ANALYSIS: Vigilantism on social media is alive, trending in South Africa
As South Africa last week marked the first anniversary of the July unrest that swept away Across the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the use of social media to spark and agitate high-stakes events is in the spotlight.
Social media is often put to good use, but can also be a tool to spread hate speech and incite violence, as in terrorism, politics and xenophobia. Owners of social media platforms are pumping money to prevent terrorists from using their forums. The owners of Facebook, for example, were part of the Global Internet Counterterrorism Forum. founders.
But what about the criminal and political actors who use social media algorithms to build real campaigns that undermine the rule of law?
from Twitter deletion of the inauthentic content of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s 2021 account of “secessionists under threat” is an oft-cited example. But such cases are rare. Twitter publishes deletion requests, but the process is complex and time consuming. Moreover, the line between online activism and vigilantism is thin, which makes the trade-off tricky..
During the unrest last year, the #FreeJacobZuma #ShutdownKZN online campaign called for a nationwide shutdown until former President Jacob Zuma was released from prison, President Cyril Ramaphosa resigned and parliament was voted down. dissolved. The revolutionary your directly challenged the institutions of democracy.
The police were caught off guard. Neither police nor political leaders have been able to curb the spread of cyber messaging, although they have warned that those who spread inflammatory messages online will face criminal charges. Nineteen people were arrested for inciting violence, but those who sought to stir up tensions on social media and the brains remain largely intact.
Two years ago, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) highlighted the emerging threat of digital vigilance. It’s when social media is used to organize, humiliate, stalk or dox (use personal information to harass) a target that is seen by the online community as having transgressed established norms. The ISS has looked at hashtags like #PutSouthAfricansFirst, which propel openly xenophobic content online.
Interest has grown in the role of social media in last year’s insurgency and the transformation of Operation Dudula from an online platform country powered by the hashtag #PutSouthAfricansFirst in a xenophobic movement. Operation Dudula emerged in 2021 as a mouthpiece seeking to force foreign nationals out of the country and blame them for unemployment and crime. But online interactions with the movement’s real world provide rich material for social scientists.
Social media platforms amplify stories through algorithms that, while increasing “traffic” for ad sales, tap into interests and biases and grow communities of like-minded people. These narratives are amplified online and artificially propelled into cyberspace, then delivered to the streets.
Data Scientist Kyle Findlay said #PutSouthAfricansFirst echoes the Make America Great Again movement. Those who know how to use social media deliver “important” messages about “issues”, especially during elections, while at the same time delivering “messages that cynically exploit the racial and ethnic fault lines that criss-cross our society”. This makes it difficult to attribute extremely xenophobic content.
Operation Dudula uses migrants as scapegoats for South Africa’s misfortunes. This distracts from the state’s failure to grow the economy and address unemployment, food insecurity and failed service delivery.
Variously described as an “offshoot” of the #PutSouthAfricansFirst movement, Operation Dudula uses the same #PutSouthAfricansFirst hashtag on social media to stage protests. ISS research in 2020 found that using powerful algorithms, experimental authors such as @uLeratoPillay could potentially reach nearly 50 million Twitter users and spread xenophobic content using that same hashtag. Those spreading the message may not even realize they are doing it.
Since this research, experts in data analysis and journalists have probed the source of these operations of information. The amaBhungane The investigative team found that the potentially inflammatory comments “have proven useful to politicians who share them, allowing them to keep their own content within the bounds of plausible deniability, while including dog whistles in the content. the most toxic.
The team sought to identify the key players pulling the strings of #PutSouthAfricansFirst. He identified many potential “players” ranging from the radical economic transformation faction of the African National Congress to the African transformation movement and ActionSA. All deny any involvement.
And the ability to deny on social media is a dangerous weapon. While the self-proclaimed leader of Operation Dudula who uses @nhlanhlalux to reach his 138,000 followers has a face and a name, more anonymous actors are irresponsible, using similar stories and tactics.
The Center for Analytics & Behavioral Change (CABC) highlighted the apparent continued artificial inflation of Operation Dudula’s presence on Twitter: “CABC also found that while Lux [Nhlanhla “Lux” Paballo Mohlauhi] leads the physical mobilization of #OperationDudula and receives strong traction on messages around the operation, he is not included in the top 10 authors of the conversation [on social media]. This suggests that parallel entities are tapping into the same feelings.
The combination of online and in-person orchestration of vigilante activity needs to be identified and addressed. Activism is protected by South African law and constitution, but intimidation and incitement to commit criminal acts such as looting, arson, assault and murder are not. The new cybercrime law aims to criminalize content-related offences, but law enforcement and prosecutors need to become more digitally savvy in order to be able to implement the legislation.
As South Africa remembers last year’s violence, lawmakers and police should not underestimate the potentially deadly power of social media – mobilizing vigilante groups and coordinating efforts online . Government and civil society should use social media for factual communication campaigns that dismantle the myths that underpin xenophobic sentiment.
Law enforcement and other government actors need to focus on how, when and by whom social media is used, in order to anticipate any possible outbreak of violence. Social media owners must heed clear evidence that their tools are being used to undermine democracy.
They could respond more quickly to requests to remove messages inciting violence or better understand the context in which their platforms are used. This would help position them as responsible players in an increasingly complex African information ecosystem.
Karen Allen, Consultant, Lizette Lancaster, Head of Crime Hub and Thato Machabaphala, Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Pretoria
This research is funded by the Embassy of Finland, Open Society Foundations and the Hanns Seidel Foundation.
(This article was first post by ISS Today, a syndication partner of Premium Times. We have their permission to republish).
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