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How the community that formed around the alleged RET ‘Guptabots’ migrated overnight to Zuma’s MK party

How the community that formed around the alleged RET ‘Guptabots’ migrated overnight to Zuma’s MK party
Jacob Zuma's MK party has swiftly gathered online support from the RET community, which took over from the Guptabots, according to a new report.(Photos: Ihsaan Haffejee / AFP, Gallo Images and Freepik)

A report by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change has described how the online RET community deserted the EFF and migrated en masse to the MK party.

The uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK ) party has garnered online support from the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) community, which took over from the infamous Guptabots.

This is according to a report by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC), released on Friday, 17 May.

 

MK was formally launched in December 2023 and its face is former president Jacob Zuma.

Read more in Daily Maverick: MK party manifesto and Zuma 2.0 — nationalise it all and scrap the Constitution

According to the report, the popularity of the MK party was detected by researchers at the CABC who track instances of online manipulation, as usage of MK party-specific hashtags appeared in large volumes overnight.

This led to questions about how a newly formed political party gained popularity “so quickly” when little canvassing had been done between its formation and the rise in the hashtag trends. Another question was about the authenticity of the rise of the party’s online presence.

By examining different online communities over different periods, the CABC found community links back to anti-Ramaphosa social media communities on X (formerly known as Twitter).

The report showed how the RET forces, which took over from the Guptabots — led by anonymous accounts — showed a level of support for the Economic Freedom Fighters before the launch of MK.

“At this point, the community switched wholesale over to promoting the MK party,” read the report. Through analysing online communities, the authors found a new community “rapidly” formed during December 2023. Zuma formally announced his alliance with MK on 16 December 2023.

In the months since, the party has had leadership disputes and ongoing court cases between it and Zuma’s former political home, the ANC.

“The newly formed community, the ‘MK party community’, appeared to have an immediate surge in interactions and engagement online, backed by a large number of followers,” the CABC report reads.

“For anyone who has created a social media account, they would know that growing engagement and followers organically is not a quick nor a straightforward task.”

According to the report, the MK party appeared to have mobilised by co-opting wholesale a community that existed for years — a community defined by anonymous accounts which rose to prominence in the wake of the Guptabots.

Some of its key members have been accused of supporting the July 2021 unrest and of having links to geopolitical players known to meddle in other countries’ social media landscapes and elections, such as Russia. According to the CABC report, “This raises issues of authenticity”.

Discourses and payments

The report questions whether the posters are getting paid. “If so, should such benefits be disclosed to the public, much like party funding is made public or how paid influencers are required to disclose that they are advertising products they endorse?”

According to the report, “When it comes to backing political candidates and parties, authentic communications and clear statements of financial gain should be equally, if not more important than when advertising a product or a service, given the potential to influence election outcomes.”

According to the CABC report, “It is both difficult to explain and understand how it is that a group that was frequently making use of EFF hashtags, including one that was a call to register to vote for that party, could flip allegiances overnight and drive the campaign hashtag of another political formation, urging their same network to vote for another party.

“This behaviour also points to a need to further understand the extent of the relationship that exists between the EFF and the MK party and what the implications of that relationship may be.”

Impact on elections 

According to the report, the authenticity of online political representation is important to determine, particularly in the lead-up to the elections.

These spaces or communities require close attention from electoral bodies, civil society and other aligned organisations that seek to preserve the integrity of democratic institutions.

“This is even more important where democratic elections and electoral outcomes are concerned … the authenticity of the MK party mobilisation is of importance to understand because the stakes with this strategy are extremely high in that they have the potential to influence voting outcomes.”

The CABC, Daily Maverick and City Press are currently involved in legal proceedings initiated by Sphithiphithi Evaluator (@_AfricanSoil), Thabo Makwakwa (@ThaboMakwakwa), Modibe Modiba (@mmodiba10) and Izwe Lethu (@LandNoli) who seek to review and set aside two previous reports: Online RET Network Analysis; and The Dirty Dozen & the Amplification of Incendiary Content during the Outbreak of Unrest in South Africa in July 2021.

The CABC, Daily Maverick and City Press seek to have the proceedings set aside with costs. DM

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