of the white political spectrum, from the liberal DA accounts (around whom we also find many black supporters) to relatively moderate white conservatives such as AfriForum and more far right groups such as Die Suidlanders. This community generated many more tweets than we would expect. On closer inspection though, more of them came from the conservatives rather than the liberals. The conservatives are fearful of their place in the country. Topics such as land expropriation and farm killings, along with increasingly charged racial rhetoric, have spurred them on to vocalise their anxieties on Twitter. It would seem that these anxieties are being effectively harnessed by some local and/or international groups to further their own agenda as we see the more far right-leaning part of this community merging with the International Alt-Right.
On the other end of the nationalist race spectrum, we have the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) community, which espouses radical black nationalism and defines its ideological and political arguments in terms of their grievances against white South Africans. This community is spurred on by a mixture of anonymous influencers and prominent Zuma-aligned ANC factionalists. It is interesting to note that our community detection algorithm includes former president, Jacob Zuma, in this community. His content has been wildly popular across communities; however, the RET community has been the most responsive to Zuma’s content, which is why he has been associated with this community.
Interestingly, the most extreme elements in both of the above communities harbour millenerian beliefs. Die Suidlanders believe in the prophecy of an Anglo-Boer war era seer, Siener van Rensburg, who predicted an inevitable race war. They spend their time planning for their defense. The Black First Land First party believe a Fanonian apocalypse is necessary to reset race relations, with its leader having stated on Twitter that he won’t stay his machete for any white person. It would appear that beliefs in cataclysmic, transformative processes are the end result of complete, irreconcilable polarisation.
Where we see various international communities enter the fray, they generate fewer tweets than we would expect given their size. This is because international users aren’t actively discussing and debating South Africa-related topics to the extent that the local communities are. Rather, specific tweets go viral in these communities and generate many retweets, which is good for awareness building, but little actual conversation occurs.
An interesting anomaly in the landscape is the Adam Catzavelos human flesh searchers community. A “human flesh search engine” is a term coined to describe the collaborative hunt conducted by online users, often to expose a perceived wrong-doer, making it a form of vigilantism. In this case, Adam Catzavelos‘ racist viral video prompted an entire community to form around finding and dencouncing Catzavelos and anyone related to him.
Overall, we could describe the factions at play in South African politics on Twitter as follows:
Propaganda, bots and racism
Which communities are gaming the system to drive their narrative and/or are the most racist, misogynistic, violent and otherwise vitriolic according to Twitter? Or, taking a step back, which communities might be being used as battlefronts in a larger information war?
In order to evaluate this, I took a look at every one of the 784,801 users in the data to see which ones had been suspended by Twitter for breaking their community guidelines. These guidelines are designed to combat bot, spam, propaganda and disinformation behaviour, but also anti-social behaviour such as racism, violent rhetoric, and other forms of vitriol. I found 37,299 suspended users in the overall dataset, representing roughly 5% of all users.
The top 20 most prominent suspended accounts (i.e. those with the most retweets and @mentions) included three main types of users: far right white trolls, far left black trolls and anonymous US meme accounts that spread Alt-Right conspiracy theories. @AdvBarryRoux, one of the most popular influencers on South African Twitter, tops the list although he was only temporarily suspended at the time this research was conducted and is now back on Twitter (see News24’s investigation into his identity, although this apparently only reveals part of the picture of the group really behind this account). Other prominent suspended users include the BLF’s Andile Mngxitama and Lindsay Maasdorp who have both subsequently tried to re-join Twitter under different usernames. Also included in the list are Alt-Right accounts such as @meme_america and @memesfrogs. Here are the top 20 most influential suspended accounts in the data:
@advbarryroux, @mngxitama, @meme_america, @jerrytaba, @black_tv__, @vee_am_i, @swart_braam, @amblujay, @saveaustralia1, @lindsaymaasdorp, @yung_theologysa, @onlinemagazin, @memesfrogs, @fuckytfragility, @reggy_rsa, @yubbie007, @tuckertx1776, @mysticbanger, @johnroodt_lives, @itstherealbizz
Let’s take a look at the communities that contained the most suspended users (red) as well as the most users who changed their usernames (green – see more on this below) to get an indication of which communities generated the most suspicious activity and/or are the most racist, misogynistic, violent and otherwise vitriolic according to Twitter’s guidelines:
This chart shows that one in seven (15%) users in the RET community were suspended by Twitter, roughly three times as many as the other communities. Many of these accounts were likely retweet bots used to amplify a pro-Nkosozana Dlamini-Zuma message during the ANC54 conference as I have previously described. While numerous, suspended accounts in this community only produced 4% of its tweets, pointing towards bot amplification of real users’ tweets rather than active on-going conversations by sockpuppets (such as the Guptabots in 2016 and 2017), which would have produced higher volumes of tweets.
