In this post, I examine a dataset around the alleged “capture” of our state-run television broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Commission (SABC), by individuals loyal to President Jacob Zuma. Hlaudi Motsoeneng, COO of the SABC (note that he’s not its CEO), has been accused of censoring the news (for example by placing a ban on coverage of the activities of specific political parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and on the coverage of violent service delivery protests) and more generally of running rough shod over best-practice journalistic principles in favour of partisan reporting. These allegations are incredibly serious since the SABC is the the main source of news and information for a large proportion of the South African population. The dynamics that we are seeing in the South African media landscape have some rough parallels with trends happening in other parts of the world, for example, aspects from this Economist article ring all too familiar:
In Poland the most important television news network is state-owned rather than private, but since taking power last year, the Law and Justice party has changed the media law and packed state television and radio with loyalists. It also seems to be punishing critical private media; Gazeta Wyborcza, the largest liberal daily, claims its advertising revenues are down 15% this year and blames the loss of government advertising.
I’ve been collecting tweets that mention the SABC or its COO, Hlaudi Motsoeneng, for a few weeks now. The dataset that we’re going to look at today covers the 28th June – 15 September 2016 and includes 262,110 tweets generated by 66,174 Twitter users.
I usually focus my research on political and social issues. This dataset is a bit different because, in searching for mentions of the SABC, I also captured all tweets mentioning the SABC in its regular, day-to-day usage as a commercial entity. Thus, the dataset provides us with a unique opportunity to compare the “business as usual” SABC presence on Twitter to the narrative coming from those who have raised their voices in protest of its supposed capture by President Zuma’s loyalists.
To set the context, the below chart shows the daily volumes of tweets that I collected. As you can see from the chart, the daily tweet volumes (with the exception of the 9th July when I did not capture any data due to a bug) were higher at the beginning of the dataset. This was around the time that the issue of the capture of the SABC was foremost in the nation’s psyche. Since then, the issue of the national broadcaster’s capture has had to jostle for attention in a crowd of other urgent protests relating to the broader capture of the South African mechanisms of state and economy, collectively referred to under the label of “state capture”. It finds itself in the company of allegations of the capture of parastatals such as South African Airways, electricity supplier, Eskom, commuter rail provider, Prasa, transport infrastructure provider, Transnet, and the South African Revenue Services (SARS), as well as the scandals in law enforcement (most notably at the National Prosecuting Authority, or NPA), various allegedly dodgy nuclear deals and President Zuma’s Nkandla housing scandal. Indeed, Hlaudi Motsoeneng must be breathing a sigh of relief as the spotlight has temporarily moved on.
We can get a rough idea of the magnitude of the various issues surrounding the SABC in our data by tagging tweets that mention specific keywords, which is what I’ve done in the chart below. From this chart, we can see that Hlaudi Motsoeneng was mentioned the most often in our data (see the dark grey time series), intimately tying him to the allegations of the capture of the SABC, particularly during the earlier protests period. These mentions appear to have mostly died off for the time being though as a multitude of other issues vie for our attention. We also see the Black Friday spike in red on the 1st of June when journalists staged a protest march against news censorship. Finally on the below chart, we can see that all the way through the time of protest action, other conversations around the SABC continued (the grey time series). This likely represents the regular level of day-to-day conversation around the SABC’s various accounts, coming from its existing fan communities and spurred on by its day-to-day marketing activities. As the protests of the national broadcaster’s capture have died down in the face of an overwhelming number of other scandals, this volume has remained quite steady. We’ll unpack what the “regular” conversations around the SABC look like shortly.
Before we take a look at the kind of content coming out of the various communities, let’s take a look at what the overall network conversation map looks like for all 262,110 tweets and 66,174 users in our dataset. To construct the conversation map, we connect users together when they interact with each other by retweeting or @mentioning each other. What we end up with is a network where the dots (or ‘nodes’) on the map represent individual user accounts, the lines (or ‘edges’) between them show who has interacted with whom, the size of the nodes tells us how many times that user has been retweeted or @mentioned (a rough indication of influence), and the coloured regions of the map represent distinct communities (identified using a community detection algorithm).
