South Africa

Op-Ed

Digital vigilantism: Like fake news, has real-world consequences

Digital vigilantism: Like fake news, has real-world consequences
Profile image (right): Twitter/@uLerato_pillay

While freedom of speech is clearly an imperative which must be jealously guarded, the potential for digital vigilantism to be hijacked in order to deliver disinformation campaigns cannot be understated. The likes of which we have seen in an attempt to influence elections on the continent courtesy of Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL Elections, and alleged Russian players, including Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Daily Maverick’s investigation into the Twitter parody account or “make believe character”@uLeratoPillay has shown the potency of social media in amplifying campaigns which might otherwise have a limited audience, and drawing in Twitter users as “unwitting foot soldiers” to peddle extremist narratives. 

@uLeratoPillay is not a real person, but rather a Twitter feed which pumps out material relating to the issue of xenophobia, around which similar minded twitter users can coalesce. It benefits from its anonymity and its powerful network of followers, who may share some of the sentiments expressed, but who become embedded in a community of extremes by virtue of their retweets.

Furthermore @uLeratoPillay is not a lone player – similar feeds are making their way into the Twittersphere to drive agendas and potentially sew discord. The infamous parody account Man’s not Barry Roux (@AdvoBarryRoux) is a case in point after it was revealed to be a feed of a Zambian man linked to a number of “fake news” stories. In the US, the now banned Twitter handle @QAnon is another example of the proliferation of such accounts driving specific agendas.

@uLerato_pillay: How the xenophobic network around #PutSouthAfricaFirst was born and then metastasised

In the South African context, xenophobia is a touchstone issue, ripe for social media manipulation, in the same way as gun control or other alt right narratives in the US have shone a spotlight on what some commentators have described as “digital vigilantism”. The term is somewhat contested, but broadly speaking, it’s characterised by the weaponising of social media platforms to enact shaming, hounding, “doxing” or collective denunciation of an individual or group of individuals in response to some form of perceived transgression. 

Propelled by a sense of collective outrage, digital vigilantism has the potential to deliver “real world” consequences, for instance revealing a target’s personal identifiable information online (exposing them to identity theft), or summoning a community to take retaliatory action against an individual. 

While most of the studies of digital vigilantism have focused on far-right narratives in the US, the identification of James Palmer as the man behind the killing of a famous lion in Zimbabwe named Cecil in 2015,  which led to him receiving death threats as part of what appeared to be a highly organised social media campaign, is a limited form of online vigilantism. 

Digital vigilantes have the potential to undermine traditional criminal justice institutions or paradoxically can be a powerful force to drive accountability.

In the US, the conspiracy theories circulated by the QAnon Twitter feed culminated in a gunman opening fire in a pizza restaurant in 2016, following the baseless theory that then presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton and her inner circle were running a child sex ring from that same venue.

Research, which the South African based Institute for Security Studies (ISS) is soon to publish, investigates the extent of digital vigilantism in South Africa and Kenya, and its potential to deliver “real world consequences”. Those consequences may include boycotts, physical attacks or witch-hunts. While some, perhaps understandably, fear that framing some extreme Twitter exchanges as “vigilantism,” is trampling on free speech, networked technologies and the power of big data can potentially shape how we behave as individuals, as electorates and as communities – without us even realising it. 

Given the interest in disinformation campaigns ranging from alleged election meddling by Russia to sewing confusion over Covid 19, digital vigilantism has the potential to be a highly effective tool. Combined with out of date or altered videos (known as deep fakes), it can be downright dangerous.

@ULeratoPillay is a powerful example of how social media platforms are able to amplify messages and co-opt others who reshare their messages into elevating often extremist narratives beyond what would otherwise be their real-world currency. 

uLerato’s Playbook: Smart, but not all that unfamiliar

ISS commissioned a data analysis of South African tweets relating to anti-foreigner sentiment, and Kenyan tweets revolving around the issue of police brutality. Whereas a large proportion of the South African tweets about foreigners were retaliatory, in the Kenyan case, many represented a call for the authorities to respond to police violence by attempting to shame them into action. Between January and May 2020, ISS sampled more than 9,600 tweets out of a total of more than 315,000. The findings were compelling. 

In South Africa, @uLerato Pillay emerged as a prominent influencer – reaching 48 million Twitter users during that period. That’s equivalent to standing on a soap box and engaging with the entire population of Venezuela or almost all the people who live in Malaysia. Surely a digital marketer’s dream? 74% of all conversations involving a range of Twitter handles associated with xenophobic or anti-foreigner content related to a re-share of another mention. That means that a handful of influential authors were able to quickly become elevated as “leaders” in driving specific views. @uLeratoPillay was one such leader. 

While freedom of speech is clearly an imperative which must be jealously guarded, the potential for digital vigilantism to be hijacked in order to deliver disinformation campaigns cannot be understated. The likes of which we have seen in an attempt to influence elections on the continent courtesy of Cambridge Analytica and its parent company SCL Elections, and alleged Russian players, including Yevgeny Prigozhin. 

Digital vigilantes have the potential to undermine traditional criminal justice institutions or paradoxically can be a powerful force to drive accountability.

Either way, the ability to translate virtual outrage into real-world action needs to be considered in the context of fake news, disinformation and cyber harms. One in 10 of all the South African tweets ISS analysed were characterised by a call to action. That has implications for law and order, criminal justice, and for international relations. It raises the question: Will the settling of scores between states or commercial rivals take place online with the unwitting complicity of Twitter users? DM

Karen Allen is a Consultant to the Institute for Security Studies on emerging threats and is a former BBC Foreign Correspondent based in East and Southern Africa.

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