How Twitter bots and internet trolls sow racial and political division in SA

An investigation by Superlinear reveals political influence by pro-EFF, pro-Radical Economic Transformation, and the International Far Right groups on social media.

Superlinear is run by data scientist Kyle Findlay, who publishes his findings on South African society on the website.

In his latest investigation Findlay looked at political interference through Twitter which occurred between 2014 and 2018.

This was achieved through assessing how many accounts Twitter were suspended across 28 datasets relating to politics, social unrest, and race relations in South Africa.

The data was then used to “quantify the extent of suspicious activity and to generate some hypotheses around who might be involved and what their agendas are”.

Findlay highlighted that there is no way of knowing whether the users that were retweeted by suspended authors knew that their tweets were being artificially boosted.

“Just because an author was retweeted by many suspended accounts does not mean that they were in on the game,” he said.

“Suspended accounts could have retweeted them simply because their content aligned with the bad actors’ agendas.”

The findings

Findlay found that there are three main groups which were suspended for suspicious activity by Twitter:

  • Pro-EFF – This content was shared in many of the datasets by suspended accounts with South African user locations. It is not clear whether these are real users that are being suspended for their divisive content or orchestrated fake accounts.
  • Pro-Radical Economic Transformation (RET) – This group focuses on a variety of issues including attacks on the Ramaphosa faction of the ANC, state capture-related topics such as state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and race relations.
  • International Far Right – This group focuses on issues relating to white fear such as farm killings and land expropriation.

Bots, sock puppets and trolls

According to the research there are three types of bad actors which drive discussions of propaganda:

  • Bots – Automated accounts that are controlled by computers, algorithms, and rules. They tend to be used to boost the content of other accounts controlled by real people.
  • Sock puppets – Accounts controlled by real people pretending to be something they are not in order to advance an agenda.
  • Trolls – Real people that post content to get a rise out of other users. Bigots, racists, misogynists, and generally disagreeable users also fall into this category.

South African political interference

The investigation found that between 1% and 9% of Twitter posts were authored by suspended users in each dataset.

“When we add in retweets of suspended authors’ tweets, their footprints ranged from 2% to 18% of tweets in a given dataset,” Findlay said.

“While a minority in each case, these could have been enough to sway the tide of conversation as in the case of the Guptabots and the Russian IRA sock puppet accounts.”

The charts below show the interference by suspended and deleted Twitter accounts on the topics which were investigated.

 

 

What the findings show

According to the research, “it is very clear that there has been substantial interference within South African politics”.

His findings are summarised below.

  • The Pro-Radical Economic Transformation actors are prolific. They seem to have their hands in ANC factionalism, anti-DA events and race division.
  • The pro-EFF actors emerge when issues of real and perceived white racism come up, thus further dividing our country.
  • The Far-Right group seems driven by the International Far Right and focuses on stoking white fears and the further polarisation of society.

“This investigation shows that there is definitely interference in South African politics on Twitter, both by local and international actors,” Findlay said.

“However, the interference does not yet appear to be on the scale experienced in some countries.”

Read the full analysis here.


Read: Twitter posts millions of tweets linked to Russia, Iran

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