Xenophobia is being promoted on social media via an army of coordinated accounts, the University of Cape Town (UCT) has found after conducting analysis on interactions taking place around social cohesion during the nationwide lockdown.
The #PutSouthAfricansFirst began appearing on Twitter on 27 April, and set in motion a surge in xenophobic rhetoric that raised the eyebrows of UCT's researchers, and they have some compelling data to support the notion that key narratives around xenophobia are being curated and amplified by a dedicated network of connected users.
Xenophobic narratives surging
The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) at UCT has said that there has been a significant increase in xenophobic narratives doing the rounds on Twitter in particular.
"Whereas xenophobic mentions generally hovered around 100 per day at the beginning of March, within two weeks there was a significant uptick to around 9 000 mentions per day, peaking at around 15 000 mentions at one point," explained Associate Professor Camaren Peter, the director and executive head of the CABC.
He also said that the hashtag #PutSouthAfricaFirst emerged on 27 April 2020 and was used over 16 000 times in a single day.
Bell Pottinger 2.0?
The Bell Pottinger scandal springs to mind immediately, where coordinated efforts were effected by the British public relations company to sow racial tension in South Africa in 2017 at the behest of the Gupta family. Unlike that instance, the latest campaign appears to be coordinated by real people as opposed to the army of bots and fake accounts used by Bell Pottinger.
"This amplification was due to 80 accounts that were responsible for around 50% of the use of the hashtag," said Peter. "This indicated that the conversation was not growing organically but was being amplified by a coordinated network."
"This is a similar network, but we do not think these accounts are bots [software applications programmed to perform certain tasks]," said Peter.
Instead, Peter believes that the accounts are managed by individuals and teams who are being paid to promote xenophobic discord.
"Many of these accounts had been dormant for long periods of time, Peter said, and were re-activated on 27 April 2020, tweeting no other meaningful messaging other than xenophobic messaging".
Xenophobic account networks led by 'main agitator'
The "main agitator" on the network of inflammatory accounts is a Twitter account with the handle @uLerato_pillay. The CABC said that this account leads an 80-strong network that pushes the #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag, and that this account is responsible for around 50% of the tweets cited as attempting to sow xenophobic discord.
"They had tweeted about 2 000 times during the reporting period of 1 April to 31 May 2020," the report said.
"This suggests that there are likely several people managing this account as it is improbable that one person can manage such a high volume of Twitter activity."
The account in question actually changed its handle on 8 September to @PutSAnsFirst_, and released the following statement:
"One member of #PutSouthAfricansFirst will take over the running of this old Lerato Pillay account, since I don't have enough time to run the account on full time basis like before. I've asked one of the members to take it over free of charge."