South Africa

ROAD TO 2024 ELECTIONS OP-ED

Influence-for-hire trend is distorting public discourse, poses threat to foundations of democracy

Influence-for-hire trend is distorting public discourse, poses threat to foundations of democracy
A man reads news on social media platform X (formerly Twitter) in Peshawar, Pakistan, on 21 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Bilawal Arbab)

As election day approaches, a Daily Maverick investigation monitoring trends in political discourse has revealed that the buying and selling of influence on the social media platform X is becoming a significant trend that requires scrutiny. This article is the first in a series that will delve deeper into the commodification of influence in South Africa.

* This article has been updated with ActionSA comment

While most South Africans rely on traditional media to help them decide which political party to support on Wednesday, 29 May 2024, millions of users on the social media platform X, including journalists and policymakers, are influenced by trending topics without realising it.

These users trust the content the influencers share, unaware that much of it is part of carefully crafted, paid campaigns. 

Behind the scenes, political parties and interest groups invest millions to manipulate public discourse, distorting the democratic process and shaping voter perceptions with endorsements that are anything but authentic.

The commodification of influence is a growing industry characterised by manipulating public opinion through paid endorsements by anonymous mega influencers on X. 

Unlike accounts held by celebrities, politicians and popular content creators, who can be held accountable, anonymous mega influencer accounts are difficult to track. 

The rise of influencer marketing

Influencer marketing began as a niche segment within digital advertising and has rapidly transformed into a formidable industry. Influencers – individuals with substantial followings on social media platforms such as X, Instagram and TikTok – have become pivotal assets for brands and political entities. South Africa, with its vibrant social media landscape, is no exception. 

According to Statista, influencer advertising in South Africa is rapidly growing, with ad spending in this sector forecast to reach US$27.14-million in 2024. Brands are leveraging local influencers to reach diverse audiences authentically and effectively. 

This growing industry, which ranges from commercial brand endorsements to covert political operations, is distorting public discourse and posing a significant threat to the foundations of democracy. 

Our investigative team, combining data science with traditional journalism, has meticulously mapped out this complex ecosystem. Influencers in South Africa range from “mega influencers” with millions of followers to “nano influencers” or “foot soldiers” with smaller yet highly engaged audiences. These influencers wield considerable power over public opinion, making them essential tools in the arsenals of both commercial and political strategists.

Global context and local implications

The commodification of influence is not unique to South Africa; it is a global phenomenon where paid endorsements increasingly shape socio-political conversations. This trend was notably prominent during the 2022 Kenyan elections and is also evident in countries such as Indonesia, Nigeria and Ghana. 

The Institute of Security Studies’ report on the 2022 Kenyan elections found that each candidate’s election discussions were significantly distorted through paid influencers. In Indonesia, for example, the term “buzzer culture” has been coined to describe this commodification of social media influence, recognising it as a powerful tool in shaping public opinion.

In South Africa, like in the rest of the world, this phenomenon contributes to the polarisation of political discourse. Anonymous influencers, often operating from the fringes of the political spectrum, play a significant role in this process. These influencers, many of whom remain unknown to the broader public, inject highly emotive and polarising content into the conversation, driving engagement at the cost of social cohesion.

Karen Allen, an independent consultant and senior researcher for the Institute for Security Studies, emphasises the crucial role of information integrity in democracies. 

“Democracies depend on information integrity and on the ability of its citizens to make informed decisions based on verifiable facts and claims. Previously, news and current affairs content traditionally came from traditional media, where professional journalists were trained to uphold a code of practice. In the social media-driven information landscape where speed and scale are ‘king’, it is even more important for citizens to have access to information that they can trust to enable them to make informed decisions,” she said.

Election day resources

In South Africa, traditional media play a crucial role in accountability and upholding freedom of expression. However, in many other African contexts, eroding professional journalism and reliance on social media as a news source can lead to unfiltered, inauthentic content, with real-world consequences.

