Govt was slow to act on #PhoenixMassacre trend, commission hears

The authorities should have picked up on tensions when #PhoenixMassacre started trending on social media, the SA Human Rights Commission heard. 

Greater Edendale Mall damaged during the July unrest (Image supplied)

Greater Edendale Mall damaged during the July unrest (Image supplied)

The government and law enforcement agencies should have acted sooner when #PhoenixMassacre started trending on social media, a research associate from the Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) told the SA Human Rights Commission on Wednesday.

This after an evidence leader at the commission into the hearing of the July unrest asked Jean le Roux from DFRLab if any tangible material came out in the form of an alert where particular areas had been attacked during its research.

“When the hashtag [#PhoenixMassacre] started [trending] early the morning, it was very clear that there was a specific area targeted.

“The use of the phrase #PhoenixMassacre immediately implied that there is a much wider and a much more emotive set of events going on, especially with the references linked back to the Marikana massacre coming through.

“I would have expected, at that stage, for the authorities to pick up on this. That kind of tension should have been picked up on,” Le Roux told the commission.

More than 300 people died during the unrest, and the damage to the economy was estimated at R50 billion. The unrest claimed the lives of 36 people in Phoenix.

Le Roux said DFRLab was tasked to look at open-source social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, but could not find any direct incitement to violence posts.

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“We had a look at some of the narratives as they started unfolding. We specifically looked whether there were concrete examples on the site, was there a call specifically to go to this place and conduct arson or loot a building.

“We couldn’t find anything on the open social media platforms that indicated to people in organising to go to this specific place, loot this warehouse, focus on this area and commit arson on that particular building.”

He added most of the posts were reactive.

Political play

“There were people using the unrest for their own political objectives. There were a lot of the ‘we see you’ posts going around. They were used as a way of celebrating what was happening in KwaZulu-Natal.

“In some cases, even old and misleading footage was used from totally unrelated protests from years ago to further those same kind of narratives. A lot of this was celebratory, it was used in a way that celebrated the unrest and celebrated the violence.”

Le Roux said Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, the daughter of former president Jacob Zuma, was prolific during the unrest.

“She was one of the accounts that was most engaging in the celebratory parts of unrest. She would take posts of buildings burning and have a tweet below it saying: ‘Amandla, we see you’.”

“She did this quite prolifically throughout the period of the unrest. In some cases, she was also the one that took truck protests information from the year before and attached that same statement to those tweets, giving the impression that these are protests happening in support of her father and his in incarceration.”

‘Jail without trial’

He added other posts, which drove traffic, were the “jail without trial” posts from the Twitter account of the Jacob Zuma Foundation.

“There was almost a drive from that specific account over a period of weeks to have that jail without trial phrase take root.”

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When asked if he thought the government and law enforcement agencies were equipped to deal with such activities on social media platforms, Le Roux responded by saying “unfortunately not”.

“There might be individual or small pockets of that, that are able to do it but at wider scale and in a way that translates into some tangible results, I’m not sure if we got the capacity.

“If we do, I have unfortunately not seen it,” he added.