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New report reveals how social media fuelled 2021 unrest

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 30 Jan 2024
Social media amplified grievances, stoked fear and anger, and mobilised individuals towards disruptive actions, says SAHRC.
Social media amplified grievances, stoked fear and anger, and mobilised individuals towards disruptive actions, says SAHRC.

The failure by South Africa’s law enforcement agencies to promptly address and counter digital orchestration and instigation through social media and other online platforms allowed the July 2021 unrest to grow.

That’s according to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which yesterday released its report into the July 2021 unrest that unfolded in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), during which some 350 people lost their lives.

According to the SAHRC, online communication and co-ordination played a role in fuelling the violence.

It adds that images and footage of gruesome violence were shared on social media, particularly attached to the hashtags #KZNViolence, #pheonixmassacre, #EthnicMobilisation, and #IndiansMustFall.

The violence and destruction also caused damage to infrastructure and businesses costing South Africa’s economy some R50 billion, with a further two million jobs being lost or affected.

Speaking at the release of the report, SAHRC commissioner Philile Ntuli said the commission found that myriad factors contributed to the outbreak of destruction and violence during the riots.

“The violence and destruction were symptomatic of unresolved systemic conditions, including post-COVID-19 economic recovery, high unemployment, lawlessness, discrimination, socio-economic divides, and issues within the security sector.

“The commission concluded that organised groups and individuals opportunistically exploited these conditions to attempt to usurp the rule of law,” Ntuli said.

Amplifying disruptive actions

The report reveals that through the creation and dissemination of inflammatory content, social media amplified grievances, stoked fear and anger, and mobilised individuals towards disruptive actions.

“Social media and the nature of moving towards the fourth industrial revolution calls upon the government to halt any traditional way of thinking and to operationalise the gathering of intelligent information from social media platforms,” says the SAHRC.

“It was clear from the evidence obtained that mechanisms to gather information to counter the weaponisation of these platforms are available. However, the responsible entities did not take steps to improve their skills, neither did they have the capacity to do so at the time.”

The commission also found out that the state did not have the capability or the mechanisms to adequately address and combat mis- and disinformation – and if they had it, they did not employ it effectively.

Furthermore, digital media monitoring experts determined that no singular cause could be established from the data generated through online monitoring.

The commission further found a concerning lack of awareness among the public regarding their online duties and responsibilities in practising responsible communication on social media platforms.

“This lack of awareness clearly had severe consequences, leading to various offences such as incitement, hate speech, and harassment being committed during the unrest.

“The commission, therefore, finds that it is essential to recognise that combating disinformation is not only about safeguarding the right to access accurate information, but also about preserving the integrity of democratic systems, protecting national security interests, and ensuring the well-being of citizens. A comprehensive approach that combines technological solutions, media literacy, and collaboration among governments, tech companies, and civil society is vital to effectively counter disinformation as both a human rights and national security threat.”

The commission recommends that the minister of communications, in collaboration with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies and the public broadcaster, take proactive measures to promote public understanding of the legislative framework that safeguards against the abuse and misuse of misinformation and disinformation.

Further to this, the commission recommends that its Social Media Charter be used as an advocacy tool in this regard.

Last year, the SAHRC introduced its Social Media Charter in an effort to influence positive change on social media platforms, as some have increasingly become breeding grounds for harmful content.

Addressing online threats

To effectively address online threats such as incitement to commit acts of violence, harassment, hate speech, and the activities of organised criminal syndicates; the commission recommends that the state allocate resources to establish an expert-level panel.

It notes that this panel should be composed of professionals with relevant expertise who can provide guidance, draft directives, and advise on identifying and mitigating online threats.

The commission also recommends that the National Director of Public Prosecutions (NDPP) outlines the National Prosecuting Authority’s (NPA’s) strategic response to cyber crime, especially the crime of incitement to commit violence.

It says the evidence furnished by law enforcement, the national security sector, media and security experts has highlighted the rapidly developing threat of social media-mobilised violence.

The commission notes that several prosecutions of incitement to commit public violence resulted in the withdrawal of cases due to technical challenges presented by the complex nature of mutual legal assistance (MLA) proceedings.

It encourages the NDPP to strengthen MLA practices between South Africa and other countries within the global community to safeguard the right to safety and security and to ensure successful prosecution of cyber crime.