The SA election troll armies go on the march unchecked
As the polls loom, disinformation peddlers will be working overtime, yet there are no safeguards to flag fake news
ANC elections head Fikile Mbalula says his party’s new social media propaganda machine is not secretive and, like the other main political parties, they are using Twitter as a battleground for campaigning.
He told the Sunday Times his new “boiler room”, operated by 60 activists creating positive noise about the ANC and bashing opposition parties, was a “clean campaign”.
“There is no underground movement about it. The ANC is fighting its war on Twitter by mobilising its members,” Mbalula said.
No matter how he tries to legitimise it, the creation of a troll farm that runs political commentary and manufactures public discourse is clandestine and designed to deceive.
But, information warfare is the way of the world and social media propaganda has become a successful tool to influence the outcome of elections.
The manipulation of voters in the Brexit referendum in the UK in June 2016 and the US presidential elections in November of that year is now well documented.
Brazil’s elections in 2018 show how digital propaganda mechanisms are constantly evolving. The election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro as president stunned the political establishment in Brazil and has been largely credited to strategic use of digital platforms.
Election campaigning in the largest country in South America was historically dependent on television. Like in SA, parties are allotted free time slots based on their size and their representation in the legislature.
The Social Democracy Party candidate, Geraldo Alckmin, had almost six minutes of TV time while Bolsonaro had only eight seconds. But Bolsonaro won with 55% of the vote.
The election was affected by the recession and an epic corruption scandal that tainted the political elite, but Bolsonaro also benefited from a powerful disinformation campaign via WhatsApp and Facebook targeting his rivals. The manipulation of public debate was effective as 66% of Brazilians are online and 90% of them (120 million of 210 million citizens) use WhatsApp.
While some social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are trying to clamp down on fake news and bots, WhatsApp is fairly unregulated. Conversations in WhatsApp groups are not monitored and cannot be centrally curated. Users forward information to their networks without any mechanism to establish veracity or origin.
The penetration of disinformation in SA is indefinite.
There have been several media exposes about the use of political troll armies and characters behind fake news operations, but there is no proper monitoring of how disinformation is used to influence public perception.
Two months before a critical election, this is dangerous.
The Gupta-funded Bell Pottinger propaganda operation showed how susceptible South Africans are to influence through deliberate distortion of information and public discourse. Yet no safeguards are in place to flag and report fake news, particularly in political messaging.
Political parties are, however, climbing aboard the propaganda bandwagon.
In January 2017, amaBhungane revealed that the ANC had devised a R50m black ops campaign to influence voters in the 2016 local government elections.
The campaign eventually flopped due to lack of funding and a dispute between the key players, which landed in court.
Last week, amaBhungane revealed another ANC propaganda operation using “social media influencers” – what has become known as “paid Twitter”. The strategy is seemingly more effective than using Twitter bots since the influencers have thousands of followers and opine on various issues. Therefore, pushing certain political agendas and targeted attacks on political opponents appear more credible and have greater penetration.
The problem for the ANC is that while it is still the dominant political party and has been revitalised by the election of President Cyril Ramaphosa, its election campaign is weighed down by its scandals and disastrous record in government.
While Ramaphosa and his clean-up of the state are drawing goodwill, the legacy of state capture and the ANC’s factional battles make the party’s election messages look farcical.
The ANC therefore has to find surreptitious ways to influence the discourse, including playing up the scandals and negative traits of its main opponents.
The DA’s main weapon is the ANC’s failures but its main weakness is its inability to position itself as a viable alternative to govern SA. Its communications strategy involves unsolicited calls, text messages and e-mails, mostly using negative campaigning against the ANC. While its messaging is research-based, this appeals to its traditional base but proves to be an irritation to most other people.
The party has also attempted to make an impact on the public mindset through billboard advertising, focusing on the ANC’s major disasters such as the Life Esidimeni deaths and the Eskom power crisis.
But while Zuma was the gift that kept on giving for the opposition, campaigning against Ramaphosa is an uphill climb for the DA.
The EFF’s biggest campaign drawcard is its leader, Julius Malema. Both through his fiery speeches and Twitter feed, Malema is able to whip up his support base and influence public discourse.
But since Zuma’s departure, the EFF has struggled to zero in on its political targets. Both the EFF leadership and its social media bot armies have used their time and energy over the past few months targeting people who are not on the ballot paper.
Ramaphosa has used his charm and political nous to disarm the EFF. So although the ANC is the party’s main opponent, this is not reflected in the EFF’s election social media strategy. The EFF is also struggling to sustain its campaign on the politics of hate.
As the election campaign heats up over the next two months, social media is likely to be polluted by disinformation and negative campaigning. With hardly any constraints or safeguards to ensure truth and credible information, it will be difficult to tell what is real and what was concocted in war rooms.
In the digital era, it seems all’s fair in love and information war.