South Africans React To Xenophobia Misinformation Campaign on Social Media

October 27, 2020 · 3 min read

19 September 2020

South Africa has suffered repeated waves of xenophobic unrest in recent years, fueled by accusations that migrants from other African countries are taking up scarce jobs. Since the flare-up of violence against immigrants in early September, VoxCroft Analytics observed a clear misinformation and counter-messaging campaign on social media. These attacks serve as a striking, yet tragic example of the sheer power of social media in shaping a certain narrative -- irrespective of the authenticity of the information. This type of mis/disinformation is part of an increasing global trend that VoxCroft believes will continue to impact South Africa in the future.

#FightFakeNews - We live in the age of ‘fake news’ – disinformation, misinformation and mal-information are transforming global communications and the socio-political landscape. A useful resource in understanding the trend is UNESCO’s Fake News' and Disinformation Handbook.

As news of the violence broke, South African Twitter users were active in sharing media reports and firsthand observations of the events. On 3 September, a claim emerged -- primarily on Twitter -- that the Nigeria-based extremist group Boko Haram had issued a "threat" against South Africa in retaliation for the violence. This was simply not true, and a prime example of misinformation.

Boko Haram's official communications have been rare in recent years, and no such official statement by any of the recognized leadership of the group had been observed in any publicly available channels.

Despite the misleading information, there was enough momentum behind tweets claiming this "threat,"prompting it to trend among South African users on 3 September.

As has become characteristic of South African social media users, the supposed "threat" was lampooned around 5 September. Tweets tagged "#BokoHaramChallenge" trended strongly on that day -- far outweighing the "threat" tweets of two days prior. Users posted humorous images and videos to counter the (non-existent) Boko Haram "threat." Prominent South African media reported widely on the "#BokoHaramChallenge" which was likely to have driven the popularity of the hashtag. In contrast, the original "threat" tweets did not gain nearly as much traction.

Comparison of Volume of 'Threat' to 'Challenge' Tweets 3-6 September 2019

Graph comparing the volume of tweets per hour about the supposed Boko Haram "threat" directed at South Africa to the volume of "#BokoHaramChallenge" tweets 3-6 September.
Graph comparing the volume of tweets per hour about the supposed Boko Haram "threat" directed at South Africa to the volume of "#BokoHaramChallenge" tweets 3-6 September.

It is interesting to note that at least one account -- which started as a parody account and grew to enormous popularity during the Oscar Pistorius trial, but which is now very clearly aligned with the far-left opposition -- was instrumental in driving both the "threat" and the subsequent "challenge." This strategy -- playing both sides of a hotbed issue on social media -- has become a popular tactic employed by entities who, whether motivated by gaining followers or some other more sinister motive, wish to stoke divides.

This incident has likely served to strengthen the notion that there was indeed a genuine threat by Boko Haram, and is an example of just how easily misinformation can become cemented as "fact," with real-world consequences. With all that said, social media was almost certainly not the primary cause of the attacks, but merely a facilitator of misleading information that potentially fueled the violence within the various local and immigrant communities. With its complex and highly fragmented socioeconomic and cultural structure, the South African landscape provided fertile ground for misinformation to take hold.

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