'Anti-immigrants disinformation before polls a red flag'

CABC warns xenophobic insinuations undermine election integrity

Koena Mashale Journalist
South Africans need to be aware of populist sentiment against foreigners stoking fear
South Africans need to be aware of populist sentiment against foreigners stoking fear
Image: Brenton Geach

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) has cautioned against the growing anti-immigration sentiments and the spread of disinformation as the country gears for the polls.

CABC, a non-profit organisation that has been tracking anti-immigration sentiment online for the past four years, said its has noticed this growing pattern, which poses a danger to mislead voters and undermine election integrity. It said a selection of instances of xenophobic disinformation on social media that are linked to political parties illustrate the dangers of disinformation in the context of elections.

“A xenophobic stance by political leaders not only harms individuals and communities but also has broader societal, economic and diplomatic repercussions,” said the CABC in its  latest report. 

According to the CABC, between November 1 2023 and January 10 2024, there were 609,738 online discussions about immigrants in SA on X (Twitter). From January 1 to November 5 2023, there were 2,930,184 mentions of immigrants online.

CABC said it’s important for South Africans to be cautious during this time with months away from elections. “South Africans need to be aware of populist sentiment against foreigners stoking fear, which is used to support a political party promising employment or safety.

"Such narratives are often based on distorted and incorrect information. Voters need to be cautious about political parties making false promises,” said CABC analysts, who didn’t want to be named for fear of victimisation. 

The analyst said the findings should inform voters of possible manipulation.

“Such sentiment stokes hatred and has previously resulted in violence and the death of foreigners. Loss of life can be the ultimate result of disinformation campaigns. Apart from elections, we all have to ensure that the information we share on social media is not harmful or infringes the rights of others,” said the analyst.

CABC said during a two-and-a-half-month period, each account averaged 7.5 mentions about immigrants in SA, indicating high engagement.

“Most users typically post only once a month. The peak volume of mentions was on January 5, focusing on xenophobia, tribal tensions, border control and illegal document sales. On December 7, there were 12,446 mentions covering various topics. These included open borders between Zimbabwe and Botswana, deportation of migrants, and illegal immigration in SA. Discussions also touched on corruption in the home affairs department,” said the analyst.

According to the report, the most mentioned handles in the conversation are @gaytonmck (Patriotic Alliance SA leader Gayton McKenzie) and the party's official page @onsbaizanie, followed by @advobarryroux, a satire account. Also mentioned are @effsouthafrica, @myanc, and the department of home affairs.

Among the reported themes were immigration, xenophobia and diplomatic relations. Headlines discuss issues with illegal immigrants, xenophobic attacks, and SAs engagement with Zimbabwe. Also concerns about foreign workers impacting the job market were mentioned while criminal activities linked to illegal immigrants and border security were also highlighted.

“The analysis looks at important political parties/groups in SA. The ANC has the most mentions (2,332), followed by Put South Africa First (1,442), Operation Dudula (1,355), ActionSA (803), and Patriotic Alliance (71). Despite lower mentions, the ANC has the biggest reach at 68% (23,128,467). Operation Dudula and Put South Africa First focus on immigration, while ActionSA talks a lot about Herman Mashaba. The Patriotic Alliance urges people to vote for them,” read the report.

Consistent with previous reports, the most prominent hashtags are #operationdudula (1,548 mentions) and #putsouthafricansfirst (1,469 mentions).

“The conversation surrounding #OperationDudula primarily revolves around the groups activism against illegal immigration, notably targeting Zimbabwean foreigners and alleging complicity from authorities.

"Criticisms are directed towards political figures and parties, particularly the ANC, EFF, DA, and Julius Malema for their perceived failure to address the issue effectively. Similarly, #PutSouthAfricansFirst advocates for prioritising the interests of South Africans over foreigners,” said the CABC.

The report noted that the Patriotic Alliances actions at the Beitbridge Border recently, which were captured in viral videos, shouting abahambe (they must go away), have sparked further controversy, raising questions about the legality and political motivations.

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