A South African local government official posing as a racist white woman on Twitter posted several racially incendiary tweets that were designed to spark outrage. The furore generated by these tweets was used to funnel users to at least three of his websites, where he hoped to net an income off the back of the outrage caused by his tweets.
Anthony Matumba, employed by the Makhado Local Municipality in the northern province of Limpopo, is also a member of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), well known for its outspoken views on racism and racial inequality. Matumba has registered multiple websites in his name, which he monetised using Google’s AdSense.
In order to drive traffic to these sites and increase the ad revenue they generated, several Twitter accounts spammed links to the websites, mostly in reply to prominent Twitter personalities. One of these accounts, @TracyZille, quickly rose to dubious prominence due to the racist tweets it put out in late June.
(Daily Maverick made several attempts via WhatsApp, SMS and phone calls from the afternoon of 10 July to get a comment from Anthony Matumba. Our communication went unanswered.)
Using race as a vector for the spreading of disinformation is nothing new. In March 2020, CNN reported on a Russian troll farm operating out of Ghana, which targeted African Americans in campaigns meant to stir racial tensions. North Macedonian click-farms exploited both sides of divisive issues, including race and immigration, during the 2016 US elections and steered the traffic to their revenue-generating websites.
Individuals are more vulnerable to disinformation when the topic confirms their pre-existing biases, including on race and identity. In addition, a study from April 2020 by researchers in China concluded that anger accelerates both the spread and reach of disinformation.
Exploiting racial tensions in South Africa
The exploitation of South African racial tensions was the central tenet of a campaign by the now-defunct British PR firm Bell Pottinger in 2016. The aim of Bell Pottinger’s campaign was to position the Gupta brothers as victims of “white monopoly capital” in an attempt to draw attention from media exposés regarding their own corrupt conduct.
The campaign eventually led to Bell Pottinger’s downfall, as more sordid details of the operation came to light. The PR firm set up blogs, websites and used traditional media campaigns to juxtapose black and white economic interests, framing “white monopoly capital” as the antagonist responsible for the economic hardship facing most black South Africans.
Disinformation campaigns leveraging racial tensions are especially effective in South Africa because of the economic fault lines between white and black South Africans. A disproportionate number of black South Africans are unemployed, owing to the legacy of apartheid and the African National Congress’s developmental failures.
To Helen back
This presented fertile ground for the @TracyZille Twitter account, created on June 29. At the time of publication, it had amassed nearly 30,000 followers. The name appears to be a homage to Helen Zille, the federal chairperson of the Democratic Alliance and herself a frequent cause of outrage on Twitter.
The @TracyZille account began posting racially provocative content shortly after it was created. It framed these tweets as “advice” offered by a white woman to her peers, generally based on some racist premise.
For example, the most engaged-with tweet published by the account suggested white men were preferable to black men on the basis of being more fit and that black women “throw themselves” at white men. It juxtaposed “hot and fit” white men with overweight black men, and claimed this was the reason black women preferred whites.
Another tweet urged white South Africans to avoid the effects of harmful hand sanitisers (which itself appears to be a Covid-19-related hoax) by sending their black domestic workers to shop for them. The tweet, in essence, normalised exposing black people to severe injury so whites can sit back and be served by “garden boys” and “maids.”
The account also posted several clickbait links featuring sensational stories. Some claimed South African celebrities were involved in sex scandals, or aspired to be white, while other tweets claimed to provide details on the South African Social Security Agency’s Covid-19 relief grant. All of these articles and headlines were designed to grab the eye.
A review of the @TracyZille profile revealed that the account frequently tweeted links to the same three websites. Of the 104 tweets by @TracyZille the DFRLab collected between June 29 and July 4, 61 contained links to one of only three websites: whatsappgroup.co.za, search67.com, and jobsfinder.co.za.
When visiting the sites, a user is bombarded with advertisements delivered using Google’s AdSense platform, which provides tailored adverts according to each visitor. This means that any traffic directed to any of these three websites would become monetised and generate revenue for the owner of the website.
Considering that the objective of this network appeared to be the amplification of these three websites, an investigation by the DFRLab tried to establish their owners.