The below resulting conversation map displays some clear community structure and can be split roughly into three regions:
- Critics protesting against the SABC’s editorial policies which are seen as censorship and pushing a partisan agenda
- The SABC’s news properties which disseminate important public information
- The SABC’s entertainment properties, much of it focused on TV shows and the lives of celebrities
The next conversation map shows a more granular breakdown of the top communities in the conversation network:
It’s interesting to see that the protests came from two main camps:
- Liberals (including the official DA account) and established activist communities
- Socialist-leaning groups such as the EFF and its supporters, as well as what one might call Black Consciousness Movement voices
In other contexts, these two groups might often find themselves at ideological loggerheads, but here they seem to have been driven to a common call of protest.
Also of interest is the community in bright pink near the top of the map. It is made up of a mixture of some of the SABC’s most well-known journalists’ accounts and those of ANC mouthpieces such as, amongst others, the party’s official @MyANC account, former party spokespeople, Jackson Mthembu and Zizi Kodwa, and Sports Minister, Fikile Mbalula. This community finds itself sitting between the official SABC News Online community (in orange) and the largest protest community (in pink), potentially pointing to a deep contradiction in this community. On the one hand, it is interacting with the SABC’s content (and thus its allegedly compromised narrative) and on the other hand, it is interacting with the protest community, perhaps in their role as the ideological bulwark justifying Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s policies (Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s account, @SABC_C00, can also be found within this region of the conversation map although our algorithms classify it within its own community). Below are the top three most retweeted tweets from the two former ANC spokespeople. They give us clear examples of the kinds of conflicting narratives coming from the presidency versus the ANC mother body.
Former presidential spokesperson, Zizi Kodwa, seems to imply that the protests against Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s editorial policies reveal a hidden agenda driven by white people:
Salute to all SABC staff, notwithstanding the serious management issues they face, but stood firm indefence of the corporation #SaveOurSaBC— Zizi Kodwa (@zizikodwa) July 1, 2016
…while former ANC national spokesperson, Jackson Mthembu, says that the ANC did not fight for a country where capture of the state media can be condoned:
The last community worth pointing out is the bottom blue community on the conversation map. It is made up of regular SABC fans. These users seem mostly to be unaware of the controversies surrounding the broadcaster and simply are focused on the entertainment that the broadcaster provides. They are more interested in who made the dress that Bonang Matheba wore than in the quality of the SABC’s journalism. This community interacts heavily with the associated celebrity community in charcoal grey – a kind of symbiosis if you will. Top celebrities in the celebrity community include TV personality, Bonang Matheba, and hip-hop artist, AKA (AKA did actually wade into the SABC capture discussion though in support of the ANC; those tweets have subsequently been deleted from his account so I can’t re-publish them according to Twitter’s guidelines but they have been reported on here).
To get an idea of who the most vocal communities were, I plotted each community according to how many people were in it versus how many tweets it generated. We might expect a community to generate tweets in proportion to the number of people that are in it. To the extent that a community deviates from this expectation, we can say that it either generated more or fewer tweets than expected. Communities that generate more tweets than expected are usually very passionate communities that care deeply about a subject and that is what we see here: the two protest communities both had the most users out of all communities and they both still generated more tweets than expected given their size. The single largest protest community (what I’ve loosely labelled as ‘liberals & activists”) in particular generated dramatically more tweets than expected. That community contained 14% of users in our dataset but generated a massive 30% of all tweets in our dataset – they clearly cared deeply about the issue. The second protest community (what I’ve labelled as “socialists incl. EFF & BCM”) was also very vocal, although not quite as vocal as the first. It represented 7% of users but generated 10% of tweets. Aside from that, the other communities behaved pretty much in line with expectations.
