South Africa

OP-ED/ANALYSIS

DisInfo Central: The evolution of MK’s ‘big lie’ conspiracy theory about SA’s 2024 elections

DisInfo Central: The evolution of MK’s ‘big lie’ conspiracy theory about SA’s 2024 elections
Former South African president Jacob Zuma (centre), Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, his daughter (left), with an unidentified uMkhonto weSizwe (MK party) member at the Independent Electoral Commission national results centre in Midrand on Saturday, 1 June 2024. (Photo): Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Months before the elections, the MK party began attacking the credibility of the Electoral Commission of South Africa, laying the groundwork for the ‘big lie’ theory.

In the lead-up to the 2024 South African elections, a conspiracy theory alleging vote-rigging gained traction on social media platforms.

This phenomenon is not unique to South Africa. Questioning the integrity of elections is a tactic seen globally, notably used recently by figures such as Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. It undermines public trust in democratic processes at critical moments when countries are most vulnerable.

Confusingly, the party claiming the elections were rigged, the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party, emerged as the biggest winner, while the incumbent ANC, the biggest loser, has accepted the results. In addition, although few expected the ANC to do quite so poorly or the MK party to do quite so well, polls before the elections had predicted outcomes broadly aligned with the final results; which again makes one wonder why the MK party started laying the groundwork to contest the outcome even before South Africans went to the polls.

The genesis of the conspiracy

Months before the elections, the MK party began attacking the credibility of the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), laying the groundwork for the “big lie” theory. Their rhetoric intensified, culminating in an incident three days before the vote where MK party members stormed an IEC facility, coinciding with a surge of online claims of tampering.

Independent Media began undermining trust in the IEC through its publications on the same day.

The conspiracy narrative reached a new height when former president Jacob Zuma hinted at potential violence if the IEC announced the results without addressing the rigging claims. This statement further inflamed tensions and drew more attention to the alleged conspiracy. The IEC downplayed this threat, insisting that all discrepancies were a normal part of the process and were unlikely materially to alter the outcome of the elections. It went ahead with the announcement of the results.

Given the long lead-up time, the MK party’s actions appear to be a concerted effort to destabilise South Africa’s democratic institutions, either to increase their bargaining power in the subsequent coalition discussions or to outright subvert South Africa’s democracy for the party’s ethnonationalist agenda.

The spread of the conspiracy

Our systems have picked up more than 150,000 posts about the IEC and vote rigging on social media, which have created widespread uncertainty around the “big lie”. 

The below network captures a sample of those conversations on X (formerly Twitter). These are users discussing terms like “IEC” together with words like “rigged”, “stolen”, etc. It highlights the main users promoting the conspiracy, who tend to fall into two camps: MK party-aligned users, and EFF “ground forces” accounts, which include known paid, anonymous influencers like @AdvBarrryRoux.

big lie conspiracy elections

The conspiracy metastasises

Initially, the EFF did not engage with the conspiracy. They accepted the election results. However, EFF “ground forces” on X are not happy with the party’s stance and began promoting the rigging narrative after the possibility of an ANC-DA coalition emerged. Prominent EFF influencers shared and amplified these claims on X.

big lie conspiracy elections

Indeed, if they get enough momentum, the conspiracy will take on a life of its own and other parties will have no choice but to be swept up in it and forced to take sides. This is how anti-democratic forces work. There is some indication that this is now occurring as other parties sign up to a call for a recount. While it is the right of parties in a democracy to voice their legitimate concerns about elections, it is not clear to what extent these concerns are legitimate. 

What we do know is that the MK party has been working for a long time to seed distrust in the IEC and the outcome of the elections. Will it succeed?

In conclusion, the current situation presents a significant challenge to South Africa’s democracy. The orchestrated efforts by the MK party, bolstered by influential commentators and media, aim to sow doubt and discord. The outcome of this “big lie” conspiracy theory and its impact on South African politics is uncertain. DM

Kyle Findlay runs a data science team whose day job is to help brands and organisations understand why people do what they do through data. He also loves South Africa and tries to use data to make sense of the complex and often confounding country that we live in.

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