Digital Narrative Manipulation Overview

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The Challenge

Digital Narrative Manipulation is a growing problem across the world. With the rise of social media and digital technologies there has been an increase in the use of disinformation and influence to affect societies. South Africa is no different. We have seen narratives such as “White Monopoly Capital” and “#PutSouthAfricansFirst” be deployed online in South Africa, both of which have negative consequences to our democracy and our society.

Project Objective

The Digital Narrative Manipulation (DNM) project aims to undermine and render ineffective these ‘fake news’ manipulated narratives and misinformation/disinformation campaigns deployed in South Africa through a unique three phase approach.

  1. Research: using cutting-edge social media analytics we track narratives online, looking for coordinated narrative manipulation campaigns.
  2. Report: we write research reports and news media articles in order to publicise and expose coordinated narrative manipulation campaigns.
  3. Respond: we develop bespoke responses to narrative manipulation campaigns. We work with a broad range of specialists, such as filmmakers, digital content creators and influencers to deploy responses that will undermine, expose and redirect manipulated narratives.

The Digital Narrative Manipulation project is focused on a number of online narratives, including:

  • #PutSouthAfricansFirst: The xenophobic campaign that is being run on Twitter, which blames foreigners for high rates of crime, drug use and unemployment in South Africa. Our view is that this narrative is being deliberately coordinated online, in an effort to capitalise on South Africans’ frustrations over the hardships that they face. This narrative is misleading, as it incorrectly blames foreigners for a range of complicated social ills within South Africa, and it runs the risk of leading to xenophobic violence.
  • White Genocide/Farm Murders: This narrative is based on the false, yet contentious, claim that white South Africans are being deliberately targeted in a ‘white genocide’. This narrative is not supported by the statistical evidence available, though it has continued to gain traction in South Africa. The DNM team sees this as a result of the deliberate exploitation of peoples’ fears of being harmed and unresolved racial tension in our country.
  • White Monopoly Capital (WMC) and Radical Economic Transformation (RET): The WMC / RET narrative is a part of one of the largest disinformation campaigns to have been run in South Africa in recent history. This narrative was used to undermine claims that then-President Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family were engaged in large-scale state-capture. While the narrative has been documented and exposed, it is still disseminated online.

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Intended Results

The DNM project aims to create a more cohesive society and a better functioning democracy by responding to identified narratives that are suffering from coordinated manipulation campaigns. The aim of the DNM project is to research, report and respond to deliberately manipulated narratives, with the intention of reducing its effectiveness.

Coordinated narrative manipulation is often intended to create particular political or economic outcomes, and often uses dishonesty, disinformation and manipulation to achieve those ends. As such, the DNM project sees itself as trying to protect South Africa’s digital democracy, and to protect our nation’s ability to have robust and meaningful dialogue on important issues.

The WMC/RET narrative has been exposed as a fraudulent and disingenuous narrative, and moves us further from a position in which reasonable debate can be had over these difficult issues. The difficulty is that manipulated narratives tend to be polemic and erode participants’ ability to converse and reach reasonable compromises. So those who do not know the true origins of the WMC/RET narrative and continue to disseminate that narrative online may believe they are contributing to the solution, they are in fact moving South Africa’s social dialogue further from a reasonable conversation or solution.

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