A network of social media accounts is abusing so-called radical economic transformation (RET) policy to peddle misinformation and create racial divisions on Twitter.
The network includes 51 accounts that were created over 11 years –between 2009 and last year. The content distributed by the network is exclusively anti-Cyril Ramaphosa, pro-Jacob Zuma and pro-RET.
High volumes of tweets are posted daily, with some individual accounts sending a single tweet every three to seven minutes, all day and every day.
The network’s overall message is clear: Zuma is the father of RET and is being abused by the judiciary and Ramaphosa’s faction, while Ramaphosa has betrayed the trust of black South Africans by allowing himself to be dictated to by the white business elite.
The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change has outlined a list of tools used by the network to spread fake news. Their playbook is typical of other networks, who use the same tactics to manipulate narratives for their own ends.
Here are the six telltale signs that this conversation is being deliberately manipulated on social media – the smoking guns that give away the mischief long after the six bullets are fired:
1. Look for cracks in the system
Proponents of misinformation do not have to look deep when driving fake narratives. Current issues such as poverty, crime, corruption and the lack of service delivery serve as the perfect breeding ground for misinformation.
The RET group has used racial inequality in South Africa to justify its online attacks against Ramaphosa and his supporters.
Issues such as the secrecy behind the funders of Ramaphosa’s CR17 presidential campaign created the perfect conditions for the network’s disinformation project to lay its foundations.
On the other hand, Zuma’s defiance of a Constitutional Court order to appear before the Zondo commission raised another set of issues. The former president has shifted the focus from himself by accusing the judiciary of being unfair towards him.
When a former president questions the fairness of the judiciary, cracks are created to initiate fake news.
2. Create a big lie
With cracks identified in the system, drivers of misinformation create false and wildly exaggerated claims to grab the attention of unsuspecting online users.
The pro-Zuma faction is using their RET cover to peddle lies, launch attacks against Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo and reduce the testimony of witnesses appearing at the commission to hearsay.
3. Wrap the lie around a kernel of truth and conceal your hand
The best way to make a lie believable is to mix it with the truth. This network has taken advantage of the media to drive their narratives.
The group uses media article links to support their misinformed claims, or to deny the contents of the article and accuse the media of being a puppet of Ramaphosa or white monopoly capital.
In an attempt to conceal their hand, the network also hides behind dodgy allegations.
4. Find a useful ‘idiot’
In another attempt to legitimise false claims, the network targets a useful person, usually occupying a certain position of power, to drive their narrative.
Thabo Makwakwa is a journalist who co-hosts the Insight Factor, a YouTube channel that hosts interviews with various South African political figures.
Makwakwa’s public stance to support the network and to publish media content that amplifies the voice of the network is misleading to the public.
While journalists are free to express personal opinions, Makwakwa’s account makes it hard for the average user to differentiate between personal opinion and ethical journalism.
5. Deny everything
Members of the network deny the legitimacy of the Zondo commission, even though Zuma had asked former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela to establish a commission to investigate allegations of state capture. Now, their story is that allegations of state capture were a hoax created by white South Africans to stop transformation.
Zuma had also approved Zondo’s appointment to head up the commission, a fact ignored by the network in its quest for denial.
6. Play the long game
Part of playing the long game includes investing a lot of resources “into things that may not bear fruits for many years to come”.
The network plays the long game by investing resources into activities to keep their accounts constantly active and to influence as many users as possible.
Accounts such as @_AfricanSoil constantly churn out pro-Zuma content. The account sends a single tweet every seven minutes.
About 89% of these tweets are original posts and include graphics, hashtags and links to media articles that used to endlessly show support for Zuma, as depicted in the word cloud below, containing the account’s most commonly used hashtags.
@Landnoli is another account that sends out an average of 200 tweets every day, with 96% of them being retweets of the pro-Zuma, pro-RET narrative.
Some of these posts may not be harmful or misleading. However, by pushing a particular narrative at such high volumes every day, they determine the content seen by their followers, who become overexposed to the one-sided, slanted rhetoric.
These are the six signs that give away the game. Despite attempts to hide their hand, this network cannot conceal the evidence of their attempts to manipulate social media narratives by hijacking RET policy and twisting it for its own purposes.