2019 elections at risk of manipulation through social media – report

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A study has found that there has been manipulation of SA social media by a group appearing to represent a pro-EFF agenda. Photo: Jacques Nelles

South Africans must be careful if they want to ensure there isn’t social media manipulation of our 2019 election similar to the way the US election is believed to have been manipulated by Russian-linked bots, according to a report by a South African data analyst.

Kyle Findlay, a Senior Data Science Director for research group Kantar, writes: “We’ve already seen how local actors such as the Guptabots have effectively changed our national conversations. There’s no reason to believe that this won’t continue to happen in the next election, as it has around the world.”

Organised political interference on social media has been found to have manipulated the results of elections in a number of countries. According to Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project, there is evidence of social media manipulation campaigns in 48 countries.

South Africa is “definitely” one of them, according to the report by Findlay, which attempts to analyse “who might be involved” in manipulating social media “and what their agendas are”.

He identifies three main groups as being prone to manipulation, the “pro-EFF”, “pro-radical economic transformation (RET)”, and “international far right” since these groups have had the most members suspended by Twitter for suspicious activity, according to the study.

Of the pro-EFF users suspended, Findlay says it’s hard to tell if they are “real users that are being suspended for their divisive content or orchestrated fake accounts”.

Meanwhile, the group representing an agenda promoting radical economic transformation “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”.

The group representing the international far right, according to Findlay, uses issues connected to the SA right wing to further a white nationalist agenda.

“They fan the flames around these issues ostensibly in solidarity with white, generally Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, but the narrative they spin neatly slots into the global far right agenda of ‘white genocide’ and white nationalism,” he writes.

Kyle Findlay describes himself as a data activist. According to his bio, he “runs a data science team whose day job is to help brands and organisations understand why people do what they do through data.”

The report can be read here.

Compiled by Daniel Friedman / The Citizen