25/01/2017 05:50 SAST | Updated 25/01/2017 07:37 SAST

Paid Twitter, Bots, Hubs And Astroturfing: The Anatomy Of The New Propaganda War

And it all seems to be focused on protecting the Guptas, President Jacob Zuma's favourite family.

Kacper Pempel / Reuters

We're in the midst of a propaganda war and the battlefield is social media, with "bots" as foot soldiers and hub managers as commanders, says Jean le Roux, a former investigator at the public protector, who is researching South Africa's information wars.

"The danger is that this orchestrated propaganda campaign helps to establish a certain narrative, and we're seeing it having an effect already: people go to braais, talk politics and say 'maybe the Guptas aren't that bad after all'," said Le Roux in an interview with The Huffington Post South Africa on Tuesday. Le Roux is a law graduate who now works in the pension fund industry.

Le Roux painstakingly put together the anatomy of so-called paid Twitter, how tweets of specific users — like those by Mzwanele Manyi from the Progressive Business Forum — are being used to defend the controversial Gupta family and attack their opponents. It's all part of a well-crafted strategy to deflect and misdirect.

The HuffPost SA, along with 702, Daily Maverick and the Mail & Guardian, were victims of a new onslaught by what appears to be propagandists over the weekend when fake news accounts were created that pushed a specific line about "white monopoly capital". Le Roux believes the campaign is clearly in support of the controversial Gupta family and has now crossed a line from merely supporting a narrative to actively shaping it.

On Tuesday it emerged that the African National Congress (ANC) is being sued by Sihle Bolani, a service provider, after she was contracted to provide, amongst other things, "paid Twitter" services to the governing party during last year's municipal election. She wasn't paid. According to a report by amaBhungane on News24, the ANC planned a covert media campaign aimed at discrediting political opponents.

Bolani has since been receiving threats, while ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa has denied the particulars of the claim against the party.

Le Roux's interest in paid Twitter (or #paidtwitter) was piqued when he noticed Twitter users, with almost no following, retweeting inflammatory and clearly political tweets, and getting as much as 50 retweets in a short space of time.

He then looked at who would retweet tweets from someone with no public profile or discernible link to whatever topic was being discussed — and he found more no-name Twitter users.

"What struck me was that there were accounts of alleged 'users' where, particularly, the Afrikaans spelling of names were wrong, for example 'Ranier' instead of 'Renier'," he explains.

Le Roux then cross-referenced retweets of suspected fake Twitter accounts, or "bots", and found that of a sample of 10 dodgy accounts, eight accounts followed exactly the same retweet pattern. "It would be difficult to prove anything, because in theory it is of course possible, but retweets of stuff Manyi had said was rather striking."

Le Roux identified a number of other suspected bots and threads where contentious issues were being thrown around, and fed these into a spreadsheet. All the users were obscure, and many of them regularly racked up as many as 50 retweets. "They inserted themselves into conversations and then the retweets took off. It was remarkable," he says.

Sleuth Le Roux identified four groups that followed the same pattern and modus operandi, but which operated at different times — all of them had the same agenda: "Protect the Guptas."

Every group had a "hub manager" — and Le Roux identified those because they are the only ones that write original tweets. All the bots' tweets are retweets.

Le Roux took these four groups, consisting of 20 to 30 accounts each, and fed the tweets and retweets into a computer programme that created a word cloud of the most popular phrases. "It was dominated by 'state capture', 'hands-off the Guptas', 'respect the Guptas' and 'Thuli Madonsela'. From that it was very clear what the gist of the message is."

These bots, managed by their handlers, have as the main objective "astroturfing", which means they create a critical mass of support by relentlessly retweeting and pushing an agenda.

"It's difficult to determine exactly who is behind it because they hide behind IP [internet protocol] addresses. But it's pretty easy to see what they want to achieve, and the answer is simple: protect the Guptas," Le Roux argues on the basis of his research.

The genesis of this seems to be the firebrand Mngxitama and the Black First, Land First Movement, Le Roux says. "Some of the very first retweets from these bots and hubs were retweets from him. But it's difficult to determine with complete accuracy."