To the best of my knowledge, South Africa has not experienced as obvious an attempt to affect our national discourse as that of the Guptabots, which started in mid-2016 and ran up until their faction lost at the ANC 54th electoral conference at the end of 2017.
However, a small but concerted campaign came to my attention recently courtesy of Andrew Fraser. The campaign had echoes of the Guptabots’ approach in its use of sockpuppet accounts (fake personas controlled by real people) to share infographics and to attack journalists, although there is nothing to say that they are actually related.
This campaign focused on promoting beleaguered AYO Technology Solutions Limited, which has close links to Independent Media Group’s head, Iqbal Survé (he holds a large, indirect stake in AYO).
First, let’s set the context: At the time of its listing on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 2017, AYO was lauded as the largest black-owned ICT firm in the country. However, it didn’t take long before skeptical commentators started questioning the listing price of the firm, suggesting that it might have been artificially inflated (see for example here, here, here and here, as well as AYO’s response to the first article, news that they are suing the PIC and coverage of their latest audit).
An artificially inflated stock price would have been newsworthy enough given the degree to which the company fêted itself, but the real kicker was that the South African government’s Public Investment Corporation (PIC) – which invests civil servants’ retirement funds, among other things – was a major investor in the company and many believed that something dodgy was going on with that deal. The PIC has come under intense scrutiny in the past year for various investment deals, with the AYO deal being one of the more prominent ones hanging over its head.
Indeed, a commission of inquiry, known as the Mpati Commission, was set up to look into the PIC’s dealings in recent years. It’s during that commission’s work at the beginning of this year that we pick up the story…
AYO representatives and Survé appeared before the commission in January 2019, and it appears that someone thought it would be a good idea to create several pro-AYO accounts on Twitter in order to push a counter-narrative to the one emerging from the inquiry. The people behind these accounts sought to undermine the witnesses at that commission and deflect attention away from AYO’s dealings with the PIC.
They demonstrated an intimate knowledge of AYO, the PIC and the commission, and they were prodigious in their output. They were also, however, short-lived. Twitter quickly picked up on their suspicious behaviour and suspended them.
Let’s take a look at what they said and how they tried to deflect attention away from AYO’s dealings with the PIC…
Identifying the Ayobots
As already mentioned, the accounts came to my attention via Fraser who did most of the work here. I’m really just documenting things for posterity. The accounts in question were @NewsForYouSA, @Anticor88877557, @RootoutCorrupt1, @FinanceGoverna1, @InvestorNy and @latest_sa. With the exception of @NewsForYouSA, they have all since been suspended by Twitter.
This image below captures Fraser’s own comments on how he identified the sockpuppet accounts, which positioned themselves as anti-corruption crusaders in order to attack the commission’s witnesses and deflect attention away to other scandals, and as business and investment news accounts to talk up AYO:
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