New social media research finds xenophobia rife among South Africans

South Africans and foreigners marching to the Union Buildings. (Lizeka Tandwa, News24, file)
South Africans and foreigners marching to the Union Buildings. (Lizeka Tandwa, News24, file)

Johannesburg - A new study of social media posts has found that a large number of South Africans are xenophobic.

Director of the Citizen Research Centre Stuart Jones has been conducting research on xenophobia in terms of social media since 2011.

The organisation isolated and analysed all public social media posts pertaining to xenophobia across Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, forums, chat rooms, comments and blog posts in SA.

Jones said he chose social media because he felt strongly that the data represented the truest expression of people's views on any given subject.

The data excluded social media posts from other countries.

"The remaining comments made by individuals constituted a data set of almost two million relevant posts since 2011... If we isolate just the Twitter posts from this data set, they had a total of 5.7 billion potential impressions. This effectively means that collectively these posts landed in 5.7 billion twitter feeds," said Jones.

'All foreigners should leave the country'

The findings and analysis of the posts provided Jones with clear lessons in how social media was linked to xenophobia on the streets as well as in how to help moderate the conversation.

"From 2011 to now, the average number of posts has ticked along at 760 posts per day."

Jones said social media responded to real life and the number of posts increased dramatically during times of crises in the country.

Two important xenophobic incidences have been noted in the research, one in April 2015 and one in February 2017.

In April 2015, Zulu monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini reportedly said that "all foreigners should leave the country".

Jones said violence directed at African foreigners erupted in KwaZulu-Natal and rapidly spread to the rest of the country as a result of the comments made by Zwelithini.

"During the violence, social media conversation around xenophobia grew to 5 670 posts a day."

'Holding our country to ransom'

In January and February 2017 there was an average of nearly 2 000 posts per day on the subject.

"This was in the build-up to the march at the end of February. Again this was inflamed by a public figure, with Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba linking foreigners to crime. He was quoted as having said, 'You see, for me, when I call these criminals, criminals, I want them to understand that they are criminals. They are holding our country to ransom and I am going to be the last South African to allow it.'"

Looking at the conversations in detail, Jones said, xenophobic social media posts made up between 8% and 28% of all conversation, depending on the year.

"There is a recent tendency to associate foreigners with criminal activity. This was aggravated by, if not caused by, Herman Mashaba's recent comments.

"As a result, hateful speech against foreigners associating them with crime has risen threefold to 13% of the total conversation since his statement."

Jones said what would be classified as extreme hate speech and incitement to violence had remained a fairly small component of the total conversation.

Pacifying voices

"In 2015 there were 21 660 posts that could be classified as such and in the first two months of this year there have already been 1 100 posts that fit this description."

Research also found that pacifying voices increased in times of crisis, and range from 15% to 42% of the conversation.

"Crucially, pacifying voices have been weakest before xenophobic violence and protest hit. For example, only 15% of posts spoke against xenophobia."

He said politicians and community leaders played an important role in pacifying sentiments.

"Their anti-xenophobic views are widely distributed and discussed on social media. [EFF leader] Julius Malema, [Police Minister] Fikile Mbalula and [DA leader] Mmusi Maimane all tweeted strong statements against xenophobia.

"Julius Malema, though, had the biggest effect in countering xenophobic views, probably because he engaged early and because he has an active support base on social media."

Anti-white posts

Jones said that in 2016 there had been a dramatic shift in the xenophobia conversation.

Data showed that anti-xenophobic and anti-colonialist or anti-white South African posts have also grown exponentially.

"The typical narrative here is that we shouldn't take our anger out on fellow Africans, but rather on 'the real enemy', colonialism or white South Africans. This is allied to the #FeesMustFall movement."

Jones said this sentiment was less than 1% of the conversation in 2011. In the first two months of 2017, it made up 24% of the total conversation around xenophobia.

"In other words, in January and February this year, one in four posts referring to xenophobia from any angle, positive or negative, on social media in SA fell into the anti-white or anti-colonial category. This points to a dramatic shift in South Africa's political landscape, especially among young black South Africans."

Politicians 'must do more'

Jones said government needed to admit that there was a problem.

"Saying that South Africans are not xenophobic does not change the fact that a great many South Africans are xenophobic. The first step toward dealing with a problem is acknowledging that it exists. Various politicians, including President Jacob Zuma, have denied that there is a xenophobia problem."

Jones said politicians also needed to be more responsible about what they say to communities.

"It may be more helpful to start calling xenophobia what it is in the South African context, it is Afrophobia. The most hateful, unpublishable bile that is said on social media is directed toward Africans from other countries."

He said politicians can provide the necessary momentum in the counter narrative against xenophobia.

"Very few politicians entered the conversation, rather sitting silently by, and more can definitely be done here," Jones said.

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