Study blows lid on xenophobic Twitter network run by 'uLerato Pillay'

Reminiscent of the days of the UK's Bell Pottinger fightback campaign for the Gupta family a couple of years ago, key narratives around xenophobia are being curated and amplified by a dedicated network of connected users.

Twitter logo. Picture: Pixabay

JOHANNESBURG - Over a decade after the first wave of widespread xenophobic attacks happened in South Africa, the country is still fraught with xenophobic sentiment and tension teetering on the verge of exploding at any given moment. Sadly, a small network of faceless individuals have used this to capitalise on Twitter reactions, a new study has revealed.

Analysts at the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) based at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business on Tuesday released a study that exposes a network that recently surfaced on the local Twitter space and gained lots of traction through trending hashtags.

Reminiscent of the days of the UK's Bell Pottinger fightback campaign for the Gupta family a couple of years ago, key narratives around xenophobia are being curated and amplified by a dedicated network of connected users, the study revealed.

"They are using fake social media accounts and tactics that resemble social media guns-for-hire. "

The network was closely tracked online from 1 April to 31 May to identify patterns and tactics used on social media to artificially promote resentment of African migrants - particularly Zimbabweans and Nigerians - 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.

In July, data research by disinformation researcher Jean le Roux exposed the identity of the person behind one of these multiple accounts as a man named Sfiso Gwala.

This account is the public face of the network of about 80 central accounts who push the hashtag, #PutSouthAfricaFirst, which itself has several variations.

Further analysis by CABC found the following:

· The hashtag, #PutSouthAfricaFirst emerged on 27 April 2020, and in one day was used more than 16,000 times. The 80 accounts in the network around uLeratoPillay were responsible for 50% of the use of the hashtag. This is not organic growth of a conversation but rather an organised network.

· uLeratoPillay, and the variation of the accounts, have tweeted about 2,000 times during the reporting period. (About 5,000 to date.) This indicates that there are likely several people managing this account. It is improbable that one person can manage such volume of Twitter activity.

· 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. There is no meaningful personal content from any of the accounts.

· There were approximately 12,000 people engaged in organic conversation on 1 April which grew to about 50,000 in about two months and which continues to grow daily. This indicates that about 80 accounts managed to artificially grow a significant organic conversation targeting foreigners living in South Africa.

· The number of tweets and signal boosting through the inner circle of key accounts suggest that it is highly likely that the network has significant financial support.

· The network’s playbook is anti-EFF and anti-ANC, who have publicly opposed xenophobic sentiments.

· The network is sophisticated and highly organised. They know, for example, how to jump hashtags in order to allow people in the know to continue to follow them while frustrating attempts to track their activity.

· 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.

"It is fair to say that the conversation around xenophobia on social media does not accurately represent the sentiments of the majority of South Africans. The network exists, it would appear, to manipulate and steer the conversation online and to sow further divisions in South Africa’s frail social fabric," the study added.

“My biggest fear is not only that South Africans are being misled into supporting artificially amplified anger against foreigners living in South Africa but that such rhetoric in the past has resulted in violence and death. It’s critically important to uncover this network and get to the bottom of who may be behind the hidden hand sowing such discontent,” said Stef Snel, Director of the Dialogue Facilitation team at the CABC.

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