Study blows lid open on xenophobic PutSouthAfricansFirst 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.
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. headtopics.com
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.The Twitter account @uLerato_Pillay hides its afrophobia behind a thin veneer of nationalism.
In an earlier investigation for @DFRLab, @wildknight and I traced the origins of the account to pin a real name to it:Sfiso J Gwalahttps://t.co/hsrvpUJBSn— Ad Homonym (@jean_leroux) July 13, 2020 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. headtopics.com
· 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. headtopics.com
"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.Read more: Eyewitness News »
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uLerato__pillay Leya NYELA white media!! PutSouthAfricansFirst 🇿🇦
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SCORPIO: @uLerato_pillay: How the xenophobic network around #PutSouthAfricaFirst was born and then metastasisedSouth Africans on Twitter are witnessing the rise of an influential anti-immigrant lobby and thousands, captured by a make-believe character, ‘Lerato Pillay’, have unwittingly become complicit in the explosion of a weaponised conversation. Now, an analysis of the social media conversation by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change has deemed uLerato to be part of a ‘dangerously orchestrated narrative’ that has affected at least 50,000 accounts so far.