Although the link has been removed from the website’s main page, a Contact Us page can still be found by manually changing the URL in the browser’s address bar. This revealed interesting contact information, including that the website is “a news publication” published by a company called Volongonya (Pty) Ltd.
Company registration details available from South Africa’s Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (CIPC) confirmed that this company exists and has a single director: Anthony Matumba. More detailed credit records and employment details confirmed Matumba’s address as that listed in the contact details of search67.com, and confirmed his employment by the Makhado Local Municipality in Limpopo.
Website registration details also linked Matumba to the other websites amplified by @tracyzille and the rest of the network. Since the page source code of the websites revealed the Google AdSense and Google Analytics codes associated with the three websites, the DFRLab could use these to make further connections.
Jobsfinder.co.za and Search67.com used the same Google Adsense identifier, along with two other websites. This means that the revenue generated by any of the sites would accrue to the same user account and is a strong indication that the sites are connected. Furthermore, WhatsAppgroup.co.za and Jobsfinder.co.za shared the same Google Analytics code, an identifier used by site owners to track visits and user analytics to their website.
Although domain registration information was limited due to GDPR restrictions imposed by domain registration authorities, historical registration data revealed that an email address, [email protected], was used to register jobsfinder.co.za the website. The same email address was used to register several other websites, some under the name of “Anthony Matumba.” The address provided on Website Informer matched the physical address indicated on the Contact Us section of Search67.com.
Matumba’s name, email address, and cellphone number appear on the EFF’s official website, where he is listed under the party’s “additional members”. Matumba is also featured on the People’s Assembly website, a repository for details of South African political party members, as the 43rd candidate on the EFF’s list of representatives for the northern province of Limpopo.
The author of the articles on search67.com, Abel Mushi, is a suspected pseudonym used by Matumba when posting to his site. A search of Matumba’s Facebook page shows he knew an “Abel Mushi” and thanked him for teaching him about computers in a Facebook post made on July 23, 2019.
These associations – the company details, the website registration, and AdSense information, and the sharing of links to these sites from his personal profile – place Matumba at the centre of these websites, and the ultimate beneficiary of any revenue they generate.
A larger network
The DFRLab also performed a broader analysis on the domain names linked to Matumba after it appeared that a network is involved in amplifying links to his websites. This relatively small network targets influential South African Twitter accounts by replying to their tweets with links to the three websites linked to Matumba.
To map the network, the DFRLab harvested tweets containing links to several of the websites traced to Matumba and performed a graph analysis on the collected data using Gephi.
What this revealed was a network, mostly propagated by the Twitter account @amogelangpaswa, targeting prominent South African Twitter accounts by replying to their tweets with links to Matumba’s websites. The idea, it seems, is to draw on the large followings of these accounts as a means to amplify the reach of the websites. The @TracyZille account was not included in the above dataset. It appears that the account has been “shadowbanned” by Twitter, which means it is excluded from appearing in search results.
Other accounts such as @MbaliZuma and @AuroraThulo also exhibited the same behaviour seen in the @tracyzille and @amogelangpaswa accounts, although to a much lesser extent. Both of these accounts also featured links to Matumba’s websites in their bio fields.
Performing a similar analysis on mentions of the @tracyzille account reveals a similar pattern, with @tracyzille often using the reply function to target prominent users in a similar manner to @amogelangpaswa, @MbaliZuma and @AuroraThulo. This appears to be part of a coordinated effort to amplify the websites in question, increasing traffic to the sites and consequently the revenue generated for the owner.
This appears to be part of a coordinated effort to amplify the websites in question, increasing traffic to the sites and consequently the revenue generated for the owner. The deployment of racist rhetoric as a lever to propagate disinformation serves to not only undermine legitimate concerns around race and identity, but also exacerbate existing racial tensions. This is of particular concern when an elected leader and government official, tasked with upholding democracy and the good of his constituency, wilfully participates in such conduct for narrow personal gain. DM
Jean Le Roux is a research associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in South Africa.
The DFRLab team in Cape Town works in partnership with Code for Africa.
Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.
This article was first published on Medium
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