Social media users manipulated into backing ‘artificially sold’ xenophobia

Cape Town – South Africans on social media, in particular Twitter, are being manipulated into supporting artificially amplified anger against foreigners living in the country, according to researchers at UCT.

In their report, the analysts from the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) at the UCT’s Graduate School of Business said: “Key narratives around xenophobia are being curated and amplified by a dedicated network of connected users.

“The hashtag, #PutSouthAfricaFirst emerged on April 27 and in one day was used more than 16000 times. The 80 accounts in the network around uLerato_Pillay were responsible for 50% of the use of the hashtag. This is not organic growth of a conversation but rather an organised network,” said the report.

“These underground networks have sown social discord on South African social media platforms, mainly Twitter. The network was closely tracked online from April 1 to May 31 this year to identify patterns and tactics used on social media to artificially promote resentment of Africans working and living in South Africa.”

Director of the dialogue team at the CABC, Stef Snel, said: “They are using fake social media accounts and tactics that resemble social media guns-for-hire. A key agitator is a Twitter account by the name of uLerato_Pillay with several variations of the name. This account is the public face of the network pushing the hashtag, which itself has several variations.”

“My biggest fear is that such rhetoric in the past has resulted in violence and death. It’s critically important to uncover this network and get to the bottom of who may be behind the hidden hand sowing such discontent,” added Snel.

A post-doctoral fellow at the department of political studies at UWC, Shingai Mutizwa-Mangiza, said there is great significance in that the hashtag suddenly began trending on April 27.

“The start date was Freedom Day. That is a nationalist event and I don’t think it was accidental that so many of the accounts were activated on that day. It was a deliberate calculated move,” said Mutizwa-Mangiza.

“On the other hand, this sort of thing happens often in a time of great economic difficulty.

“We tend to want to find a scapegoat and the people scape-goated are those on the margins of mainstream society.

“Look at 1920s Germany and the Weimar republic, see what happened in Rwanda in 1994 where the Tutsi who already disenfranchised were targeted.

“In situations such as these we see the rise of frustrations, and an attempt to re-channel popular anger away from areas where it may have been directed. So for instance, people were angry with the lockdown bans on alcohol and tobacco and such a campaign tends to re-channel this anger to diffuse one set of tensions while creating another,” added Mutizwa-Mangiza.

Political analyst Ntsikelelo Breakfast said: “South Africa has always had a notion of exceptionalism. When someone comes here from the continent we say ‘You are from Africa’, as if we ourselves are not from the continent.

“You must see this campaign as an issue of success. I have never lived as a foreign national abroad, but I guess if you are such a person, you work much harder to succeed and such success brings with it elements of jealousy.

“However, it’s a complex issue and there are no clear black and white areas. Also, xenophobia is not unique to South Africa.”

Stellenbosch University migration researcher Dr Callixte Kavuro said the hashtags are contrary to the South African constitution which seeks to promote unity, social cohesion and individual liberty which are core principles of having one’s dignity respected.

“Many people tend to express their anger and frustration on foreign nationals because politicians have made them believe that foreign nationals are in the country illegally. However, they have not asked themselves how foreign nationals are granted trade licenses, or driving licenses or have access to certain services if they are illegal,” said Kavuro.

“The government should deal decisively with people who use a fake account in order to instigate and provoke unnecessary violence,” said Kavuro.

An activist with the rights group Abahlali baseMjomdolo, Mqapheli Bonono, said those behind the tweets need to be exposed.

“We are concerned with some of the organised groups who are being xenophobic. They need to be exposed and shamed for this senseless behaviour,” said Bonono.

“Our movement was formed on the basis of fighting for the dignity of all humankind. We believe that a human is a human being wherever they may find themselves.

“We will continue to fight against racism, sexism and xenophobia. We condemn any act of discrimination wherever it comes from,” added Bonono.

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