Part 1: Monitoring hateful language in South Africa

Opinion: Caleb Gichuhi is a senior specialist at PeaceTech Lab. As South Africa geared up for the recent election (May 8), he and his team were monitoring and analyzing trends throughout the country to understand and offer insights on the potential relationship between hateful language on social media and instances of violence on the ground. This is part one of a deep dive into the findings.

Offline Activities and Online Conversation

Not surprisingly, the use of hateful terms on social media in South Africa often spikes following instances of violence on-the-ground. This held true when we spotted a sudden increase in the use of the term Makwerekwere.

Instances of xenophobic attacks in Durban towards the end of March that came after weeks of anti-immigrant rhetoric by South African politicians led to a massive surge in the use of the term in the days immediately after. However, just a few days later, the leader of the EFF political party held a public rally, condemning both the violence and the use of the hateful term — we noticed, in-turn, a gradual but significant decrease in the use of the term across social media outlets despite a few cases of violence that emerged in the following week. While the trend suggests a relationship between offline activities and online conversations, wider social-economic issues are also contributing to the increased use of the term.

A Surge in Hateful Language

We’ve also seen a steady increase over time in the use of hateful language in South Africa overall since the end of January — in particular, the increased usage of the term land thieves. While there were specific events during this time period that triggered bumps in the volume of hate terms, the rise can also be attributed to the upcoming election. Land has been at the center of many political discussions, with talks about constitutional amendments that focus on land acquisition. Some prominent political parties have further called for the expropriation without compensation of white -owned land while others have been accused of anti-white prejudice targeting white land-owners.

The land debate, though important, remains among the most sensitive and divisive in the country, resulting in a toxic political discourse on social media platforms as seen in the network map below. The overall steady increase in hateful language in relation to this larger national discussion over land suggests that it is likely to continue even after the elections, unless strategic interventions are undertaken to mitigate the language as well as the root issue itself.

As we ramp up to release our South Africa lexicon and the second hateful language report, we believe the sort of analysis we offer here is imperative to understanding the greater context in what contributes to the rise or fall in the use of hate terms, with the hope that we can help build a South Africa free of these terms.

Network map: The visualization below shows a network of social media users that have used the term Land Thieves. The color grouping show users who have shared the same content or discussed a similar topic while using the term.

This story was first published by PeaceTech Lab.

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