South Africa goes after social media as it cracks down on looting and protests

Police fire at protesters during unrest linked to the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma, in Soweto
Police fire at protesters during unrest linked to the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma, in Soweto
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South Africa, rocked by violent protests that have turned deadly, is now looking to social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to crack down on looting and destruction of property and infrastructure by demonstrators.

The protests in South Africa, sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma last week for failing to appear before a constitutional court commission of inquiry into corruption under his rule, have left more than 72 people dead and 1,300 in prison.  President Cyril Ramaphosa has described the situation as the worst protests since the end of apartheid.

It is against this backdrop that the South African government is now enlisting the social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter to trace and remove posts of those inciting violence and looting. The South African military has also been deployed onto the streets of the two provinces of Gauteng and Kwazulu Natal where the protests have exploded into looting and the burning of private property.

South African police minister, Bheki Cele said at a press conference yesterday that a cluster of security ministers were now “monitoring all social media platforms and we are tracking those who are sharing false information and calling for civil disobedience” that has resulted in the destruction of infrastructure and the torching of shopping malls.

He also threatened to use the cybersecurity act to jail offenders for up to three years as experts weighed in, saying social media was being used as a  “dangerous tool” to mobilize the ongoing attacks. The cyber protection legislation, passed in 2020, stipulates that it is an offense “to incite violence, or call people to be involved in the destruction of any property” on social media.

Internet shutdowns and social media monitoring are increasingly being used by African governments

But with tracking, monitoring, and shutting down of social media activity during protests and elections becoming an increasingly common technique in Africa, the fact that the South African police are monitoring social media posts comes as no surprise, says Aleix Montana, an Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, a risk advisory firm.

In the past few months, eSwatini, Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda, Niger, and the DRC are some of the African countries that have shut down online platforms or the internet during protests and elections.

“We expect the authorities to focus on prosecuting social media users that have clearly broken the law by inciting violence,” Montana told Quartz in an interview.

John Steenhuisen, the leader of the main South African opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said in a broadcast posted on Twitter that Duduzane Zuma, Duduzile Zuma—son and daughter to the jailed former President—as well as Julius Malema of the Economic Freedom Fighters “have been fanning the flames on social media” with impunity.

Fact checking organization Africa Check has also detailed that some of the video clips and pictures being shared on social media to depict the South African protests are from other countries while others have been photoshopped.

“We believe in giving people a voice, but we also want everyone using Facebook to feel safe. Through both technology and human review, we will continue to remove any content that violates these policies, and strongly encourage people to report content which they think goes against these rules,” a Facebook company spokesperson said in an email statement to Quartz.

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