The December 2017 ANC54 national elective conference, held in Johannesburg from 8-14 December 2017, marked a milestone for South Africa. By voting in Cyril Ramaphosa as the new president of the ANC, we took a step towards recovering from the massive state capture project that has slowly bled the nation dry for the past decade.
Ramaphosa’s election drove a significant spoke in the wheel of the Zuma-backed “Radical Economic Transformation” (RET) campaign, designed to keep state capture on track under the then-potential leadership of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (a.k.a ‘NDZ’).
While Dlamini-Zuma intentions appear slightly more honourable than most in the RET faction, had she come into power she would likely have found herself hemmed in by Zuma’s lieutenants intent on maintaining the status quo. The same now holds for Ramaphosa who faces a daunting battle to maintain independence while surrounded in every sphere of the state by Zuma’s cronies – including members of the State Security Agency, the National Prosecuting Authority, the Hawks, the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the South African Police Service, and various state-owned enterprises (for a breakdown of how these institutions have been captured, read Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keepers and revisit our previous posts on state capture here and here).
The 54th ANC National Elective Conference marked a significant turning point in this saga. Years of corruption by some and resulting corrosion of the moral standing and function of the organisation came to a head at the conference. The race between Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa was framed as a battle between maintaining the corrupt status quo versus a renewal of the ANC.
One million tweets
To uncover what the majority of South Africans were talking about over the elective conference, I turned to Twitter. Although Twitter is not representative of the broader South African public it tends to attract those with access to technology and have something to say. It can also highlight shifting trends in our country, so it’s interesting to see what these people think.
By sourcing all tweets that mentioned hashtags such as (but not limited to) ‘#ANC54′, ‘#NDZ’, ‘#CR17’ ; the names of the politicians involved; related terms such as ‘Nasrec‘ and so on a dataset was created consisting of 925,913 tweets generated by 160,490 unique Twitter users between the evening of Sunday 10 December and the afternoon of Saturday the 23rd.
The chart below shows that a few thousand tweets were generated daily about the election and conference in the week before, with volumes increasing during the actual time of the conference. The chart also shows that discussion volumes shot through the roof on the day that the new ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was announced.
Looking at the overall volumes is interesting, but they only serve to confirm what we already know. People talked about the conference, and the results of the highly contested presidential election, unsurprisingly, caused quite a stir.
More interesting is to look at which politicians were mentioned the most, as this gives us a rough idea of the momentum behind each of them.
In the chart below we see that Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma (along with current president, Jacob Zuma) were each mentioned a similar number of times in tweets ahead of the election announcement on 18 December (the black bars), indicating just how close the election was. That said the data does not show the extent to which candidates were mentioned in positive or negative terms.
Unsurprisingly, mentions of Ramaphosa shot through the roof after his election (grey bars). Discussions around secondary players such as Ace Magashule, David Mabuza and Senzo Mnchunu also mostly happened after the announcement of the presidential post as subsequent ANC National Executive Committee members were announced amid some controversy.
It’s interesting to note that President Zuma received the most mentions overall, highlighting the extent to which this election was less about individual candidates, and more about the Zuma versus Not-Zuma factions. The president has become a highly divisive figure, and most conversations seem to be around his faction in staying in power, or being given the boot ̶ with Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma as proxy figureheads for each camp.
The next chart (below) pits Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma against each other by showing how often each candidate was mentioned in the lead up to, and during, the conference. It offers an idea of the extent to which each candidate was winning hearts and minds on Twitter at the time.
In the week prior to the conference, mentions of Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma were fairly even. However, once the conference started, the chart indicated a clear shift in the mentions of each candidate. Word leaking from the conference seemed to indicate that the winds were blowing in Ramaphosa’s favour and this is reflected in the proportion of mentions that each candidate received after the conference started.
At the start of the conference on Friday the 15th, Dlamini-Zuma appeared to have a slight edge in terms of mentions on Twitter. But this lead quickly dissipated on the 16th and 17th, culminating in Ramaphosa taking the lion’s share of mentions even before the final results were announced.
I interpret this as implying that a Ramaphosa victory was considered more likely once delegates found themselves in the same venue where they could exchange their views. This confidence then leaked out onto Twitter ahead of announcement of the final vote.
When looking at the communities discussing the ANC54 conference, we see a similar breakdown to what we’ve seen in past analyses. Main community splits were between the ANC/RET communities, Black/Woke Twitter (many of whom are EFF-supporters), and journalists and political commentators (likely where most liberals sit). As usual, and as testament to the strength of our Fourth Estate, the mainstream media sits in the middle of these groups, indicating at least some level of non-partisanship (with the exception of the Gupta-owned ‘news’ properties which sit firmly within the RET section of the ANC community).
The below image summarises the main groups involved at a slightly higher level:
A few things stood out for me in this network:
The official @MyANC account is surrounded by RET-related accounts such as @ANN7tv, @The_New_Age and @MzwaneleManyi, indicating that they appear to be reading from the same song book, turning this into a de-facto Zuma-RET-ANC community, rather than an independent ANC community. Their propaganda strategy is clearly one of preaching to the converted to build a strong base, rather than trying to acquire new adherents from other communities.
The EFF had a particularly strong presence through the party-aligned @AdvBarryRoux account (it’s a witty parody account that also espouses EFF-aligned positions) which gives it a strong beachhead position into the Black/Woke Twitter community.
The DA did not have a prominent position in this discussion at all.
