South Africa

SOCIAL MEDIA ANALYSIS

Tracking Russian influence into the online South African political discourse

Tracking Russian influence into the online South African political discourse
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: Contributor / Getty Images) | Disinformation.(Photo: iStock)

The Institute for Security Studies reported earlier this year that Russia considers countries in Africa an easy target for disinformation campaigns because of the weak checks and balances of new democracies. The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies also reported in 2024 that there were 25 documented disinformation campaigns across sub-Saharan Africa, six of which involved Kremlin-linked actors.

Working with data consultancy Murmur, researchers at the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) considered the vectors through which pro-Russian content may be entering South African online conversations to understand Russian influence in the South African political discourse. 

The full report is available on the CABC’s website.

The report revealed that three prominent X/Twitter accounts appear to be behaving as information bridges or conduits between a Russian online community and communities that regularly interact on topics of political and social importance in South Africa. 

These are @insightfactor, @mmodiba10, and @IOL. @mmodiba10, whose account name reads “Modibe Vladimir Modiba” is a former columnist for Independent Media, the home of Independent Online (IOL), and co-founder of The Insight Factor. 

russian influence online discourse

The South African communities that Russian Embassy accounts within the red community primarily interact with.

The bridge accounts, @insightfactor and @mmodiba10 appear to be interacting predominantly between the Russian community and members of the MK Party community. 

The MK Party community was previously the RET (Radical Economic Transformation) community, which morphed almost overnight into the MK Party community based on a shift in the interactions with core and other members of the RET community. 

To test the strength of these bridge accounts, the three handles were removed from the dataset. The moment these bridges were cut off, it was clear that the Russian community drifted far away from the MK Party community and the other communities found in the X/Twitter political discourse.

russian influence online discourse

Network map with ‘bridge accounts’ removed.

The nature of the interactions

The information flow based on the interactions between accounts in the Russian community and the South African communities that discuss topics of a political nature online is largely one-directional. 

Accounts like @embassyofrussia and @mfa_russia appear to tag accounts like @IOL, perhaps to draw their attention to particular posts. The choice of who these pro-Russian accounts tag regularly raises questions. 

If, for example, the intention of @embassyofrussia and @mfa_russia is to draw the attention of media houses to their content, why do they frequently interact with @IOL and @insightfactor instead of engaging all media houses in South Africa?

russian influence online discourse

Sample post from @embassyofrussia where @IOL is tagged.

Their choice of which news media outlets to tag is further called into question by an account that positions itself as an “alternative media analysis platform”. This is @morningshot1. 

Although @morningshot1 claims in their bio that they are a “Media and News company”, most of their content appears to be aimed at President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ruling ANC. 

@RomanCabanac appears to be the face of @morningshot1, frequently posting videos of him expressing his ideas on socioeconomic issues that South Africans face. 

Ahead of the 2019 elections, Cabanac was the second candidate for the Capitalist Party of South Africa, which won no seats in Parliament and does not appear on the 2024 ballot. 

russian influence online discourse

Sample post by ‘alternative media analysis platform’ @morningshot1.

The content that is being driven by key accounts in the Russian community is worth noting as it could point to a trend in pro-Russian narratives that seek to position Russia as a saviour in instances of global conflict and crises.

Take, for example, a post shared on 6 March 2024 by an account that has a link to a PayPal profile that uses the face of former Syrian Major General Issam Zahreddine, who is accused of killing American journalist Marie Colver. 

The post reads: “Free supplies of Russian grain to Burkina Faso, Zimbabwe, Mali, Somalia, Eritrea and the Central African Republic have made a significant contribution to the fight against hunger in Africa.”

This statement positions Russia as an altruistic blesser of starving Africans. 

However, Russia has contributed to the ongoing food crisis in Africa following the Russia-Ukraine war and Russia’s subsequent backing out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative that would have afforded safe passage of grain to impoverished countries in Africa.

In another post, @embassyofrussia in South Africa boasts about a state-of-the-art health facility that Russia established in Mariupol in January 2024.

In the comments to this post, Alex Kokcharov reminds viewers that in March 2022, it was the Russian Air Force that had bombed a hospital in the same city, killing four people and injuring 17.

russian influence online discourse

Sample post by @embassyofrussia positioning Russia in a positive light even though it was the cause of death and damage to a hospital in the same city two years ago.

Accounts in the Russian community appear to be interacting with accounts that are frequently tagged and mentioned in the South African community on both ends of the political spectrum.

On the one hand, these accounts frequently interact with @jacksonhinklle and @morningshot1, accounts that are considered pro-Trump-Maga libertarians popular with right-wing and conservative white South Africans. 

On the other hand, extreme left-wing populists in the MK Party community are interacting with key bridge accounts that find themselves in the Russian community. 

This commonality between extreme left and right-wing proponents is explained by the “Horseshoe Theory”. 

The report explains that “voters who find themselves in this horseshoe-shaped continuum, where ideologies like nationalism and populism thrive, are considered vulnerable to political mobilisation towards radical extremes.

The CABC and Murmur have established three clear vectors of Russian influence in the online South African political discourse: 

The first vector is by interacting with key accounts that act as bridges between communities.

The second vector is using the Embassy and other popular accounts to drive positive messages about Russia, especially where Russia was the cause of the conflict or issue.

The third vector appears to be a stimulation of interaction on both ends of the political spectrum, engaging with, and appealing to, both far-right, conservative white audiences and those on the left of the political spectrum who align with an agenda for Radical Economic Transformation. DM

The report, Russian Twitter Influence in South Africa: The Kremlin’s in the System issue by Murmur and the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change is available here. DM 

Disclosure: 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 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. These proceedings are opposed and the CABC, Daily Maverick and City Press seek to have them set aside with costs.

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Vic Mash says:

    So its wrong when done by Russia but ok when done by European colonisers, most probably this piece was sponsored by NATO

    • Charl Engelbrecht says:

      Viva OTAN

    • Charl Engelbrecht says:

      The subtle difference between the two is that Russia wants to expand its ‘federation’ by force, whereas all of the members of NATO applied voluntarily and were strictly vetted before joining, many of them joining because of their first-hand experience of the delights of de-facto Russian rule.

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