Hope and propaganda at the ANC54 elective conference

“18/12/2017. Cyril Ramaphosa hugs Dr Nkosazana Dlaminiu Zuma after he won the ANC Presidential race during the 54th ANC Elective Conference in Nasrec. Picture: Masi Losi.” Source: Times LIVE

A milestone occurred in our country in December 2017 at the ANC54 national elective conference. We took a major step towards recovering from the massive-scale, state capture project that has slowly bled our country dry for the past decade when Cyril Ramaphosa was chosen as the new president of the ANC. Ramaphosa’s election drove a significant spoke into the wheel of the Zuma-backed “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) campaign, which was designed to keep the state capture project running on track under the leadership of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (a.k.a ‘NDZ’).

While Dlamini-Zuma appears to have slightly more honourable intentions than most in the RET faction, if she had come to power, she would have found herself hopelessly hemmed in on all sides by Zuma lieutenants intent on maintaining the status quo. The same now holds for Ramaphosa. Even though we’ve taken a huge step towards recovery with Ramaphosa being installed at the helm, he too is still hemmed in on all sides by Zuma lieutenants in every sphere of the state – including the State Security Agency (SSA), the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the Hawks, the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the South African Police  Service (SAPS), and various state-owned enterprises (for a breakdown of how these institutions have been captured, read Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers and revisit our previous posts on state capture here and here). Regardless, there is reason to be hopeful that the rent seekers’ plans for self-enrichment at the expense of our people will slowly be undermined and purged from the system over time.

The turning point in this saga was the 54th ANC National Elective Conference held in Johannesburg between the 8-14 December 2017.  Years of corruption by some and a resultant slow decline in the moral standing and basic functional ability of the organisation came to a head at the conference. The race between Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa was framed as a battle between maintaining the corrupt status quo versus renewal of the ANC. Or, if you believed the ‘status quo’ faction, it was a battle between white South Africans’ (as personified by a few mega-wealthy businessmen) control of the economy versus economic empowerment of the black masses, with wide-scale corruption and self-enrichment being necessary side-effects of wresting back control of the economy from ‘the whites’.

One million tweets

As usual, we’ll focus on Twitter data in this article. I sourced all tweets that mentioned hashtags such as (but not limited to) ‘#ANC54′, ‘#NDZ’, ‘#CR17’ ; the names of the politicians involved; related terms such as ‘Nasrec‘; and so on between the evening of Sunday 10th and the afternoon of Saturday 23rd. The result was a dataset consisting of 925,913 tweets generated by 160,490 unique Twitter users.

The below chart shows that a few thousand tweets were generated daily about the election and conference in the week beforehand, with volumes increasing during the actual time of the conference. The chart also shows that discussion volumes shot through the roof on the day that the new ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was announced:

Number of tweets per day about the ANC54 conference collected in our dataset of 925,913 tweets from 160,490 unique users between the evening of Sunday 10th and the afternoon of Saturday 23rd December 2017.

Looking at the overall volumes is interesting but they just confirm what we already know: people talked about the conference, and the results of the highly contested presidential election unsurprisingly caused quite a stir. It is more interesting to look at which politicians were mentioned the most as this gives us a rough idea of the momentum behind each politician. When looking at these numbers, it’s important to bear in mind though that Twitter is not representative of the broader South African public as it tends to attract those with access to technology and have something to say. It is often indicative of future shifting trends in our country though so it’s still interesting to see what they think.

Given all this, we can see in the below chart that Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma (along with current president, Jacob Zuma) were each mentioned a similar number of times in tweets ahead of the election announcement on Monday 18th December (the black bars), indicating just how close the election was amongst South Africans on the ground (although we don’t know from this data the extent to which each candidate was mentioned in positive and negative terms):

Chart summarising how many mentions each politician received in the overall dataset of 925,913 tweets between the evening of Sunday 10th and the afternoon of Saturday 23rd December 2017. The black bars refer to the number of mentions before the day that the new president was announced while the grey bars refer to the number of mentions from the day of the announcement onwards.

Unsurprisingly, mentions of Ramaphosa shot through the roof after his election though (grey bars). Discussions around secondary players such as Ace Magashule, David Mabuza and Senzo Mnchunu also mostly happened after the announcement of the presidential post as subsequent ANC NEC (National Executive Committee) members were announced amidst some controversy.

