South Africa

OPERATION HATRED

Putting xenophobia first: Analysing the hashtags behind the Twitter campaigns

A group of disgruntled Alexandra, Johannesburg residents during a campaign to remove foreign street vendors from pavements and stalls on 13 February 2022. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)

Over several years, one hashtag has become prominent on social media for rallying behind a campaign calling on government and the private sector to prioritise local jobs for South Africans over foreign nationals, while blaming immigrants for crime, among other social issues.

#PutSouthAfricaFirst was once spearheaded by @uLerato_Pillay, who was unmasked by the DFRLab in July 2020 as Sfiso Gwala, a dismissed member of the South African National Defence Force.

The messages shared by “#PutSouthAfricaFirst”, which has morphed into #PutSouthAfricansFirst and inspired others such as #WeWantOurCountryBack and #ForeignersMustGo have indicated attempts to sow antagonism between South African citizens and foreign nationals – and to divide South Africans into opposing camps.

Analysis of these hashtags over an 18-month period reveals how they were used to seed weeds of social discord among the blooms of democracy, especially in the midst of the election process.  

xenophobia twitter
Evolution of the top four hashtags within the ‘#PutSouthAfricaFirst’ conversation between 21 August 2020 and 31 January  2022.

In August 2020, the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change found that the @uLerato_Pillay account had deployed online disinformation tactics and had infiltrated socially divisive content into more than 50,000 Twitter accounts. 

The CABC’s analysis of the #PutSouthAfricaFirst conversation between August 2020 and February 2022 indicates that elements of disinformation associated with the hashtag continue.

For example, a recent post that purports to show the degradation of a building in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, uses deceptive images of a building in Venezuela: 

Another recent example of misinformation posing as regulation uses a hashtag with similar connotations to turn sentiment against foreign nationals:

In the past two years the #PutSouthAfricaFirst social media conversation, related hashtags and keywords have received more than 2.5 million mentions from more than 250,000 authors. 

The conversation peaked between September and November 2020 and from November 2021 to February 2022, with a long lull in volume between these peaks:

xenophobia twitter
The volume of the entire ‘#PutSouthAfricafirst’ conversation between 18 August 2020 and 13 February 2022 (weekly).

In the first 2020 peak, some advocates within the #PutSouthAfricaFirst conversation accused the media of turning a blind eye to crime and immigration, and unfairly labelling the movement as xenophobic.

The second peak in 2020 centred on allegations of increased human trafficking – prompting police to warn the public against sharing fake news about human trafficking.

After nearly 11 months of decreased mentions within the #PutSouthAfricaFirst narrative, conversation began to peak towards the first week of November 2021, coinciding with the local government elections.

Some Twitter users also expressed support for ActionSA for its stance against illegal foreign nationals during this period. 

By mid-November 2021, another peak emerged with the circulation of online posters encouraging South Africans to join a #NoToZimWorkpermits march to the Union Buildings on 24 November. 

Patriotic Alliance leader Gayton McKenzie’s tweet on the need to deport foreign nationals was a driver of the peak in the first week of January: 

The highest peak was on 18 January, when the Patriotic Alliance visited shops owned by foreign nationals and the EFF announced it would monitor the ratios of South Africans to foreign nationals in businesses.

While new versions of the initial hashtag have evolved and others have emerged, the core message of the #PutSouthAfricaFirst conversation has continued to:

  • Call for jobs to be prioritised for South African citizens
  • Blame crime on foreign nationals
  • Criticise government for lack of law enforcement

Here are some examples:

Jobs

Crime

The law

Having started with crime and unemployment to justify calls to #PutSouthAfricaFirst, supporters of this campaign have started to draw other factors in to drive their narrative.

Among these are that “South Africa has its own problems” and that calls to #PutSouthAfricaFirst are not different from what fellow African countries are doing for their citizens.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s post about prioritising Zimbabwean citizens for jobs elicited outrage from supporters of #PutSouthAfricaFirst, who used the post to call on the South African government to do the same.

Throughout the past two years, supporters using the hashtag have denied accusations that it is xenophobic in any way, claiming that it is being patriotic. References that the rich were detached from calls to “#PutSouthAfricaFirst” have also made their way into the narrative. 

The three key focus areas of the conversation have also served to introduce many related – and unrelated – issues into the narrative.

For example, while some are calling for undocumented and illegal foreign nationals to leave the country, others are calling for ALL foreign nationals to leave, regardless of whether or not they are considered legal. 

Despite the deactivation of the @uLerato_Pillay account, whose messaging had affected more than 50,000 accounts by 2020, some supporters continue to place the account at the heart of the entire “movement”.  The campaign’s hashtags continue to top the trending list on a regular basis. 

The call on government to prioritise South African citizens has also made its way into the political sphere, with the African Transformation Movement, Patriotic Alliance and ActionSA using the hashtag. 

Earlier this year, the Patriotic Alliance visited a number of foreign-owned shops across the country. 

South Africans also witnessed the EFF, a party that once called for porous borders, announce a drive to “check” the employment conditions of South Africans to foreign nationals in a number of businesses.

“The visit will consist of an interaction between CIC Julius Malema and the management of these restaurants, to check their labour policies, staff compliment (sic) and ensure that our fellow Africans are not exploited and locals are employed to a satisfactory level.”

The topic spiked on social media:

xenophobia twitterThe party’s visit to shops was met with mixed reactions on Twitter, with some accusing Malema of attempting to hijack the #PutSouthAfricaFirst “movement” for political gain, while others criticised him for interfering with business operations.

During the week of 17 January 2022, mentions containing EFF within the entire conversation generated more than 9,549 mentions, compared to the 6,540 mentions of the Patriotic Alliance from the three weeks beginning 10, 17 and 24 January.

Some of the EFF’s previous peaks could be explained by the party’s stance on a borderless Africa in January 2021, its condemnation of the alleged xenophobic attacks in Soweto in June 2021 and its performance in the local government elections in November 2021.

During the 2021 LGE, ActionSA stood by its statement on the deportation of undocumented and illegal foreign nationals – giving it the highest peak within the entire “#PutSouthAfricansFirst” conversation.

Despite distancing itself from the movement behind the hashtag way back in 2020, the party has received support from advocates of #PutSouthAfricansFirst and related hashtags. 

Analysis of the narrative around the #PutSouthAfricaFirst, #PutSouthAfricansFirst and many similar-minded hashtags over the past two years indicates how real social issues of employment, crime and illegal immigration were used to steadily build traction. 

These issues became part of political discourse as election campaigning heated up. 

As the democratic process designed to foster social cohesion unfolded, attempts to sow social discord on social media gathered momentum. DM/MC

About the CABC: The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) is a non-profit organisation established to track and counter mis- and disinformation, fake news and divisive and polarising rhetoric that is promulgated online to undermine social cohesion, democratic integrity and the stability of nation states.

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