How South Africa’s MK Party continues the Guptabot legacy

How South Africa’s MK Party continues the Guptabot legacy

Today we release a research report in collaboration with the Centre for Analytics and Behaviour Change on how former South African president, Jacob Zuma’s, MK Party arrived on X/Twitter fully formed overnight (see City Press’ and The Daily Maverick’s coverage of the report).

In reality though, the MK Party’s presence did not emerge out of nowhere. They did not need to bootstrap a community from scratch. Instead, the MK Party co-opted an existing Radical Economic Transformation (RET) community that has been in existence, and has raised red flags, since its creation around the fake, sockpuppet “Guptabot” accounts in 2016. While this could just be a simple re-branding exercise, it’s worth interrogating for a few reasons, including the fact that this community has a legacy of using disinformation, the speed of the change-over is unprecedented, this community is uniquely (for a political party) propped up by anonymous influencers, and its average users make extensive use of Russian imagery and references.

Jacob Zuma and the RET faction of the ANC’s first attempts at inauthentic influence operations occurred in 2016 when hundreds of fake accounts attacked critics of Zuma and the Gupta Brothers. Source

After the Guptabots were ‘switched off‘ when Jacob Zuma’s faction lost at the December 2017 ANC Elective Conference, we never heard from them again.

“Daily tweet volumes generated by suspected RET sockpuppet accounts pre- and post- the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president.” Source

The RET community that had sprung up around the Guptabots persisted though. Cast to the periphery of South Africa’s political debates, the RET community slowly made it’s way back to the centre of our discussions, led by a coterie of ideologically single-minded, highly active, anonymous influencers, some of whom have since been accused of stoking the 2021 July Unrest in which more than 300 South Africans were killed (although they were acquitted due to lack of evidence).

“Where we are now – The above network maps were generated by combining dozens of datasets relating to political and social issues on South African Twitter in each year. The RET community (in green) started off on the periphery of these collective conversations but has moved to the centre over time, representing a prominent competing voice in South Africa socio-political discussions.” Source

The current report focuses on the RET/MKP community discussing South African socio-politics before and after the launch of Zuma’s MK Party in mid-December 2023:

Our analysis of community stability pre and post the launch of the MK Party shows that the RET Community became the MKP community (see the very first cell, top-left below):

Most telling was the almost-overnight switch from the RET community demonstrating some form of affinity and support for the EFF to wholesale adoption of the MK Party. This chart captures that switch well; from pro-EFF to pro-MK Party hashtags:

The MK Party community’s narrative is now amplified by a swarm of accounts showing clear allegiance to Russia through the inclusion of Russian flags, locations written in Cyrillic, references to the Wagner PMC, usernames that incorporate “Vladimir”, and so on. This is not to say that these accounts are run from Russia. Indeed, many of them appear to be real South Africans. The jury is still out on who controls the narratives and content they share and amplify though.

While mostly owned by South Africans, MK Party community members have a penchant for including Russian references in their profiles. The jury is still out on who controls their posting activity or content strategy.

As South Africa heads to its 2024 National Elections in 2 weeks time, it’s important that the electorate is aware of these red flags pointing to potential narrative, and election, manipulation. For more details, read the full report.

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