Risks of digital influence: lessons for South Africa’s 2024 election

Research in Kenya shows that a rigorous professional legacy media is vital to counterbalance malign players online.

As South Africa heads for general elections in 2024 and the governing African National Congress (ANC) attempts to maintain its dominance, online influence could play a significant role. The country has over 25 million active social media users, and rapidly advancing artificial intelligence (AI) tools. But who will be doing the influencing, and how?

An Institute for Security Studies (ISS) seminar on the impact of digital influence on Africa’s elections, flagged several areas for scrutiny. The event took lessons from Kenya’s 2022 presidential poll, based on new ISS research. Kenya represents a ‘new frontier in influence operations,’ said journalist, editor and seminar moderator Ferial Haffajee. Those tasked with defending constitutional democracy in South Africa must not ignore this.

The research highlighted the ‘commodification of influence’ and ‘influence as a service’ as worrying. Digital influencers sold their services to political paymasters offering the highest price. Influencers earned thousands of US dollars for creating hashtags, crafting Twitter (now X) identities and using inauthentic engagement techniques to amplify reach.

Accounts masquerading as individuals were common. So too was astroturfing – where an influencer uses a highly curated network to achieve campaign goals. Often network members were unaware that they were a ‘product’ being sold on to achieve influence or reach. Among the influencers ISS spoke to, at least one said they had helped shape the narrative of several African elections for years.

Given touchstone issues in South Africa such as race, gender and class, influence merchants could seek inspiration from Kenya’s digital warriors. It’s less about what is said on social media, says Jean le Roux, one of the report’s authors and a Digital Forensic Research Lab consultant, but how it is being said. That is, how the message is delivered – as genuine reportage or part of a coordinated network to achieve some campaign goal.

A key feature in Kenya was influencers trying to delegitimise the media by presenting them as partisan

Kenya and South Africa have a legacy of players seeking to influence public opinion to achieve a political or economic end. In Kenya it was Cambridge Analytica; in South Africa, Bell Pottinger – the firm that worked for the Gupta brothers, using the white monopoly capital narrative to create disharmony. Bell Pottinger used, among others, fake Twitter accounts to stir up racial tensions.

These tactics seem primitive compared to Kenyan influencers' new technology, such as sock puppet accounts, hashjacking and follow trains – all designed to increase engagement. Future influence campaigns could, for example, enable someone in another country to pretend to be someone else, and skew the political playing field – at scale.

A key feature of Kenya’s tactics was influencers trying to delegitimise the media by presenting them as partisan or captured. Those supporting now President William Ruto claimed they were denied access to advertising space in mainstream media, turning to social media to be heard. One key influencer actively engaged in online acrimonious spats with the mainstream media to broaden his engagement. His associates told ISS this was a ‘deliberate tactic’ but denied they sought to undermine the media.

South Africa’s robust and pluralistic legacy media, which has held power to account for decades, could buffer such tactics. But journalists must realise they could be inadvertently amplifying inauthentic content simply by engaging with trending hashtags engineered to distort.

While Kenya’s influence operations were largely homegrown, analysts are discussing the possibility of external influence in South Africa’s next election. Russia reportedly advised the ANC on how to discredit the opposition during the 2019 polls. But other players shouldn’t be ruled out – including Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, North Korea, United Kingdom, United States (US) and Israel.

Building an ‘army for good’ before elections can help weed out inauthentic content

‘While we don’t want to make Russia the bogeyman, they’re well set up,’ argues Le Roux. ‘They have the technical expertise and … an interest in supporting the status quo and keeping the ANC in place.’

What isn’t clear is how much external meddling might be done with the ANC’s approval. Other South African political parties are believed to be honing their digital skills, knowing that, like Kenya, next year’s election ‘may be won on tech.’

There has been much media speculation about the role of former president Jacob Zuma’s daughter Duduzile Zuma in the July 2021 unrest and her close relationship with Moscow. And the Russian Wagner group’s information campaigns in Mali, Burkina Faso and Sudan have led to speculation about whether South Africa is in its sights.

Unlike Kenya, an outspoken critic of Russia’s war in Ukraine, South Africa’s stated neutrality has been tested. Analysts should look out for proxies. Russian troll farms were uncovered in Ghana and Nigeria aimed at spreading discord in the 2016 US elections. Kenya revealed many willing influencers closer to home for whom geopolitics may not dissuade them from outsourcing their expertise.

Hacking the electorate is becoming as much of a threat as hacking a computer network

The fact that civil society organisations highlighted numerous fake accounts in Kenya shows that building an ‘army for good’ before elections can help weed out inauthentic content. Code for Africa’s Allan Cheboi says the problem, however, was that ‘when we were looking for influencers, there was more money to support influencers … than those doing counter-influence operations.’

AI tools have been developed to identify disinformation and influence operations, but as one influencer told ISS, human engineering is key. Training machines to detect the nuances baked into influence campaigns can be hard.

As South Africa prepares for next year’s elections, journalists, government communicators and policymakers must be alive to coordinated inauthentic activity aimed at stirring discord. The country has a healthy culture of online freedom of speech, but is vulnerable because it has more than double the number of people using social media than in Kenya.

South Africa is also one of the world’s leading cybercrime targets, and public campaigns about computer threats and content authenticity are lacking. Hacking the electorate is becoming as much of a threat as hacking a computer network.

Kenya showed South Africa what is possible come 2024. With the rapid rollout of AI tools that make official rebuttal of false narratives hard, such as the political campaign in Burkina Faso and others, speed is king.

A rigorous professional legacy media is needed more than ever to counterbalance malign players online. More public awareness about how we become unwitting actors in someone else’s political game is also vital.

Karen Allen, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © AFP

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