The impact on elections

The commodification of influence extends beyond economic implications; it is a political force with profound consequences for democratic processes. Political parties and interest groups increasingly turn to influencers to shape public opinion and drive electoral outcomes. 

In 2021, an article from Daily Maverick revealed that paid influencers and automated accounts, known as sock puppets, were behind a social media movement targeting major South African banks, such as the #RacistBanksMustFall campaign. These actors were mobilised to amplify anti-bank sentiments, suggesting an organised effort to manipulate public perception.

Our own analysis showed similar trends where influencers were used in the recent coordinated attacks in favour of ActionSA against the Democratic Alliance (DA), and efforts to promote the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) Party have shown a clear trend.

Data analysis of political conversations on X.com shows that a preponderance of potential paid influencer accounts is grouped within the ActionSA and EFF communities, although there is also a notable presence within the #PutSouthAfricansFirst / Operation Dudula xenophobe community and the MK Party community (previously known as the Radical Economic Transformation, or RET, community). However, while it is clear who benefits from these campaigns and the data shows the party accounts that paid influencers appear to congregate around, there is no evidence that ActionSA paid for the campaigns which attacked the DA and supported them.

Michael Beaumont, ActionSA’s National Chairperson, responded: “ActionSA refutes the insinuation that it has paid influencers attacking any political party and notes with regret both the lack of evidence offered to substantiate this claim or a right of reply being afforded in the initial publication of it.

ActionSA has run a positive campaign based on our offer to the South African people. The publication of these vague and generic allegations two days out from a general election is irresponsible and regrettable from a media outlet as respected as The Daily Maverick.”

influence

These campaigns often operate under a veil of secrecy, with political actors seeking plausible deniability by routing their efforts through advertising or public relations agencies. Our analysis reveals a spectrum of influence campaigns. 

The spectrum ranges from formal brand endorsements, such as those from major fast food and vehicle brands, to covert political campaigns to manipulate public opinion and undermine opponents.

The mechanics of influence campaigns

The operational mechanics of these influence campaigns are sophisticated and multi-layered. Typically, a client – a brand or political entity – approaches an influence broker or an agency.

The agency then briefs several mega influencers, who subsequently delegate the task to their network of nano influencers. These nano influencers, often compensated via e-wallet or airtime, amplify the campaign message across various social media platforms.

A public relations executive who asked not to be identified said she also used anonymous mega influencers for her clients in the entertainment industry. “I just give them the brief and payment and tell them that I want this and that to trend; how this happens is up to the influencer,” she said.

This hierarchical structure ensures broad dissemination while maintaining a veneer of grassroots authenticity. These influencers’ credibility and extensive reach can significantly sway public opinion, making them powerful tools for those who can afford their services.

A mega influencer we tracked down who asked not to be named because he had contracts and signed non-disclosure agreements with several brands said a lot of manoeuvring happened behind the scenes. 

He said he had a marketing company with several influencers. A campaign can cost anywhere from R80,000 to R250,000. 

“I always demand payment upfront or at least half,” he said. “Once I receive the payment, I contact five other mega influencers on WhatsApp and tell them about the campaign. They then instruct their networks to make the campaign trend. The real people who work hard to make the campaign trend are the nano influencers, who get paid R100 via e-wallet or airtime. After retweeting, the nano influencers post a screenshot on the WhatsApp group and get paid.”

The influencer admitted that foot soldiers often were not given any information about the campaign, just instructions to retweet and like. 

When asked if he had been involved in a political campaign in the current election season or if he had helped other mega influencers who had been approached by political parties, he didn’t answer. However, he said he also accepted smaller amounts for tweets promoting an artist or a song. 

The human faces behind the influence

To fully comprehend the impact of this trend, it is essential to look beyond the data and recognise the real people behind the influencers and their followers. Mega influencers with more than a million followers are not just digital entities but individuals with significant sway over their audiences. 

