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News24.com | Ebrahim Fakir, Molebogeng Mokoka, Euston Witbooi: Conversations on Twitter - Distrust in IEC falls

With just over two weeks to go to the municipal elections, it appears that the overall mistrust of the Independent Electorial Commission (IEC) has declined when examining conversations on Twitter. Ebrahim Fakir, Molebogeng Mokoka and Euston Witbooi examined the conversations on the social media platform and look at some of the trends arising ahead of the elections.

Following waves of attacks on its credibility from political parties, their leaders and supporters as well as some social media "users", overall mistrust in the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has declined remarkably on social media in the past four weeks from a surprisingly high mistrust index. 

In contradistinction to the period coming into this local government elections, historically, the IEC enjoyed unparalleled high levels of trust and confidence and a superb domestic and international reputation.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has consistently received healthy approval ratings, with majority support from more than two-thirds (60%) of the adult population since 2001 until at least 2016, as shown by both the Human Sciences Research Councils South African Social Attitudes Survey (SASAS) and the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) Afrobarometer.

READ | Adriaan Basson: Bring proof that the IEC is captured or shut up

Worryingly, the Afrobarometer shows that by 2021 only about one in three citizens (36%) trusted the Electoral Commission of South Africa. But this is in stark contrast to political parties, where trust in both the governing African National Congress (ANC) is only at 27% and opposition parties is at 24%, and continuing to decline according to research findings reported by Mikhail Moosa and Jan Hofmeyr in the Afrobarometer dispatch 474 of 2021.   

Consistent with attempts to delegitimise independent institutions that don't favour their political fortunes, political party leaders and their acolytes launched continued - and in many cases baseless - attacks on the IEC. Encouragingly, those are in retreat and the attempted reputational damage to the IEC has been limited. But neither complacency nor dismissal of deserved criticisms of the IEC are necessary, as continued vigilance and oversight of the IEC's logistical, operational, administrative and management facilitation of the electoral process continues at least through to the period when the number of objections and disputes raised by political parties are settled towards the end of the electoral process. Special vigilance will be required as the results are tabulated, especially as under-performing parties and candidates cite administrative errors and sabotage as factors that may have contributed to their failure to win votes.

For the present, even though, temporarily, social media metrics and other data gathered by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change at UCT shows that mistrust in the IEC is on the decrease – it appears that the IEC has successfully repelled attacks on it and restored its credibility. 

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Fig. 1: IEC mistrust trendline over the last 5 weeks

The Commission faced a barrage of sometimes unnecessary and unwarranted attacks from the EFF, ActionSA and the DA, who challenged the IEC on procedural and administrative matters and raised unfounded allegations that the IEC was favouring the ANC. ActionSA accused it of omitting its abbreviated party name from the ward ballot paper – even though the party had failed to submit it. 

To its credit, the IEC responded directly to the criticism, highlighting ActionSA's inability to fill out a form.  

The IEC's public rebuttal of unfounded criticism appears to have discouraged other political parties from using the IEC as a scapegoat for their own inadequacies. 

Prolonging the Action

With the public revelation of ActionSA's error in filling out a form, the party proceeded to take the IEC to the Electoral Court. This extended its "trending" presence on social media.

ActionSA and its leader Herman Mashaba continued to feature prominently in this week's elections and IEC conversations on Twitter, with both appearing in the top 20 list of volume by author handle (Fig. 2) and engagement by author handle (Fig.4). 

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Fig. 2: Volume by author handle between October 6 - 13

The synonymous association between the party, its brand and its leader raises questions about the personalisation of the party and its prospects for institutionalisation, never mind the depth of penetration into voters calculations beyond the fetishisation of ActionSA's leader. 

In addition, it is worth noting that #VoteActionSA lags behind the hashtags that are used by other parties to lure voter support. 

Since their attack on the IEC began on 3 October, #VoteActionSA had received 956 mentions, while #VoteEFF received 43k mentions, #VoteDA with 6k mentions and #VoteANC with 13k mentions in the ten days that followed. 

Volume of the conversation

With less than three weeks before the elections, online conversation has surprisingly taken a dip this week, with more than 26 000 mentions and 12 000 unique authors between 6 and 13 October. 

This is a marked decrease from the 32 000 mentions and 14 000 unique authors from the previous week between 27 September and 5 October. This is the first time in three weeks that the volume of conversation around the election has declined. 

Fig. 3 below shows the volume of the conversation between 6 and 13 October, as well as unique author count.

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Fig. 3: Volume of the conversation over the last week, as well as unique author count

Over the past three weeks, peaks within this conversation have been influenced by current affairs and trending topics. 

This week's conversation peaked on two occasions, first when DA leader John Steenhuisen refused to remove controversial election posters in Phoenix on 6 October, and when President Cyril Ramaphosa declared 1 November as a public holiday on 11 October. 

While it can be expected for current affairs to drive up mentions, the decline in conversation in the absence of trending topics raises a fundamental question: "Are South Africans reactive when engaging in election-related content, and are led by the messaging of political parties and party leaders, or do they initiate conversations and content on the basis of their own interests and aspirations?"