We also know that this community generates strong racial rhetoric, with BLF influencers, Andile Mngxitama and Lindsay Maasdorp, having been previously banned for threats of racial violence (for example, here, here, here and here). If this is a general trend in the kind of content generated by members in this community, it could also account for the elevated level of suspended users.
The above bar chart only tells part of the story though. The below interactive network shows us which communities suspended users are clustered in. This gives us a visual cue as to where suspicious and vitriolic behaviour is occurring. To explore this chart, move the middle bar back-and-forth between the two versions of the chart to uncover where suspended users (red), users who changed their usernames (green) or otherwise deactivated accounts (blue) were found:
[NOTE: If the above interactive network is not loading for you, just refresh the page]
The first thing that jumps out at one about the above network is that all of the suspended and otherwise deactivated users (including those that have changed their usernames) sit in the South African communities. There are hardly any suspended or deleted accounts in the USA Left or the Black Twitter communities from the rest of Africa or the world. Only the International Alt-Right community demonstrates notable levels of suspicious behaviour, which is completely expected as it is the poster-child for such interference. Does this mean that the entirety of South African’s political discourse is a battleground? Are all factions using under-handed techniques against each other or is a third force playing us against each other? Again, we have precedent for the latter scenario in numerous countries including the USA, France, the UK and dozens of others. Are we driving each other apart or are we being driven apart?
Are we driving each other apart or are we being driven apart?
As we can see, there are noteworthy clusters of suspended users in the RET community (mostly around user, @adamitv) but also in the Black Twitter (incl. EFF) community, and local and international far right communities.
To give us an idea of the narratives being amplified by suspended users, the below slideshow shows the top 20 most retweeted tweets overall, and then the top 20 among suspended users, followed by among users who changed their usernames (again, more on that below), to see if there are any differences in the messages they were spreading:
As one can see, there are some differences in the messages amplified by suspended users and those who changed their usernames, but this requires further research beyond the scope of this article.
What we haven’t discussed yet is the region highlighted in green but what follows is speculative:
There is a high concentration of green nodes in the green circled region; higher than one would expect if node types were distributed uniformly throughout the conversation. These green nodes represent @usernames that no longer exist. Some of these accounts were deactivated by their owners (although one would assume that most lapsed Twitter users would just leave their accounts dormant rather than consciously deactivate them) but most of these @usernames no longer exist because their owners have changed to a new @username.
To be clear, they have not changed their display names, as happened en masse recently with the “lackadaisical whites” trend. These users actually changed their ‘user handle’ (the one that starts with an @ symbol). In other words, they reinvented their identities on Twitter. This behaviour might be common in some Twitter sub-cultures but it has also been observed amongst botnet owners who control high quality, often older, fake Twitter accounts that they re-purpose for different campaigns. Following this line of logic, if these are high quality (and thus expensive) fake accounts, their operators would likely have put more effort into giving them legitimate looking profiles that mirror real South Africans than the ham-fisted Guptabot attempts, hence the effort to rename them to keep them under the radar and prevent them being suspended. This also points to the international black market for bots and fake accounts rather than something homegrown.
We can see that these green ‘name change’ accounts particularly cluster around the Mainstream media and party leaders community. Could these be active trolls and sockpuppets weighing in on our most central discussions to influence them? Many public influencers have complained of such for a long time but it’s difficult to say what is coordinated disinformation activity and what is individual troll activity. As we know, the internet often brings out the worst in people without the need for a coordinated campaign.
Mainstream media and party leaders
Let’s now dive into some of the larger communities in more detail. It’s important to remember that just because our algorithm puts someone in a specific community, this does not mean that they knowingly align themselves with that community. It simply means that the other users in that community engage with them more, either in a supporting or antagonistic fashion.