Their endorsements and opinions can shape perceptions and decisions, influencing everything from consumer behaviour to voting patterns.

Equally important are the foot soldiers – the nano influencers – who execute these campaigns on the ground. These individuals, often motivated by financial incentives, play a critical role in disseminating campaign messages. Their stories and motivations provide valuable insights into the functioning of this industry.

Why should you care?

While using identifiable individuals like celebrities and politicians in influence campaigns is not new, the rise of anonymous influence merchants presents a more insidious challenge. These shadowy figures operate behind the scenes, leveraging their anonymity to drive agendas without accountability.

Anonymous influence merchants exploit socio-economic vulnerabilities to recruit individuals for their campaigns. For instance, even a small amount of money, such as R100, can persuade someone to promote a message without questioning its validity or ethical implications. 

This dynamic is comparable to hiring people to participate in political protests, where individuals may join without understanding or supporting the cause simply for a meal, T-shirt or monetary compensation.

The anonymity of these influencers allows them to cast a wide net, making it nearly impossible to track or hold them accountable. Unlike public figures, who face scrutiny and must maintain their reputations, anonymous influencers can spread misinformation and polarising content without repercussions. This unchecked power distorts public discourse and can lead to a misinformed and divided society.

Manipulating trends and narratives

Another troubling aspect of anonymous influence merchants is their ability to manipulate social media trends. By referencing trending topics or using popular hashtags, they can insert their messages into broader conversations, often in irrelevant or misleading ways. This tactic amplifies their reach and muddies the waters of public discourse, making it harder for individuals to discern genuine content from paid propaganda.

Influencers often work in groups to get a trend started by posting about that trend, or using a specific hashtag, early in the morning when fewer people are awake and X’s trending algorithm is more sensitive to their activity, as was the case in the anti-DA, pro-ActionSA campaign on the 3 May 2024.

Gaining influence and engagement

Anonymous mega influencers often engage in a practice known as “engagement farming” to grow their followers. This strategy involves posting highly engaging content designed to maximise likes, shares, comments and overall interaction from followers. 

These influencers create widely shared and discussed posts by tapping into trending topics, sensational news and emotionally charged content. Their increased visibility attracts new followers and boosts their credibility and reach.

Significant spikes in their follower count often correspond to the use of certain hashtags. For instance, hashtags related to popular TV shows, socio-political events, racial matters, alleged controversies involving celebrities and societal expectations can drive substantial engagement. 

Engagement farming often includes using polls, provocative questions and viral challenges to encourage user participation. The more interactions a post garners, the more likely it is to be promoted by the platform’s algorithm, further expanding the influencer’s audience. This continuous engagement cycle helps influencers maintain and grow their follower base while ensuring their content remains prominent on social media.

Follower farming

“Follower farming” is another common technique anonymous influencers use to inflate their numbers. This practice involves acquiring followers through various means, including automated bots or purchased follower services. These methods artificially boost follower counts, making influencers appear more popular and influential than they genuinely are.

Bots are programmed to follow accounts, like posts and even engage with content to mimic real user behaviour. This artificial engagement can deceive genuine users into following these influencers, believing they are part of a large, active community. Additionally, some influencers participate in follow-for-follow schemes, where they follow large numbers of accounts with the expectation that many will “follow back”, further inflating their follower counts.

“Follow trains” are another method for quickly growing a follower base. Influencers encourage their followers to follow a specific list of accounts in exchange for a follow-back. These lists often include other influencers and participants who agree to follow each other mutually.  

An exposé by amaBhungane in 2020 showed how follow trains were used to create the current xenophobic #PutSouthAfricansFirst community on X, which is tapped into by the African Transformation Movement, the Patriotic Alliance and ActionSA. This demonstrates the extent to which these techniques can negatively distort a country’s online discourses.