It’s interesting to note that President Zuma received the most mentions overall, highlighting the extent to which this election was not so much about the individual candidates, Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma, as about Zuma versus Not-Zuma factions. The president has become a highly divisive figure, and most conversations seemed to be around keeping his faction in power or getting them out of power, with Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma as proxy figureheads for each camp.

The next chart below pits Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma against each other by showing how often each candidate was mentioned in the lead up to, and during, the conference. It gives us an idea of the extent to which each candidate was winning hearts and minds on Twitter at the time:

Time series showing the number of tweets mentioning Cyril Ramaphosa versus Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in the days leading up to, and subsequent to, the election of the ANC president.

In the week prior to the conference, mentions of Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma were fairly even as we can see in the above chart. However, once the conference started, a clear shift in the mentions of each candidate became evident. Word leaking out from the conference seemed to indicate that the winds were blowing in Ramaphosa’s favour and this is reflected in the proportion of mentions that each candidate received after the conference started. Dlamini-Zuma seemed to have a slight edge in terms of mentions on Twitter going into the start of the conference on Friday 15th. However, this lead quickly dissipated on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th, culminating in Ramaphosa taking the lion’s share of mentions even before the final results were announced. I interpret this as implying that a Ramaphosa victory was considered more likely by attendees once they found themselves in the same venue where they could exchange their views, and this confidence leaked out onto Twitter ahead of the final vote announcement.

Communities involved

When looking at the communities discussing the ANC54 conference, we see a similar breakdown of communities to what we’ve seen in past analyses. Main community splits were between the ANC/RET communities, Black/Woke Twitter (many of whom are EFF-supporting), and journalists & political commentators (likely where most liberals sit). As usual, and as testament to the strength of our Fourth Estate, the mainstream media sits in the middle of all these groups, indicating at least some level of non-partisanship (with the exception of the Gupta-owned ‘news’ properties which sit firmly within the RET section of the ANC community):

The below image summarises the main groups involved at a slightly higher level:

High-level summary of the main groups involved based on the interaction network above.

A few things stood out for me in this network:

The official @MyANC account is surrounded (captured?) by RET-related accounts such as @ANN7tv, @The_New_Age and @MzwaneleManyi, indicating that they appear to be reading from the same song book, turning this into a de facto Zuma-RET-ANC community rather than independent ANC community. Their propaganda strategy is clearly one of preaching to the converted to build a strong base rather than trying to acquire new adherents from other communities.

The EFF had a particularly strong presence through the party-aligned @AdvBarryRoux account (it’s a witty parody account that also espouses EFF-aligned positions) which gives it a strong beachhead position into the Black/Woke Twitter community.

The DA did not have a prominent position in this discussion at all.

So, which were the largest communities and who was doing most of the talking? Here’s a breakdown of the top communities based on how many users fell into each and how vocal each community was:

A bubble map plotting the top communities based on the proportion of users in each community versus the proportion of tweets generated by each community. Communites that sit above the diagonal line were particularly vocal and passionate, generating more tweets than we would expect given how many users were in each of those communities.

As you can see from the above, most of the larger communities, with the exception of the Woke/Black Twitter 1 community, were particularly vocal in this debate. South Africans really were thrashing things out on Twitter, which is a sign of healthy debate I guess (although the question remains as to whether all of the narratives at play were based on legitimate ideological positions, as we know that the RET narrative was at least partly crafted by British PR firm, Bell Pottinger, mixing just the right amount of fact and populism together).

The RET propaganda campaign

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this election for me was the role that propaganda, fake news and disinformation played in the election. I’m happy to say that the role appears to have been minor specifically for ANC54. Similarly, Amanda Strydom (ANCIR), Chris Roper (Code for Africa) and Ben Nimmo (Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab) have observed how international bots were hired off the black market for use in the propaganda campaign but appear to have had little effect. This is obviously not the full picture though as the propaganda campaign has been very successful over the past couple of years in defining the actual narratives that were debated during the conference through its popularisation of concepts such as ‘white monopoly capital (WMC)’ and ‘radical economic transformation (RET)’. For the most comprehensive summary of the propaganda campaign’s activity to date, take a look at ANCIR’s Manufacturing Divides report and TimesLive’s series on the Gupta Fake News Empire. Also, I’ve described their activity over time in numerous posts, for example, including here, here and here.