So, which were the largest communities and who was doing most of the talking? Here’s a breakdown of the top communities based on how many users fell into each and how vocal each community was:
As we can see from the above, most of the larger communities, with the exception of the Woke/Black Twitter 1 community, were particularly vocal in this debate. South Africans really were thrashing things out on Twitter, which is a sign of healthy debate (although the question remains as to whether all of the narratives at play were based on legitimate ideological positions, as we know that the RET narrative was at least partly crafted by British PR firm, Bell Pottinger, mixing just the right amount of fact and populism).
The RET propaganda campaign
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this election for me was the role that propaganda, fake news and disinformation played in the election. I’m happy to say that this role appears to have been minor, specifically for ANC54. Similarly, Amanda Strydom (ANCIR), Chris Roper (Code for Africa) and Ben Nimmo (Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab) have observed how international bots were hired off the black market for use in the propaganda campaign, but appear to have had little effect.
This does not show the full picture, however, as the propaganda campaign has been successful in defining the narratives that were debated during the conference ̶ the popularisation of concepts such as ‘white monopoly capital’ and ‘radical economic transformation’, for example. For the most comprehensive summary of the propaganda campaign’s activity to date, take a look at ANCIR’s Manufacturing Divides report and TimesLive’s series on the Gupta Fake News Empire. Also, I’ve described their activity over time in numerous posts, for example, including here, here and here.
Given the stakes involved, and the past tenacity with which the alternative narrative that protects the state capture project has been pushed, we already knew that the Gupta-Manyi-RET-BLF-associated sockpuppet army would be out in force on Twitter. In the end though, the ANC54 conference served to define the limits of its influence.
The combined footprint of the sockpuppet accounts (based on a partial list of suspected accounts( so this probably doesn’t quite capture the full extent of their footprint), only amounted to about 5,200 tweets (broken up into 1,495 original tweets and many retweets, often by the sockpuppet accounts themselves) or 0.6% of tweets in the dataset.
The sockpuppet army ramped up its activity around the election as the chart below shows, generating between about 450-750 tweets a day when including retweets and @mentions of their tweets (again, based on a partial list of suspect accounts). However, activity dropped off precipitously in the days following the announcement of Ramaphosa as the winner, giving some evidence to the focus they put on campaigning for Dlamini-Zuma, and the dejection they must have felt after her loss.
But who was responding to (or the target of) their activity? The chart below takes the interaction network from earlier and highlights in blue the Twitter users that interacted with one of the suspected sockpuppet accounts in our partial list (side note: you can ignore @TumiSole below; he retweeted a single relatively benign tweet from a suspect account).
Unsurprisingly, we find that the majority of the users that retweeted and @mentioned the sockpuppet accounts, as well as the sockpuppet accounts themselves, were found in the RET and ANC communities. These communities include the official ANC account, the Black First Land First party, formerly Gupta-owned and now Manyi-owned media properties, ANN7, etc. Clearly their narrative was tailor-made for the ANC community, again indicating that they were shoring up their ideological base ahead of the vote rather than trying to convince new converts.
Finally, what message(s) were the sockpuppet accounts pushing? A quick and dirty way of finding out is to take the 1,495 tweets authored and amplified by the suspected accounts and sticking them into a word cloud. The chart below shows the top-50 most-used words in tweets, authored or amplified via retweets by suspected sockpuppet accounts. The larger the word, the more often it was used in those tweets. This gives us a very rough summary of what they were saying:
Reading a word cloud is a bit like reading tea leaves in that it’s a fairly subjective process. Be that as it may, this is what I take out from the word cloud above:
Firstly, many known or suspected Zuma-Gupta-RET collaborators feature highly such as the BLF party; BLF leader, Andile Mngxitama; partisan news blog, Black Opinion; businessman, prime RET proponent and Progressive Professionals Forum (PPF) president, Mzwanele Manyi; Manyi’s media properties like ANN7 and The New Age; and, online RET activist, @adamitv. In addition, ANC bodies known to have been captured, such as the ANC Youth League and ANC Women’s League (see here and here) feature prominently. Also mentioned are targeted journalists and organisations such as Peter Bruce, Ferial Haffajee, Adriaan Basson and SaveSA.
Secondly, in terms of their agenda, one of the main goals was to push convicted criminal, businessman, speaker and politician, Gayton McKenzie‘s book, #KillZuma. From what I can gather, the book appears to be a poor man’s tit-for-tat attempt from the RET camp in response to Jacques Pauw’s The President’s Keepers and Adriaan Basson & Pieter du Toit’s Enemy of the People: How Jacob Zuma Stole South Africa and How the People Fought Back although precious little has been written about it by reputable sources beyond these articles which shed some light on the book’s content: article 1 | article 2 (you can also watch this ANN7 interview with the author which you obviously need to take with a pinch of salt given the source).
Here are some of the tweets that were either authored by and/or retweeted the most by the suspect accounts to give you an idea of the propaganda campaign’s agenda:
It was good to see the minor impact that the RET sockpuppet army had on the discussions during the period around the conference (although their damage has already been done). This begs the question of whether the army is still effective given that many users on Twitter are now aware of their machinations and many prominent Twitter users that may have interacted with them in the past now seem to have distanced themselves? Regardless though, I am sure we will see their methods continue to evolve as we head into the 2019 elections, continuing to expose the RET faction’s hand through their heavy-handed social media campaign strategies.
Thus ends our exploration of the ANC54 conference which has hopefully set our country on a new trajectory away from state capture, although we still have many challenges to overcome…
Kyle Findlay heads up a data science team for a large, international market research firm. This post originally appeared on his personal blog, Superlinear, and is republished here with the permission of the author.