The curious case of the short-lived ‘Ayobots’

To the best of my knowledge, South Africa has not experienced as obvious an attempt to affect our national discourse as that of the Guptabots which started in mid-2016  and ran up until their faction lost at the ANC 54th electoral conference at the end of 2017. However, a small but concerted campaign came to my attention recently courtesy of Andrew Fraser. The campaign had echoes of the Guptabots’ approach in its use of sockpuppet accounts (fake personas controlled by real people) to share infographics and to attack journalists, although there is nothing to say that they are actually related. This campaign focused on promoting the beleaguered AYO Technology Solutions Limited which has close links to Independent Media Group’s head, Iqbal Survé (he holds a large, indirect stake in AYO).

First, let’s set the context: at the time of its listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2017, AYO was lauded as the largest black-owned ICT firm in the country. However, it didn’t take long before skeptical commentators started questioning the listing price of the firm, suggesting that it might have been artificially inflated (see for example here, here, here and here, as well as AYO’s response to the first article, news that they are suing the PIC and coverage of their latest audit). An artificially inflated stock price would have been newsworthy enough given the degree to which the company fêted itself, but the real kicker was that the South African government’s Public Investment Corporation (PIC) – which invests civil servants’ retirement funds, among other things – was a major investor in the company and many believed that something dodgy was going on with that deal. The PIC has come under intense scrutiny in the past year for various investment deals, with the AYO deal being one of the more prominent ones hanging over its head. Indeed, a commission of inquiry, known as the Mpati Commission, was set up to look into the PIC’s dealings in recent years. It’s during that commission’s work at the beginning of this year that we pick up the story…

AYO representatives and Survé appeared before the Mpati Commission in January 2019, and it appears that someone thought it would be a good idea to create several pro-AYO accounts on Twitter in order to push a counter-narrative to the one emerging from the commission. The people behind these accounts sought to undermine the witnesses at that commission and deflect attention away from AYO’s dealings with the PIC. They demonstrated an intimate knowledge of AYO, the PIC and the commission, and they were prodigious in their output. They were also, however, short-lived. Twitter quickly picked up on their suspicious behaviour and suspended them.

Let’s take a look at what they said and how they tried to deflect attention away from AYO’s dealings with the PIC…

Identifying the Ayobots

As already mentioned, the accounts came to my attention via Fraser who did most of the work here. I’m really just documenting things for posterity. The accounts in question were @NewsForYouSA, @Anticor88877557, @RootoutCorrupt1, @FinanceGoverna1, @InvestorNy and @latest_sa. With the exception of @NewsForYouSA, they have all since been suspended by Twitter.

This slideshow captures Fraser’s own comments on how he identified the sockpuppet accounts which positioned themselves as anti-corruption crusaders in order to attack the commission’s witnesses and deflect attention away to other scandals, and as business and investment news accounts to talk up AYO:

@NewsForYouSA is an interesting red herring since it’s actually a pro-Radical Economic Transformation (RET) pseduo-news account that focuses on attacking RET and EFF arch-nemesis, Pravin Gordhan, and emphasising white racism. In addition, it promotes Black First Land First (BLF) and pro-Palestine/anti-Israel content, which is a weird confluence of topics that I’ve seen in past Guptabot datasets and with associated local disinformation merchants. @NewsForYouSA appears to have been sympathetic to the Ayobots’ attempts to deflect attention towards “white” crimes such as the Steinhoff scandal but does not appear to have been directly involved in the campaign in the same way that the other accounts were.

While Fraser found that the Ayobots generated roughly 2,300 tweets, I was only able to collect about 700 of them as I came late to the party. Below is what the network looks like for the tweets that I collected where each node is a Twitter user and users are connected when they interact with each other by retweeting or @mentioning each other. Colours represent distinct communities of users identified using a community detection algorithm and node size represents the number of retweets and @mentions that that user received in the data.

Interaction network of tweets from @NewsForYouSA OR @Anticor88877557 OR @latest_sa OR @RootoutCorrupt1 OR @FinanceGoverna1 OR @AyotechnologyS OR @InvestorNy.

As you can see, the Ayobot accounts were fairly interconnected as they worked to amplify each other’s content. @NewsForYouSA is over-represented in this network since much of its content focused on divisive issues common to the EFF and RET factions (such as a shared hatred of Pravin Gordhan). Only a minority related to AYO and the Mpati Commission.

What did the Ayobots actually say?

The Ayobots had a clear agenda and they were dogmatic in sticking to it. They focused on a bouquet of issues that readers of Survé’s Independent Media publications such as the Cape Argus, Cape Times, The Star and The Mercury will be all to familiar with. Their main topics included:

  • Undermining the Mpati Commission, its witnesses and the PIC
  • Deflecting attention away from AYO by highlighting other financial scandals, including VBS and ones relating to “white monopoly capital” such as the Steinhoff scandal
  • Attacking  journalists critical of AYO, especially Heidi Giokos of eNCA
  • Taking pot-shots at Independent Media rival, and vocal critic, Tiso Blackstar (publisher of the Sunday Times, amongst other newspapers)

This slideshow summarises some example tweets authored by the sockpuppet accounts relating to the topics above:

Conclusion

So there you have it: a great friend (or friends) of AYO Technology Solutions Limited thought it would be a good idea to setup several sockpuppet accounts to attack AYO’s critics and to deflect attention from their dealings with the PIC during the period of the Mpati Commission. However, Twitter quickly picked up on their efforts and suspended them, ending a short-lived media campaign.

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