Given the stakes involved and the past tenacity with which they have pushed an alternative narrative that protects the state capture project, we knew that the Gupta-Manyi-RET-BLF-associated sockpuppet army would be out in force on Twitter. In the end though, the ANC54 conference served to define the limits of its influence. The combined footprint of the sockpuppet accounts (based on a partial list of suspected accounts, so this probably doesn’t quite capture the full extent of their footprint) only amounted to about 5,200 tweets (broken up into 1,495 original tweets and many retweets thereof, often by the sockpuppet accounts themselves) or 0.6% of tweets in the dataset.

The sockpuppet army ramped up its activity around the election as the below chart shows, generating between about 450-750 tweets a day when including retweets and @mentions of their tweets (again, based on a partial list of suspect accounts). However, activity dropped off precipitously in the days following the announcement of Ramaphosa as the winner, giving some evidence to the focus they put on campaigning for Dlamini-Zuma, and the dejection they must have felt after her loss:

Daily tweets volumes generated by suspected RET sockpuppet accounts pre- and post- the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president.

Who was responding to (or the target of) their activity though? The below chart takes the interaction network from earlier and highlights in blue the Twitter users that interacted with one of the suspected sockpuppet accounts in our partial list (side note: you can ignore @TumiSole below; he retweeted a single relatively benign tweet from a suspect account):

An ’embedded network’ highlighting suspected Gupta sockpuppet nodes and those that interacted with them via retweets or @mentions in blue.

Unsurprisingly, we find that the majority of the users that retweeted and @mentioned the sockpuppet accounts, as well as the sockpuppet accounts themselves, were found in the RET and ANC communities. These communities include the official ANC account, the Black First Land First (BLF) party, formerly Gupta-owned and now Manyi-owned media properties, ANN7, etc. Clearly their narrative was tailor-made for the ANC community, again indicating that they were shoring up their existing ideological base ahead of the vote rather than trying to convince new converts.

Finally, what message(s) were the sockpuppet accounts pushing? A quick and dirty way of finding out is to take the 1,495 tweets authored and amplified by the suspected accounts and sticking them into a word cloud. The below chart shows the top 50 most-used words in tweets authored or amplified via retweets by suspected sockpuppet accounts. The larger the word, the more often it was used in those tweets. This gives us a very rough summary of what they were saying:

Word cloud of original tweets authored or retweeted by suspected sockpuppet accounts. The more often a word was mentioned in these tweets, the bigger it is. Word cloud generated using WordItOut.

Reading a word cloud is a bit like reading tea leaves in that it’s a fairly subjective process. Be that as it may, this is what I take out from the word cloud above:

Firstly, many known or suspected Zuma-Gupta-RET collaborators feature highly such as the BLF party; BLF leader, Andile Mngxitama; partisan news blog, Black Opinion; businessman, prime RET proponent and Progressive Professionals Forum (PPF) president, Mzwanele Manyi; Manyi’s media properties like ANN7 and The New Age; and, online RET activist, @adamitv. In addition, ANC bodies known to have been captured such as the ANC Youth League and ANC Women’s League (e.g. see here and here) feature prominently. Also mentioned are targeted journalists and organisations such as Peter Bruce, Ferial HaffajeeAdriaan Basson and SaveSA.

Secondly, in terms of their agenda, one of the main goals was to push convicted criminal, businessman, speaker and politician, Gayton McKenzie‘s book, #KillZuma. From what I can gather, the book appears to be a poor man’s tit-for-tat attempt from the RET camp in response to Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers and Adriaan Basson & Pieter du Toit’s Enemy of the People: How Jacob Zuma Stole South Africa and How the People Fought Back although precious little has been written about it by reputable sources beyond these articles which shed some light on the book’s content: article 1 | article 2 (you can also watch this ANN7 interview with the author which you obviously need to take with a pinch of salt given the source).

Here are some of the tweets that were either authored by and/or retweeted the most by the suspect accounts to give you an idea of the propaganda campaign’s agenda:

It was good to see the minor impact that the RET sockpuppet army had on the discussions during the period around the conference (although their damage has already been done). This begs the question of whether the army is still effective given that many users on Twitter are now aware of their machinations and many prominent Twitter users that may have interacted with them in the past seem to have distanced themselves from the accounts? Regardless though, I am sure we will see their methods continue to evolve as we head into the 2019 elections, continuing to expose the RET faction’s hand through their heavy-handed social media campaign strategies.

Thus ends our exploration of the ANC54 conference which has hopefully set our country on a new trajectory away from state capture, although we still have many challenges to overcome…

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