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Social media used as ‘dangerous tool’ to mobilise ongoing attacks

Read time 5min 30sec

As the looting and violence continue across South Africa, experts have warned of the treacherous and sophisticated use of social media in mobilising these acts.

The demonstrations, initially sparked by the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, have led to shopping malls and other properties being looted, destroyed and in some instances set alight in nationwide violence predominantly taking place in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Social media pundits have highlighted the ways in which online platforms Twitter, Facebook Instagram and TikTok has been used by rioters to co-ordinate looting and trigger the violent attacks. The unrest has claimed the lives of 45 people, with over 750 suspects arrested in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Videos, images, texts and voice messages have been used to inform and mobilise people to participate in looting sprees, while others have opted to use it to spread misinformation, or further inflame the situation.

“WhatsApp groups and social media platforms flooded with news clips, forwarded messages and videos sharing information or misinformation about the looting,” says Sarah Hoffman, social media lawyer and co-founder of cyber safety firm Klikd.

“Social media plays a pivotal role in spreading information on events like these in real-time. Due to the immediacy of the communication, people are able to mobilise extremely quickly.”

While some messages served a genuine purpose to alert people to dangerous situations and places or roads to avoid, or areas to evacuate, many messages were fake news, out of context images or videos repurposed purely to be alarmist and deepen the sense of panic and anxiety felt by most South Africans, she adds.

“We saw this earlier this year when extremists stormed the US Capitol. Almost immediately after Donald Trump ended his speech to protesters in Washington by calling for them to march on Congress, hundreds of calls to storm the building were immediately made by his supporters on social media,” states Hoffman.

Sarah Hoffman, social media lawyer and co-founder of Klikd.
Sarah Hoffman, social media lawyer and co-founder of Klikd.

A manager of a Midrand-based shopping centre told ITWeb that he was tipped off to shut down the premises, after a circulating WhatsApp message warned that Midrand shopping centres would be the next target today.

During last night’s address detailing government's response to the escalating situation, president Cyril Ramaphosa urged against the spread of disinformation, old videos and fake news about the ongoing violence.

“We should refrain from posting and circulating inflammatory messages on social media, and from spreading rumours or false reports that may create further panic. No-one should take the law into their own hands.

“Rather, we should join those individuals and communities who are working with the police to prevent looting, and those members of the public who have provided tip-offs and information about instances of criminality,” he pointed out.

Dimakatso Dlamini, founder of Katso Media, a division of digital firm Katso Group, comments that former US president Donald Trump’s social media accounts being permanently shut down by social media companies shows there is substantial proof that social media can play a weighty role in inciting physical violence.

“The recent violent protests have proved that social media is a powerful tool that should not be taken lightly. Most people now rely on social media for information reported in real-time, and unfortunately, those reading the posts (whether fake or true) are often ready to act.

“Some of the most powerful social media accounts are from people with hidden identities, but with thousands of followers, and these types of accounts tweet and post with no care as to how the masses will be affected, and often, it is intentional,” she explains.

According to Leandri Janse Van Vuuren, MD of social media company Social Media 101, no matter the number of social media followers, users have a strong influence on setting the agenda and can easily use the internet as a tool of manipulation.

“It’s frightening to know that social media can be used as a tool to incite violence in the ‘real world’. There are people that are looking to exploit and manipulate the current situation by spreading misinformation and inciting violence to forward their own agendas.

“Some social media users shared content showing what appears to be the recent protests; however, when fact-checkers took a closer look, they found that some of the videos and images were not from the current protests but from years ago,” says Janse Van Vuuren.

Oftentimes, by the time the truth is revealed about the nature of the fake news, “the damage is already done, because misinformation spreads like wildfire”.

Facing the consequences

This morning, the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security Cluster briefed the media on the containment of the violent protests.

During the briefing, police minister Bheki Cele issued a warning to those disseminating misinformation on social media, noting the cluster is monitoring all social media platforms and tracking those who are sharing false information and calling for civil disobedience.

He added that suspects are currently being pursued on social media for spreading disinformation.

“We are engaging the different platforms to track and trace the origins of inflammatory posts and messages inciting violence and have requested that these be taken down with immediate effect.

“We also issue a stern warning to those circulating inflammatory messages on various social media platforms, which are aimed at inciting violence and disregarding the law.

“The Cyber Security Act states that any person who unlawfully makes available, broadcasts or distributes, by means of a computer system, a data message to a specific person, group of persons or the general public with the intention to incite violence, or call people to be involved in the destruction of any property belonging to people, is guilty of an offence,” emphasised Cele.

He added that those who engage in such acts on social media will be liable for criminal charges, and can receive a fine or be sentenced to imprisonment for a period up to three years.

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