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Umbilical Ruminations

Hunting down the Twitter trolls (again)

Adam Oxford
Adam Oxford

In hindsight it seems inevitable that when Covid-19 collapsed the economy and put millions out of work, some of the frustration would find itself vented in an outbreak of nationalist anger. Even though borders are closed, South Africa doesn’t have a great track record in this regard, and its been saddening that there have been outbreaks of violence reported.

Twitter is once again proving itself to be both a frustratingly effective toxic cesspit of anger and hate, and a platform for those who would uncover conspiracy and the bad actors behind it. This week saw the publication of a report by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) into xenophobia on South African Twitter, which got decent coverage in the news and again drew attention to the well documented disinformation campaign around the hashtag #PutSouthAfricaFirst and its lead actors. The local chapter of the Digital Forensics Lab has published similar before, highlighting how prominent politicians end up reTweeting the campaign’s messages, and unconvering obvious fakery (such as faked images) on the key accounts in the PSAF network.

As we head into local elections next year, and certain ex-Joburg mayors with dubious views on the subject start to make their comeback, it’s important to remember that we’ve been here before. The tactics are the same as the notorious Guptabots, as are the lead actors in unmasking the network. And make no mistake this is an organised campaign designed to create trouble. As @SuperlinearZA points out, “#PutSouthAfricansFirst just appeared one day fully formed. No organic build-up; little bursty spikes that ebb and flow. It’s as if someone turned the tap on one day and there it was, all across #SouthAfrica Twitter”.

The good fight goes on.

Adam Oxford
  • Adam Oxford is a freelance journalist, media consultant and civic tech enthusiast. He also works closely with startups developing solutions to access to justice problems.

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