Stock image via Pixabay
Stock image via Pixabay
As South Africa begins gearing up for General Election in 2019, it’s important for Twitter users to navigate the minefield of political misinformation.
Twitter, along with other social media services, has been blamed for allowing the proliferation of fake news which has the propensity to nudge the voting demographic in a misguided direction. In an effort to decipher counterfeit information, often spread as propaganda aimed at pushing a certain false narrative, intense investigate research undertaken and published by Superlinear has some pointers on how to pick out fake Twitter accounts.
The word “fake” is being thrown around lately in reference to news and social media services. This is, in part, thanks to the controversy surrounding the US presidential elections, whereby Russian based internet researchers were accused of spreading a false narrative for, what is thought to be, political and profitable gain.
According to the report by Superlinear, fake or malicious Twitter accounts can be categorised into three separate, yet concurrent, forms. While the production and method of spreading false narratives vary, all fake Twitter accounts serve the same purpose; to mislead the public and push a certain political agenda.
Superlinear defines Twitter accounts spreading false news as ‘bad actors’ and focuses, in the South African context, on handles which perpetuate radically divisive ideologies.
As part of the extensive case study, Superlinear looked at major recent political events in South Africa, including the ANC’s 54th National Elective Conference, Helen Zille’s “legacy of colonialism” tweet, #BlackMonday protest march against farm killings, the North West province protests and “white fear” issues including farm killings, white genocide and land expropriation without compensation (LEWC).
Bad actors in the above cases are broken down into three groupings; bots, sockpuppets and trolls.
Bots are computer operated accounts which are often used to ‘boost’ content created or shared by accounts controlled by real people. Bots form an integral part of the fake news world, by attributing thousands of social media interactions to a piece of content, thereby, nefariously, giving the false narrative credibility through Twitter’s algorithms.
Sockpuppets are ‘real’ Twitter accounts, which, unlike bots, are controlled by real people. Sockpuppets pretend to be something they are not in order to advance a specific political agenda by spreading disinformation. Superlinear cites Russian interference in America’s elections, stating that 2 848 known accounts were found to be controlled by a 400-strong team.
Trolls are the primary, and most well-known, ‘bad actors’ in the world of fake social media accounts. Trolls are real people who post controversial statements in order to get a rise out of other users. Superlinear says that bigots, racists, misogynists and generally disagreeable users also fall into this category. These are the social media ‘footsoldiers’ who derail conversations into destructive narratives.
Automated bots are relatively easy to spot. Superlinear lists a few dead giveaways, namely, a lack of ‘real’ social media interaction beyond repeatedly resharing posts. These bots are also often based outside the area of interest. For example, most identified bots used to shift the narrative in the South African context are based in the US. It’s unlikely that US-based accounts or users will have intricate knowledge of South African affairs.
Sockpuppets are much harder to spot. In reality, unless an Internet Protocol (IP) address can be genuinely identified it’s virtually impossible to detect multiple accounts that are controlled by the same user. According to internet researcher, Edd Gent, sockpuppets can be identified by a discerning eye which can spot their formulaic writing style, posting activity and relationship with other users. Again, an account which has limited interpersonal activity can be a warning flag.
Trolls are relatively hard to identify, due to the current divisive nature of controversial rhetoric and the way in which social media allows for this narrative to breed. It would be easy to paint all social media users who share bigoted, racist, misogynistic views as trolls – yet, it’s not that simple. The major point to note is trolls rarely add anything of value to the conversation and are instead hellbent on sowing racial division.
Superlinear highlights the prevalence of fake Twitter accounts in South Africa by focusing on four major groups: the so-called ‘Guptabots’, which furthered the white monopoly rhetoric in 2017, the pro-EFF (Economic Freedom Fighter) actors, the pro-Radical Economic Transformation actors and the International Far Right.
Superlinear points to the dangers of fake Twitter accounts in the runup to the 2019 General Elections by remembering the Gupta connection which shifted the national narrative during Jacob Zuma’s dubious tenure as president, saying:
“The so-called ‘Guptabots’ famously popularised the term ‘white monopoly capital’ and helped to poison race relations.
The Guptabots were a collection of roughly 800 known accounts controlled by a much smaller group of human handlers likely based in India and likely funded by the Guptas to advance the State Capture Project under the veil of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) ideology of the Zuma-faction of the ANC.”
The Pro-Radical Economic Transformation actors are closely connected to Zuma and his affiliates. Superlinear explains:
“The pro-RET 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.”
The pro-EFF group is harder to define as they use custom-created fake accounts for the South African market. The actors focus on promoting land expropriation without compensation, attack white monopoly capital and are vehemently defensive of party leader, Julius Malema, in spite of his clear misgivings.
Superlinear describes the international Far Right group as Twitter accounts which aim to shift the narrative to the plight of white citizens, regardless of the topic at hand. The investigative report states:
“The International Far Right focuses on issues relating to white fear such as farm killings and land expropriation, and they conveniently conflate the international definition of “white genocide”.
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.”
The aim of fake Twitter accounts is to push a certain political prerogative. These accounts focus on shifting the discourse into a destructive slump rather than addressing and assessing the situation as a whole. This is especially dangerous in a country as polarised as South Africa.
Certain political parties, companies and groups aim to gain by whipping up racial tension in South Africa. It’s important to identify what is real and what is not; this takes the power away from those seeking to profit from divisiveness.
The elections are around the corner, and its import that, as South Africans, we vote with a clear view and understanding of the political system and how it impacts the socioeconomic issues around us. The most effective way to battle bots, sockpuppets and trolls is to remain independent in thought, guided by objective research.