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How the MKP online community sprouted from the ‘ruins’ of the RET network

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Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change and Murmur

The online support for the MK Party raises many flags as to its authenticity. The party appears to have mobilised the network and influence of an established community that was in place before the party announced its formation, contributing to its rapid rise in popularity online.

Accounts within this community (some anonymised and with a large following), have the opportunity to inauthentically sway political discourse in the country.

This is according to a new report published in collaboration between the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) and Murmur, a research company that provides social media listening and digital landscape services.

Titled From RET to MK Party: The Mobilisation of Existing Twitter/X Communities to Drive Political Messaging, the report provides an in-depth analysis of all political communities in South Africa to understand the rapid rise in popularity of the MK Party online.

The conversation around the MK Party has been dominating headlines since the party’s launch in December, while hashtags such as #VoteMK2024 made a continued appearance in the CABC’s election reporting.

Researchers identified 10 accounts which were central to the RET online community on X.com before 10 December 2024 that moved into the MK Party community after that date, when the party was officially launched.

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“Being part of a community does not mean that an account agrees with that community. However, if, for example, a community member does not align on approximately 50% of the topics within a community, their interactions would pull them towards another community where their contribution is engaged with to a greater extent,” read the report.

These accounts include: @_AfricanSoil, @koko_matshela, @KhandaniM, @LandNoli, @Zungulavuyo, @SuperiorZulu, @ATMovement_SA, @mrlungisa, @ThaboMakwakwa and @gentlements.

“This by no means suggests any collusion is taking place between these specific accounts; although, nor can it be ruled out. They have all landed in this community because of the common interactions they share with regard to driving anti-Ramaphosa or anti-Zondo Commission-type content.”

Narrowing down the five core accounts within various communities (before and after 10 December), researchers found that accounts associated with party leaders such as Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba, Julius Malema and Songezo Zibi are central to their respective parties. The accounts associated with these leaders are part of what is regarded as the consistent core.

The MK Party is an exception to this, with its central accounts consisting of @_AfricanSoil, @koko_matshela and @Zungulavuyo who are not publicly associated with the leadership of the MK Party.              

List of key X users from selected communities that “crossed the digital floor” to join new political communities

Since 10 December 2023, the MK online community has focused mainly on its criticism of President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC under his leadership and not the socio-economic concerns that would impact the electorate.

Top 15 topics discussed by the RET cum MK Party community on X.com over time

The accounts have also focused on sowing doubt about their political rivals and the South African political system amongst its community members, rather than speaking to South Africans’ socio-economic conditions. This part of the “negation and doubt” mapping is illustrated above.

Is RET the only ‘loser’?

The online RET network may have made way for the MK Party community. However, a question remains on whether this new formation has been to the detriment of another community.

Before the launch of the MK Party, the RET community interacted with hashtags favourable to the EFF. Amongst the popular hashtags used were #RegistertoVoteEFF and #2024isOur1994 (a hashtag which originally served as a slogan to Rise Mzansi’s 2024 election campaign before being co-opted by the EFF).

The use of these hashtags declined very quickly after the launch of the MK Party, accompanied by a dramatic increase in the use of #VoteMK2024 from 19 December 2023.

Graph showing that the RET/MK Party community switched in mid-December 2023 from driving EFF hashtags to driving the hashtag of the MK Party (i.e. #VoteMK2024)

It is unclear if there is an alliance between the online EFF and MK supporters, however, this shift in narrative raises a few questions such as:

  • What does it say about the relationship between these two parties when a community is willing to push EFF hashtags one day and flips to MK party hashtags the next?
  • Why didn’t the EFF try to stimulate this group of people to keep driving their hashtag alongside that of the MK Party?

Researchers have also highlighted a few possibilities in this shift, including:

  • The EFF were not aware of a significant loss of members in their online community;
  • The likelihood of a coalition between the EFF and MK Party is high if there has been intentional coordination between members of the same network to drive one party’s hashtag over another; and/or
  • The EFF were a backup choice for this community all along and, when presented with a better option, they jumped ship, never to look back.

The CABC and Murmur have raised concerns about the authenticity of the main accounts within the online MK community.

For example, @_AfricanSoil, who was one of the accused-but-acquitted of stoking the July unrest, already had more than 160,000 followers on X.com at the time that they started to drive MK Party-aligned content, while @koko_matshela enjoys support from almost 150,000 followers at present. With its vast influence, the @_AfricanSoil account was found to have created 125 posts on 3 February 2024 alone.

Ahead of the 29 May elections, researchers have cautioned the public to not only make sense of the movement of core accounts in these communities but also the content they are driving, prior political affiliations, and the authenticity of these accounts.

“It is both difficult to explain and understand how it is that a group that was frequently making use of EFF hashtags, including one that was a call to register to vote for that party, could flip allegiances overnight and drive the campaign hashtag of another political formation, urging their same network to vote for another party,” read the report.

Disclosure: The CABC, Daily Maverick and City Press are currently involved in legal proceedings initiated by Sphithiphithi Evaluator (@_AfricanSoil), Thabo Makwakwa (@ThaboMakwakwa), Modibe Modiba (@mmodiba10) and Izwe Lethu (@LandNoli) who seek to review and set aside two reports: Online RET Network Analysis; and The Dirty Dozen & the Amplification of Incendiary Content during the Outbreak of Unrest in South Africa in July 2021. These proceedings are opposed and the CABC, Daily Maverick and City Press seek to have them set aside with costs.

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