Disinformation & democracy: battle lines drawn on social media

06 October 2021 | Story Natalie Simon. Photo GovernmentZA. Read time 9 min.

Social media has become an important political battleground, one where lies cause real-world harm. A group based at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Graduate School of Business (GSB) is working to defend South Africa’s democracy online by tackling disinformation, polarising rhetoric and hate speech head-on.

The advent of social media brought a new hope for politics: that it would usher in an age of direct democracy where citizens could meet in virtual town halls – spaces where all were equal – to debate policy and hold politicians to account. 

This hope was never quite realised, and what the world is experiencing instead is the manipulation of social media tools to forward particular agendas. Agendas that often run counter to the good of democracy and society. The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC), an organisation incubated in the UCT GSB, is working to intervene in that space, going beyond research to tackle disinformation – lies deliberately constructed to forward a particular agenda – polarising rhetoric and hate speech where it’s happening.

“There is enormous potential in social media,” says Stuart Jones, Director of Projects at the CABC. “And this potential has at times been tapped for broad-based, anti-authoritarian movements, such as the Arab Spring of 2010 and the more recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.” 

But the same tools can be, and are, used anti-democratically to foment social division.

Social media: a tool for populists and demagogues

For a case study of the dangerous use of social media, one need not look further than the 2016 United States (US) election and former President Donald Trump’s campaign, which relied heavily on targeted social media advertising. 


“Now you are talking to your electorate via social media but there is nothing stopping everyone else from also talking to your electorate, through seemingly innocent accounts.”

“Tens of millions of dollars were spent micro-targeting particular personality types on social media,” says Jones. “The nature of these platforms means it’s no longer necessary for a campaigning politician to have distinct policy positions, instead they can push out multiple associated policy positions for different audiences because you can target them separately.”

This strategy has been replicated by demagogues and populists the world over. It has forever changed the way that power is contested, particularly in democracies. 

Another change social media has brought about is by offering a space for political interference from external forces, particularly anti-democratic ones.

“Now you are talking to your electorate via social media but there is nothing stopping everyone else from also talking to your electorate, through seemingly innocent accounts.”

This too played out in the 2016 US election, which saw Russian interference: the strategy was to deliberately polarise the electorate, seeking to radicalise the right and undermine the Democratic Party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Closer to home, South Africa has also experienced external interference: the Bell Pottinger scandal of 2016 revealed that public relations firm Bell Pottinger, based in the United Kingdom, had been employed by the Gupta family to divert attention from their corruption and wrongdoing by inflaming racial hatred and sowing dissent in South Africa through social media.


In response to this growing anti-democratic trend on social media, the CABC launched a project called DemocracyYethuKaofela (SeSotho for “democracy: it takes us all”). This broad-based project, in collaboration with DefendOurDemocracy and other activist groups, comprises research and analytics, and also an intervention team of content creators and dialogue facilitators, who work to address dangerous and inaccurate narratives. This involves a multi-pronged strategy of engaging with some accounts, reporting those that are spreading hate speech or inciting violence, and countering disinformation with the truth.

Sowing division on social media 

“What we tend to see on social media in South Africa is narrative manipulation and social division on a grand scale,” says Jones. South Africans got a taste of the potential harm of divisive and incendiary rhetoric in July this year when rampant looting, destruction to property and violence flared up in key hotspots around the country in response to the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court.

“Our team was closely monitoring the conversation in the lead up to Zuma’s arrest,” says Jones. “So, we had already established a number of accounts that were manipulating the narrative.”

But, on 9 July 2021, the civil unrest was accompanied by a massive increase in incendiary content online. The CABC team followed the relevant hashtags and noted over 1 million related tweets went out in the space of four days. To contextualise this, the hashtags and search terms followed were being used a few hundred times a day in the build-up to Zuma’s arrest – then between the 8th and the 15th July were used between 110 000 and 310 000 times a day. 

“While this was taking place, we had our dialogue facilitators online, trying to calm things down. We were also reporting the incendiary accounts to Twitter to get them shut down, through Media Monitoring Africa’s Real411,” he says.

In the aftermath of the insurrection, the CABC began unpacking what had taken place and reported the primary accounts behind the violence to the media and government. It published a report on the top 12 accounts, which were tweeting at a rate of between 900 and 1 600 tweets a day. One account, when it was active, was tweeting on average every 45 seconds. To put it in perspective, the global standard is that 72 tweets per day (one every ten minutes for twelve hours at a stretch) are considered suspicious, and over 144 tweets per day as highly suspicious.

“These were amplifier accounts that were retweeting content from content-generating accounts. ” says Jones. “As a result, when you entered that space on social media you were just confronted by a wall of very similar content that gave the impression that this rhetoric was the sum total of the conversation.”

This, he says, is a classic tactic of the organised networks that run these kinds of socially divisive campaigns on social media.


“We live in a very unequal society, a society of terrible poverty and injustice. These conditions make it very easy to divide us.”

Since then, most of these incendiary accounts have been shut down, and the South African Police Service have charged some of those behind the accounts. The CABC have also deployed around 80 volunteer dialogue facilitators to respond to the harmful disinformation that was spread and to shift the nature of the conversation.

“Once we go in and start asking questions and talking, others often join in,” he continues. “Others, who were too scared to speak up, feel empowered. This helps to move the conversation to more constructive spaces.

“We have seen a dramatic change. It is much calmer and more constructive, and we feel our work played a role in that.”

2021 municipal elections

With the announcement of the 2021 municipal elections for South Africa later this year, the CABC is already responding to disinformation and dangerous rhetoric on social media.

“This is particularly pertinent in these elections because municipal battles are much smaller than national and provincial, and a few thousand votes can make all the difference to the smaller parties.”

Jones says they have begun seeing xenophobic sentiment being whipped up by smaller parties. Other divisive and dangerous topics include attacks on the judiciary and the rule of law.

Some of these attacks set about undermining organisations that manage the elections so the parties can call them unfair later down the line.


“There are forces trying to undermine our democracy. Forces that want to hang on to power at any cost and, frankly, stay out of jail at any cost. And the cost of that could well be our democracy.”

“There are forces trying to undermine our democracy,” says Jones. “Forces that want to hang on to power at any cost and, frankly, stay out of jail at any cost. And the cost of that could well be our democracy. This is why we need to be really vigilant and defend it.”

Advocating for democracy

Additional goals of DemocracyYethuKaofela are to encourage people to get involved in their democracy and to raise awareness of what living in a constitutional democracy means. The team’s hope is that a better understanding might make people more resilient to the disinformation and social division that exists on social media.

“We live in a very unequal society, a society of terrible poverty and injustice,” says Jones. 

“These conditions make it very easy to divide us. So, without papering over the cracks, we seek to speak out about what democracy means and why it is important, so we can fight against those who will use the divisions for their own personal and often profiteering agendas.”

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