'Coordinated attempt to manipulate xenophobia-centered conversations on SA social media', CABC report shows

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A new report argues there is xenophobic sentiment among social media in SA.
A new report argues there is xenophobic sentiment among social media in SA.
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  • A report shows evidence of an active, co-ordinated attempt to manipulate social media conversations on xenophobia in South Africa.
  • The CABC report reveals that key narratives on xenophobia are being curated and amplified by a dedicated network of connected users.
  • CABC also claims that several of the 80 accounts now active were dormant for long periods and suddenly activated on 27 April 2020.

It appears, according to a report, that social media discussions on xenophobia are being manipulated, and that around 80 dormant accounts sprung to life around 27 April.

A report by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) reveals that key narratives around xenophobia are being curated and amplified by a dedicated network of connected users.

The report said those behind the narratives are using fake social media accounts and tactics that resemble social media guns-for-hire, especially on Twitter.

"The network was closely tracked online from 1 April to 31 May this year to identify patterns and tactics used on social media to artificially promote resentment of Africans working and living in South Africa.

"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 of about 80 central accounts who pushes the hashtag, #PutSouthAfricaFirst, which itself has several variations," read the report.

READ | Xenophobic attacks: Did the authorities miss the signs?

Analysts have found that the hashtag #PutSouthAfricaFirst emerged on 27 April and in one day was used more than 16 000 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.

"uLerato_Pillay, and the variation of the accounts, have tweeted about 2 000 times during the reporting period. This indicates that there are likely several people managing this account. It is improbable that one person can manage such volume of Twitter activity," the report says.

CABC also claims that several of the 80 accounts were dormant for long periods and were suddenly activated on 27 April 2020.

Many of the accounts serve no other purpose but to "signal boost" negative sentiment about foreign Africans, the report states.

Analysts also found that there were approximately 12 000 people engaged in organic conversation on 1 April which grew to about 50 000 in about two months with continued daily growth.

"The network's playbook is anti-EFF and anti-ANC who have publicly opposed xenophobic sentiments. The network is sophisticated and highly organised. The network regularly tweets at Herman Mashaba and Julius Malema who are not an integral part of the work. It appears that they want to capitalise on their extensive online following.

"While many of the posts put out by the network are clearly xenophobic in content, the account holders have become careful not to cross the line into hate speech or inciting violence, keeping them safe from prosecution and safe from violating Twitter's terms of use.

"The conversation is growing at a rapid pace and is drawing in more ordinary Twitter users many of whom believe they are engaging in an authentic, organic conversation," said CABC.

Digital Forensic Research Lab attempted to unmask the individual behind the @uLerato_pillay account. It found that the anonymous Twitter account's original user handle was @Sfiso82648954, the account claimed other people’s images as its own and artificially bloated its follower count.

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