On 13 July 2021, Carl Niehaus, a confessed fraudster and political figure aligned to former President Jacob Zuma, tweeted a fairly innocuous-looking photo of a store being looted. This tweet took place during a series of riots that had broken out across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. These riots were later characterised by the government as an attack on democracy and an attempted insurrection.
However, this photo was far from innocuous. A reverse image search of this photo clearly identifies it as San José del Cabo, Mexico, on 15 September 2014. This photo was taken after Hurricane Odile had wreaked havoc in Mexico and people were scrambling for food and basic necessities.
Subsequently, Niehaus removed the tweet in question, but Twitter did not suspend or remove his account. The repeated failure of Twitter to act responsibly has created a political and polity discourse in which facts are optional, fake news rampant and truth altered to a half-truth and post-truth reality.
This is not the first time in South Africa’s recent memory that it has had to deal with the manipulation of Twitter.
Bell Pottinger and its bot army with links to the political leadership in the ANC and its structures were exposed after a series of investigations on how they used Twitter bots to manipulate public discourse — and an EFF councillor created a fake Twitter account with race-baiting tweets and amassed a very big following.
This is nothing new for Twitter specifically and social media generally. In contemporary times instances of the manipulation of the Twitter platform and the inaction of Twitter itself is commonplace. In Bolivia during the attempted coup of the democratically elected President Evo Morales, it is now reported that apparently 70,000 fake accounts were created to fuel discontent with the Morales regime.
More than 17,000km away from Bolivia in Myanmar, a genocide was incited on another social media platform, Facebook. The manipulation of Facebook’s algorithm amplified pro-military propaganda even with the military’s human rights abuses and violence placed on record. Such was the manipulation of the platform that Global Witness termed Facebook an “Algorithm of harm” and none other than the United Nations acknowledged the role of social media in the violence as “significant”.
Even so-called mature democracies such as the US and UK have had their elections manipulated by social media platforms as exposed by Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie in his book Mindf*ck. Wylie further argues that the digital age introduces a new form of warfare: “Information warfare has evolved in similar fashion. At first, no one could have imagined that Facebook or Twitter could be battlefield tools.”
In its infancy, social media was touted as a tool for good, the ability to instantly connect to anyone across the globe and share stories of voices that are typically excluded from traditional media and societal discourse. This opportunity was not lost to activists and community organisers who were able to use social media to communicate the messages of a movement quicker than ever before to a global audience.
This also served as a critical mobilising tool. Critical contemporary social justice initiatives/protests/movements have successfully used social media to their advantage, some examples of these include the #BlackLivesMatter, #FeesMustFall and #MeToo movements.
Initially, to respond to movement building on social media, governments had instituted communication blackouts that aimed at “impeding attention, discouraging people from participation and trying to deny protesters control over the narrative”. However, as observed during the Egyptian Revolution this actually drew more attention and mobilisation towards the course of the protests.
Over time, governments have thus had to modernise quickly and become more sophisticated in responding digitally, and politicians are now aware of ways to manipulate voters and society through using social media. Therefore, it has become more difficult for activists to mobilise and organise using social media, as they are policed through the use of digital surveillance. But governments have also used their own troll armies.
A report from the Oxford Internet Institute claims to have found evidence in 81 countries of social media being used to spread computation propaganda and disinformation about politics.
Troll armies are used to generate trends in support of a specific political campaign, but also to threaten harm to activists and opponents of the state. Furthermore, women are subjected to greater amounts of abuse from trolls on social media. The abuse often manifests in misogynistic, patriarchal, sexist and hyper-sexualised ways. Although platforms like Twitter have policies aligned to international human rights standards, an investigation by Amnesty International revealed that social media platforms are “inadequately enforcing these policies when women report violence and abuse”.
The governance challenge
This manipulation of social media has been called the greatest threat to democracy globally. Founder and chairman of eBay Pierre Omidyar identified six ways that democracies are threatened by the manipulation of social media. These include:
- Echo chambers;
- Polarisation and hyper-partisanship;
- Spread of false or misleading information;
- Conflation of popularity with legitimacy;
- Political manipulation, manipulation, micro-targeting and behaviour change; and
- Intolerance, exclusion and hate speech.
Hence the 2021 reality is not of the initial optimism of social media being used in a progressive inclusive way, but rather in its abuse and manipulation in a very material way, characterised as an age of “industrialised disinformation”.
The emerging challenge is how the future of social media looks.
For their part, social media companies have shown a greater urgency to act. For example, in June 2020 Twitter removed 32,242 “core” accounts and more than 150,000 “amplifier” accounts. The removal of these accounts is distinct in its link to state-led (mis)information operations.
However, it is naive to believe in the nobility of social media companies in self-regulating themselves. They have their own profit motives in maintaining a large unverified user base, the US-centric view on standards and norms of interaction and communication which are not globally applicable and finally, the swiftness in action is not the same for the global south and the urgency is far greater to act when the threat is in the US, as opposed to the reactive post-event self-regulation that is synonymous with social media companies and the global south.
However, there is greater education available for common users on how to identify fake news and how to verify information. However, expecting individuals to be immune from manipulation by those with power, resources and digital weaponry is a dangerous expectation and so far out of sync with the reality of social media platforms in 2021.
The role of the state
The final actor to then consider is the state and its role in social media governance and regulation. In South Africa, the Bill of Rights is explicit on the limitations on the freedom of expression, the Cybercrimes Act further entrenches the criminality of creating or forwarding messages that are harmful in nature due to their inaccuracy. This, however, is limited in terms of governing large-scale manipulations in terms of bots and troll armies, and also the responsibility of social media platforms is ignored.
Last, as observed locally and globally, political actors with resources and imagination are capable of manipulating social media for their own political aims. In this scenario, there is no interest in creating a more inclusive and transparent social media space as a perverse relationship is established between the platform and the political powers.
If it is not feasible for social media platforms to regulate themselves, for users to discern between false, real and manipulated information themselves, and finally to rely on the power and authority of the state to create a conducive and safe social media environment, we need to think of a solution.
This problem is complex, devoid of any scientific or socially acceptable solutions on a local or global level. However, the threat is too drastic to democracies, and as importantly to lives, for us not to think and make a plan for. DM/MC