Okay, so that is the landscape. Let’s have a brief look at the kinds of conversations that were being had.
These were the top five most retweeted tweets critical of Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s changes at the national broadcaster:
— Eusebius McKaiser (@Eusebius) July 27, 2016
— NandosSA (@NandosSA) June 29, 2016
On the SABC,I am breaking ranks with the "predominant view"and standing firm on press freedom. Taking the lead from historical ANC positions
— Tito Mboweni (@tito_mboweni) July 1, 2016
Is the SABC showing images of the Ekurhuleni #Tornado? Or they're scared it might encourage other metros to have their own tornados.
— Nchema (@ShottaZee) July 26, 2016
— Yusuf Abramjee (@Abramjee) July 18, 2016
One of the criticisms laid against the SABC is that it censors local news about protests that show the government in a bad light. So, what then were the top news stories within the SABC News Online community during the time of the protests? Based on the the top hashtags used in this community, the top stories were the Rio Olympics (#Rio2016) and local running hero, Caster Semenya’s, strong performances at the Olympics (#CasterSemenya & #Caster4Gold).
In addition, the ban on protests does not appear to have been extended to neighbouring countries where protests against Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, have been extensively covered. Hashtags such as #ThisFlag and #Zimbabwe were widely used within this community.
Finally, if so many people talking about and interacting with the SABC on Twitter seem oblivious to the game of political chess taking place, what does the average SABC watcher care about? Let’s take a look at the most retweeted content within the SABC ecosystem of accounts and celebrities to find out. Firstly, the top hashtags were:
- #HecticTakeover (relating to the TV show, Hectic Nine 9, who describe the event relating to the hashtag as follows: “In Hectic Takeover, we will select a group of learners to be trained in different production roles – everything from directing, to scriptwriting, to presenting- and will challenge you to produce a LIVE episode of Hectic Nine-9!”)
- #MusicFriday (also relating to the show, Hectic Nine 9)
- #TopChefSA (the South African version of the popular reality cooking show)
- #Hectic (again relating to the show, Hectic Nine 9)
- #LetsGoRio2016 (relating to the Rio Olympics)
…and the most retweeted content in this community was:
So, in summary, what can we take out of this little exploration of the main media channel in our country and its alleged capture by forces loyal to President Jacob Zuma? Here are a few thoughts that spring to my mind but your mileage may vary:
The protests against Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s changes in editorial policies were incredibly vocal, making up a large proportion of our dataset. Compared to other scandals and events on Twitter that I’ve measured over the past few years, I’d say it was bigger than most although not one of the biggest. As with anything in the modern age, it is incredibly difficult to capture the public’s attention for long which is why the protests spiked and then died down. The length of time that they persisted for though was also longer than normal in the digital age which is a feat in itself. This makes me think that they have not gone away; they are just waiting for the right moment to re-emerge.
We also see that the SABC has developed a couple of distinct communities of its own over the years – one around its entertainment properties, which has a symbiotic relationship with various celebrities who form their own community, and the other around its online news properties. It’s interesting to note the proximity of senior ANC officials’ accounts to the SABC News community. This happens because the people interacting with the news community more than other communities are also interacting with the ANC official accounts more than others, perhaps pointing to the symbiotic role that these two groups play in shaping a consistent narrative amongst a shared audience – a similar symbiosis to that between the SABC’s entertainment properties and celebrities.
Finally, if religion, as Karl Marx said, is the opiate of the masses, then television surely forms part of the cocaine-opiate speedball that eases our angst in the modern world. What then are the poisons of choice for the average SABC watcher? According to our data, it appears to be music, fashion and lifestyle competitions that allow viewers to dream about a better life. What more can we expect in a country as unequal as ours? Is there room for political consciousness when you’re worried about putting food on the table and use your few hours of down time to escape into an alternate world of glamorous people and unattainable mansions?