This community is the home to mainstream media news outlets, prominent journalists and the political leaders that interact with them. It’s the key narrative font from which much of our political discussions spring. Top influencers (i.e. those that were retweeted and @mentioned the most included @myanc, @hloninyetanyane, @julius_s_malema, @karynmaughan, @ewnreporter, @mailandguardian, @news24, @floydshivambu, @patriciadelille and @nickolausbauer.
The presence particularly of EFF leaders in this community underscores just how symbiotic the relationship between that party and journalists has been historically, although a breakdown in this relationship seems to have occurred at the end of 2018.
To give you an idea of the topics that led the agenda on Twitter in 2018, here are the top ten most retweeted tweets in this community (five are displayed below, with the rest viewable by clicking the “View on Twitter” button below):
Black Twitter (incl. EFF)
Black Twitter, a young, digitally-savvy, progressive and opinionated portion of society, dominates most discussions on South African Twitter. The EFF, while a small party, has effectively embedded itself within this community through its pithy sloganeering, real world interventions, ties to celebrities and black-first ideology. While the Mainstream media and political leaders community includes the key EFF figureheads, its second-tier of influencers work to activate its ‘ground forces’ in this community, even though Black Twitter is not exclusively the preserve of the EFF as we see below by the popularity of the ANC’s Fikile Mbalula.
Top influencers in this community included @advbarryroux, @enca, @effsouthafrica, @tumisole, @katlehomk, @mbalulafikile, @sabcnewsonline, @ann7tv, @sayounglion and @karabo_mokgoko
Two issues dominated this community’s discussions in 2018: the death of Winnie Mandela and the ousting of Jacob Zuma as ANC president:
Liberals (incl. DA) and conservatives
This is probably the most heterogenous community in this research as it runs the gamut of the political spectrum in South Africa from liberalism, anchored by the DA and its leaders, to relative conservative moderates such as AfriForum, on to far right, millenarian groups such as Die Suidlanders, before merging into the international Alt-Right community. I have previously explored the far right dynamic in articles here and here, and I first observed the international Alt-Right circling our politics in this article about Winnie Mandela’s death. In addition, the Daily Maverick recently published a report into the emerging Alt-Right in South Africa.
The top liberal influencers included @helenzille, @our_da, @mmusimaimane, @abramjee, @hermanmashaba, while the top conservative influencers included: @ernstroets, @steve_hofmeyr, @afriforum, @kalliekriel and @iancameron23.
In trying to understand this community, it’s interesting to note that the DA finds itself sandwiched between the RET and conservative white communities, both of which seem antagonistic to it which could account for why they are tied together so closely. As such, this community points to the internal tension as fear turns some away from liberal ideals towards more convenient far right ideas. Indeed, when we look at what was retweeted the most in this community, expansive liberal ideals hardly feature; it’s all fear mongering that articulates white South Africans’ deepest anxieties. In addition, the presence of international influencers such as Stefan Molyneux in this list demonstrate the profound cross-pollination occurring between local and international right-leaning communities to create a single global White Right narrative:
As already noted, far right elements of white South African society have merged with the international Alt-Right community. This community represents that interface from the international side of the fence. South African politics were particularly brought to the attention of this community due to the passionate pleas for help by local users such as Daan Barnard and Rene Kruger. Their videos went viral within this community around the time of Donald Trump’s tweet about land seizures and farm murders in South Africa.
Top influencers in this community included South Africans’ whose farm killings/”white genocide” pleas went viral, such as @daanbarnard, @realrenekruger and @jacquesbarnard1. Other influencers included @s_cooper0404, @rodstryker, @meme_america, @stefanmolyneux, @markacollett, @cernovich and @joerogan.
The community contains many well-known international influencers such as Stefan Molyneux, Mark Collett, Michael Cernovich and Joe Rogan. Molyneux and Cernovich are considered Alt-Right or right of centre influencers, Collett is one of the most vocal proponents of the global white genocide meme, while Rogan is a widely respected commentator with a diverse audience (although in this data, it’s mostly international Right users).
Previous research has shown that whenever the international Alt-Right enters South African discussions, the number of suspended accounts increases and, indeed, we see prominent clusters of suspended accounts within this community in the interactive network above.
