Sunday Times E-Edition

Social media bots and trolls help to keep us in the dark

WILLIAM GUMEDE ✼ Gumede is associate professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of ‘Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times’ (Tafelberg)

Social media bots, paid online influencers and trolls have been used against renewable energy. They peddle conspiracy theories defending coal, oppose Eskom reforms to fight corrupt procurement deals and attempt to portray former executives and board members responsible for the company’s failures as its saviours.

This is clearly a co-ordinated disinformation campaign. In South Africa social media is used to spread conspiracy theories, falsely claiming that many problems, including load-shedding, poverty and crime, are caused by external forces, “white monopoly capital”, the “Stellenbosch Mafia”, “Western imperialists” or foreigners.

The campaign also blames democracy, South Africa’s model constitution and the mainstream media for the government’s failures, rather than the government’s corruption, incompetence and lack of care. They have consistently tried to discredit the Zondo commission into state capture and the work of former public protector Thuli Madonsela. They attack critics of their views — if black — as puppets of wealthy whites or of foreign Western countries.

The Zondo commission recommended that former

Eskom executives Brian Molefe, Matshela Koko and the whole 2014 Eskom board be prosecuted for “rampant corruption” under their watch, which has contributed to load-shedding.

Social media platforms in South Africa, as in many other countries, have become a medium to spread fake news, to artificially whip up public opinion for or against a particular issue, to defame individuals with opposing opinions, and to spread hate against certain groups. Bots spread disinformation and hate speech by repeatedly reposting information that has not been validated — and then replying and commenting on it to make it appear credible.

Social media bots amplify opposition to renewable energy, push for the use of controversial energy sources such as powerships and nuclear, and call for the return of discredited former Eskom executives to again run the entity. Social media trolls share the disinformation to wider groups.

These bots and paid influencers often attribute criticism of government corruption, incompetence and lack of public service delivery to foreign-funded agents. They accuse democracy, the constitution and the mainstream media of being anti-development, anti-black and anti-stability, saying

De Ruyter, during his time at Eskom, lost the public opinion war against bot-based and paid online influencer attacks on his management

the immediate solution to economic, social and security problems would be to remove these alleged root causes of South Africa’s troubles. Trolls, to generate comment and followers, pass on this disinformation.

The conspiracy theories are replicated across multiple accounts, using the same wording, and reposting and liking each other’s content. The posts are often timed simultaneously.

In this way they appear to reflect a groundswell of popular opinion, while in fact manufacturing public opinion. Former Eskom CEO André de Ruyter was often attacked on social media based on his whiteness, rather than his competence. Similarly, public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan is often attacked based on his ethnicity, not his decisions, competence, or leadership.

De Ruyter, during his time at Eskom, lost the public opinion war against bot-based and paid online influencer attacks on his management. Online influencers are not just promoting products, but are now paid to spread disinformation and personal attacks. But they do not declare that they are paid for it.

Public opinion, particularly among black youth, is increasingly determined online. This is accentuated by large numbers of South Africans imbibing — unchallenged — limited received beliefs from homes, communities and traditions. This is reinforced by a lack of democratic civic education, wider individual reading, and engagements with different communities and exposure to ways of imagining reality that go beyond the village, township or colour view.

It is particularly damaging in South Africa with its largescale illiteracy, where many young people — and mature people — do not read widely or at all, getting their “news” solely from distorted online sources and forums.

Outdated neo-Marxist-Leninist economic ideologies and conspiracy theories blaming Western powers and local and international capitalists for self-inflicted ANC government and leadership failures abound on social media. As do popular but misguided beliefs that all black people must conform to the same views, and that black solidarity means supporting any black person, solely based on their colour rather than competence.

Social media bots, paid online influencers and trolls have undermined energy policy by slowing down the rolling out of renewable energy, defaming those who want to do good, damaging the fight against corruption and undermining the ability to hold Eskom executives and boards accountable. They have directly contributed to delaying the resolution of South Africa’s crippling power outages.

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