Failed insurrection has deep roots in social media narrative manipulation

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Social media was used as an amplification tool, with images and videos used out of context to manipulate the public, deceiving people to believe that past events were taking place in the present. Photo: File
Social media was used as an amplification tool, with images and videos used out of context to manipulate the public, deceiving people to believe that past events were taking place in the present. Photo: File

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The failed insurrection, which threatened the lives and livelihoods of many South Africans last month, has deep roots which go back to the days of narrative manipulation by UK public relations outfit Bell Pottinger.

This emerged from a webinar, Social Media Narratives Behind the Failed Insurrection, on how social media was used to incite and instigate the looting and public violence that disrupted the lives of many communities in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.

The webinar was hosted by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation in partnership with the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change and Media Monitoring Africa on Monday.

The centre’s executive director Professor Camaren Peter said analysing a snapshot of what happened last month only is misleading, and equivalent to assessing the symptoms, not the causes of the mayhem.

READ: Camaren Peter | How social media fuelled the burning and looting

“This tracks all the way back to Bell Pottinger’s campaign in 2016 to 2017 which was incredibly racially and socially divisive in our country, and which mainstreamed most of the terms such as white monopoly capital and radical economic transformation so successfully that they’ve become part of our political discourse today,” said Peter.

In May this year, the centre released its report, Online RET Network Analysis, which identified 51 pro-radical economic transformation accounts supporting former president Jacob Zuma and his allies, while criticising anyone tasked with prosecuting them.

Peter said the network capitalised on the public’s declining trust in government and the media, and the prevailing socioeconomic challenges. 

The network manipulated legitimate media articles and carefully curated content to fit its own narrative, thus legitimising the conditions for the unrest.

Last month, the centre released another report, The Dirty Dozen and the Amplification of Incendiary Content During the Outbreak of Unrest in South Africa, of 12 accounts that were found to be amplifying messages of incitement as the violent looting erupted.

The top 12 accounts’ retweet strategy averaged more than 500 tweets and retweets every day, and the content drew heavily from pro-Zuma messages, put out by the “pro-RET” network.

READ: Pillars of misinformation: A closer look at the RET network

Media Monitoring Africa’s Thandi Smith said suggestive posts from high-ranking political and public figures officials had reached a large number of social media users quickly and indirectly exacerbated tensions.

“Suggestive content fuelled amplification,” said Smith.

“We saw 40 to 50 different complaints with pieces of content that were reported as incitement to violence. Some of it was incitement, some of it was suggestive content,” she said, adding that it was harder to take decisive action against suggestive content.

“What made it worse is seeing high profile public figures tweeting this content. You’re dealing with people such as Julius Malema tweeting suggestive content.”


Highlighting that social media was used as an amplification tool, as opposed to an organising tool during the recent unrest, Smith said images and videos were used out of context to manipulate the public, deceiving people to believe that past events were taking place in the present. This strategy is used by campaigns such as #PutSouthAfricaFirst to promote xenophobic content.

READ: Malema: Ramaphosa has joined those who run illegitimate governments

Smith said it was important to produce counter-narratives to dampen the amplification, and where appropriate, to have the content removed from the platforms.

Peter called on the media and government to educate people on consuming social media and on civil society to report harmful posts to platforms such as Real411.

“Platforms don’t have resources to police the entire platform, they rely on civil society to bring harmful social media activity to their attention,” he said.

READ: Editorial | Do not believe the lies about Covid-19 vaccine

The full webinar, Social Media Narratives Behind the Failed Insurrection can be viewed here: 

Mokoka is a journalist at the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change, a non-profit organisation based at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business


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