Below is the content that found particular traction within this community. Note that two tweets by @meme_america were included in this list but that account was suspended by Twitter while another tweet by Michael Cernovich has since been deleted and so could not be shown. Thus, essentially what this list contains is the top 13 most retweeted tweets:
USA Left (incl. US Black Twitter)
Interestingly, the international Left was also well represented around the time of Trump’s tweets thanks to influencers such as Malcolm Nance. The top ten influencers whose content resonated the most with this community included @maxui, @pieterhowes, @letsgomathias, @malcolmnance, @lomikriel, @loisbeckett, @vaughnhillyard, @adl_national, @paulszoldra and @green_footballs
Much of the content they interacted focused on counteracting the “white genocide” narrative:
Radical Economic Transformers (RET)
Finally in terms of the community deep dives, we have the relative new kids on the block, the Radical Economic Transformers, who burst onto the scene with an almost-certainly Gupta-funded disinformation campaign. The top ten influencers in this community include @presjgzuma, @mngxitama, @ali_naka, @luthoza, @confessionwhite, @adamitv, @lukhanyov, @sundaytimesza, @hostilenativ and @_africansoil. Many of these accounts are anonymous and espouse a surprisingly coordinated RET message. As already mentioned, the community detection algorithm puts former president, Jacob Zuma, in this community because it responds to his content to a greater degree than other communities, although his content has found wide traction across numerous communities. Note that the Sunday Times makes this list due to Zuma and other RET influencers mentioning them, often in refutation or criticism.
Where the Liberals & conservatives community captures white South Africans’ fears about the future and their place in society, the RET community harnesses the deep resentment and frustration felt by some black South Africans and transmogrifies it into a populist form of racial scapegoating. Some of these responses come from a place of genuine hurt and anger, and some of it is simply dangerous rhetoric used by the rent seeking faction of the ANC as it attempts to subvert the national narrative to further their own ends.
The majority of the top retweets in this community were authored by former president, Jacob Zuma, and I have decided not to show all of those here because they do not give us that much insight into this community. This though was the most popular tweet by former president Zuma:
To get a feel for what they are about, here are the other tweets that were most retweeted by this community:
We South Africans still get our facts from the same place (mostly) as we still have a common media touch-point. We saw a brief bifurcation when the Gupta-owned ANN7 and The New Age were around which would likely have continued to grow under Mzwanele Manyi’s Afrotone Media had they secured a news channel on satellite provider, DSTV. As it stands though, our mainstream media, journalists and political leaders all gather at the centre of our discussions, giving us common departure points (even if we end up at completely different places). Our independent, relatively impartial media landscape is a hard-won strength of our democracy and we should protect it with all our might, lest we become like countries such as the USA where each faction lives in its mutually exclusive filter bubble, with no common ground to be found.
Having said that, South Africa has two extremes that threaten to pull us apart: the Far Right White and the far left Radical Economic Transformers. These extremes are bolstered by the basic human emotions seething under the surface of so many in our country. While the Far Right White is driven by fear and anxiety for their place in the country, the RET faction is driven by anger and frustration at the massive inequalities in our country and the slow rate of economic improvement. Both are fertile populist breeding grounds and receptive to easy answers, which often manifest in the form of racism.
A worrying trend is the increasing grip of the international Alt-Right on white South African discourse which sees a homogenization of our language and debates along the lines of international, nationalist movements. The Alt-Right is attempting to consolidate some fearful white South Africans under their global banner and it appears to be working as working class white South Africans have much to worry about: will they lose their homes and even their lives given the ratcheting up of extreme racial invective by the far left (whether or not these are valid concerns is another debate)?
Which brings us to the Radical Economic Transformers. As many political tacticians will tell you, the easiest way to maintain political momentum is to create an enemy that you can set yourself against. This group has set white South Africans up as their enemy. Part of this community consists of rent seeking opportunists who are tapping into, nurturing and harnessing the anger and resentment of the rest of the community for their own ends.
Where the rest of us fall will say a lot about how our country evolves. Will we collectively call populists and racists to account or will we slowly drift into their respective camps as we give in to fear and anger?
Thank you very much to @arfness for help with the code for checking how many users had changed their usernames.