Follow trains create a network of unnaturally interconnected users who artificially inflate each other’s follower counts. While this can quickly increase numbers, it often results in a superficial level of engagement, as many followers are only there for the reciprocal follow rather than genuine interest in the content. 

This creates echo chambers, where manufactured opinions gain undue prominence, leading to increased societal division and scepticism towards authentic media reports​. This results in hyper-reactive communities and radicalisation, causing normal people to support extreme causes and become increasingly galvanised against new and different points of view.

According to the mega influencer we spoke to, the most preferred way is to promise people money – from R50 to R250 – for a follow or a like. 

“The trick is to say I’ll give, for example, R100 to whoever retweets and follows me by 3pm, and then you allow people to follow you throughout the day. Later on, you just send a screenshot of a payment without actually paying the money to anyone.”

The influencer also boasted that this is how you recruit people, especially foot soldiers, because once they follow him, he sends them direct messages and adds them to his WhatsApp group.

The role of regulations and legal frameworks

Although several legal and ethical frameworks exist to guide digital influencer marketing in South Africa, enforcement remains a significant challenge.

According to an article published in October 2023, Nicolene Schoeman-Louw, a technology specialist and lawyer, emphasised that disclosure and transparency are crucial aspects of influencer marketing in South Africa. Many people may not be aware, but there is a Social Media Code of Conduct that has been published by the Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB).

In addition to the code of conduct, influencers and marketers are also governed by the Code of Advertising Practice, which is based on the International Code of Advertising Practice.

This mandates influencers to disclose their partnerships with brands and means that any sponsored content or endorsements should be clearly labelled as such, using terms like “sponsored”, “ad” or “paid partnership”.

The Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 as amended states that advertising must not contain deceptive, false or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers or business practices. Influencers should exercise caution when creating and promoting content. Additionally, influencers should only endorse products or services they genuinely believe in and have personally used. 

Despite these regulations, enforcement is often lax, and many influencers and brands consistently fail to comply with the requirements. This lack of enforcement undermines the effectiveness of these regulations and allows unethical practices to persist.

However, as the industry navigates this new territory, the Interactive Advertising Bureau South Africa’s influencer marketing committee has released a white paper to guide South African brands, agencies and publishers in their influencer marketing strategies. In his opening remarks on the white paper, Pierre Cassuto highlighted that influencer marketing has evolved beyond being just a buzzword and has become a powerful strategy embraced worldwide. 

The resource covers key concepts such as strategy development, campaign execution, measurement and legal considerations. Cassuto emphasised that influencer marketing is a transformative force that has redefined brand-customer engagement and created a new landscape for advertising.

Conclusion

As anonymous influencers navigate seamlessly between brand promotions and political endorsements, they significantly distort political conversations and undermine trust in democracy. Many of them do not adhere to established industry guidelines, opting instead for opaque practices that further erode public trust.

As the countdown to election day begins, it is crucial for the public to remain vigilant. Awareness of these covert operations, where they are most likely to occur and the potential manipulation behind political attacks is essential.

Taking political content, especially that disseminated through social media, with a degree of scepticism can help mitigate the undue influence of these orchestrated campaigns. The onus is both on regulators to enforce transparency and on individuals to critically evaluate the information they consume, ensuring a more informed and resilient democratic society. DM

Murmur is a specialist data consultancy that focuses on social media research. 

Tabelo Timse is a freelance investigative journalist with a strong background in media. Her career includes notable positions such as her tenure at the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism and her role covering the SADC region for AFP, the Herald and SABC. Timse holds a Master’s degree in Journalism from Nelson Mandela University.

Kyle Findlay is a social media researcher focusing on social issues that affect democratic societies globally. He has a special interest in the role that influence operations play in fragmenting our societies.  

Dr Aldu Cornelissen is a researcher and data scientist with a special interest in natural language processing and social network analysis. He applies these skills to help his clients and research collaborators understand the complex conversations that happen on social media.

This investigation was funded by a grant from the Henry Nxumalo Foundation.

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Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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