As has been the case in the traditional popular media, it appears that even on social media, conversations are driven almost exclusively by the interests of politicians and political parties rather than citizen or voter concerns. Elections, it should be noted, ought to be citizen-focused, serving the interests of citizens, with parties and party personalities being mere competitors for the (temporary) attention and affection of voters, rather than the agenda initiators and agenda setters. 

Race politics fail

After coming under fire for putting up controversial posters in KwaZulu-Natal in the aftermath of the #PhoenixMassacre, which saw 36 people lose their lives, the DA became one of the top 25 most engaged accounts between 6 and 13 October (fig. 4).

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Fig. 4: Engagement by author handle between October 6 - 13

The "Phoenix Posters" - which the party has since taken down and "apologised" for - were not the main reason for the DA's tweets becoming one of the most engaged within the IEC/elections narrative. 

Instead, it was the DA's strategy of highlighting what the governing party was failing or had failed to do since being in power.

By going back to criticising the ANC, the DA tried to deflect attention away from its poorly chosen Phoenix campaign strategy and showed that the DA appears to lack a coherent and consistent overall identity and strategy, lurching from issue to issue in a haphazard and uncoordinated way.   

Despite attempts by the DA to swiftly deflect attention away from its inconsistent messaging and a major campaign gaffe, the #Phoenixmassacre hashtag made a return to the top 10 most used hashtags on Twitter, not allowing the DA to escape from the binds of its miscalculated attempt at "identity politics" that it explicitly claims to eschew.   

With 7 755 mentions for #Phoenixmassacre between 6 and 13 October, several mentions consisted of a backlash directed at the DA for being insensitive to the events which transpired in Phoenix during the month of July. 

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Fig. 5: Top 10 hashtags between October 6 - 13

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Hitting the trail

The EFF continues to dominate when it comes to hashtags that encourage voters to support a party. 

The party's two hashtags, #Landandjobsmanje, which summarises the EFF's manifesto and #VoteEFF, continue to be among the most popular tags, receiving 51k mentions from 6497 unique authors and 65k mentions from 9049 unique authors, respectively. 

The DA, which saw its most significant spike after launching its manifesto, continues to have a lower number of mentions which stand at 11 000 with 2 062 unique authors since the manifesto launch on 25 September. 

Coming second to the EFF, the governing party's hashtag #VoteANC received 19 000 mentions from 4 096 unique authors since the launch of their manifesto on 27 September. 

Despite the vast differences in the number of mentions, there seems to be a direct correlation between increased mentions and the three parties embarking on their respective campaign trails. 

When EFF's Floyd Shivambu discussed the party's manifesto in the media on the evening of 6 October, conversations increased. The same happened when leader Julius Malema took the campaign trail to the North West between 8 and 10 October and Mpumalanga on 12 October. 

Within the ANC, the conversation peaked when President Cyril Ramaphosa continued on a campaign trail in the North West on 8 October, and when he went to KwaZulu-Natal on 10 October. 

Despite lower overall mentions, conversations including #VoteDA increased when leader John Steenhuisen visited Nelson Mandela Bay on 4 October, when he visited the Eastern Cape on 8 October and when he campaigned in the Northern Cape on 11 October. 

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Fig. 6: VoteEFF (blue), VoteANC (yellow) and VoteDA (pink) hashtags between 25 September - 13 October. 

Though elections are won through actual votes on voting day, and not social media, (and though less than 13% of South Africans are active on Twitter) as an indicative trend or theme of conversation, parties should be worried about their social media profiles, especially in a context where it is leading conversations and the traditional media are picking up data, information and stories from social media. This mode of working by the traditional print and audio-visual media can be critiqued, but the fact of the matter is that it is happening and becoming more rife and parties ought to pay some attention to it.  

Relying on spin

Launched in 2013, the Patriotic Alliance positions itself as a party that will not only prioritise South Africans in the job market, but also deport foreign nationals who reside illegally in the country.

The PA also appears to be gaining recognition from some of the content-generating accounts of the RET forces network, which have previously expressed that they won't, this time around, be voting for the ANC given its treatment of former president Jacob Zuma. 

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It's not uncommon for political parties to exaggerate what they are capable of doing or making promises that they, in reality, cannot keep, and will in all likelihood, not be in a position to deliver in. When campaigning, wild rhetoric and (false) promises, while unrealistic and inaccurate, sometimes falls within the realm of free (political) speech and are commonly associated with doubling social grants, improving service delivery or bringing an end to unemployment and corruption. But the PA's most extravagant (even unrealistic) promise is to write off all municipal debt, which they announced at their manifesto launch.                           

- Ebrahim Fakir is Director of Programmes at the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI), Molebogeng Mokoka is a journalist at the CABC and Euston Witbooi is a researcher at the CABC.

*This is the fourth report in a series by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) at UCT and the Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute (ASRI), who have been tracking trends on social media. The data is sourced from Twitter and is publicly available in real time. The analysis includes a process of verifying a random sample of comments by an online crowd who assess the posts for authenticity and sentiment.  The analysis and the interpretations derived from the data are not exhaustive, or generalisable to the population. Although some of it is speculative, it nevertheless indicates and illustrates sentiment and may be of interest to stakeholders as the elections draw close. 

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