What philanthropists need to know about the future impact of big data and social media on their work and on our democracy

By Camaren Peter – Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change

Business has overtaken the non-profit sector  as the most trusted institution in South Africa, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. This is because many businesses have taken on a philanthropic role in assisting communities and employees during the Covid-19 pandemic. This could be an indication of the emergence of a new social compact between government, businesses and civil society that has great potential to bring about the developmental transition that the Constitution – and all South Africans – deeply desire.

The need for social justice is explicitly acknowledged in the preamble to the South African Constitution, stating that the Constitution aims to “heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.”  This makes the primary role of the state is clear, which is to serve the people of South Africa as a developmental state, while enabling a transition from our fraught past to a healthy, democratic society. Yet, in reality, it is not only the state that plays this role: Civil society and philanthropic organizations play a key role in taking the lead while they also bolster the efforts of the state to meet the developmental needs of the country, and at the same time broker a healthy social compact.

In many ways, civil society remains key to unlocking some of the direst and most pressing challenges that we face as a country. Civil society remains central to actualizing meaningful systemic change,  because public trust in government and the state has been steadily declining for the past decade or so, as indicated in the Edelman Barometer reports over that period. For most of the decade, the NGOs remained the most trusted institution. However, this has recently changed, with business overtaking NGOs as the most trusted institution in South Africa due to the unprecedented actions that many businesses have taken to play a philanthropic role in assisting communities and employees during the Covid-19 pandemic. An optimistic outlook on these developments would take this as a sign of the emergence of a new social compact between government, businesses and NGO’s that has great potential to bring about the developmental transition that the Constitution – and all South Africans – deeply desire.

On the face of it, this uptick in public confidence and new developmental formation is cause for optimism. Yet it must be acknowledged that there remains deep divisions and social fractures in South African society that have great potential to destabilize the country, as indicated by the unrest and widespread destruction that took hold during the week of 12th of July this year. Recent statistics indicate that South Africa now has the highest unemployment out of 82 countries assessed by Bloomberg, at 44.4% according to the expanded definition of unemployment (standard unemployment rates would be lower). It is concerning that youth unemployment – people aged 15-24 years – is much higher, and has likely risen from 54.47% in 2019. Along with ranking as the most unequal country in the world, with unemployment and inequality delineating along racial and class lines that mirror South Africa’s Apartheid history, the democratic South African project remains vulnerable.

The need for deep systemic change remains and is arguably greater than it has ever been. And while the pressing need for a just developmental transition remains paramount, South Africa remains most vulnerable in respect of the national social compact it brokered in the transition to a new democracy. Pre-existing social divisions – which have been exacerbated by divisive populist rhetoric that seeks to exploit these divisions for political and personal gain – threaten to undermine and permanently fracture this social compact.

In this respect, South Africa has thoroughly demonstrated its vulnerability to a new threat to democracy that has proliferated across the world; the exploitation of big data and social media to undermine social and political cohesion. Over the past two years, the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC), uncovered three coordinated instances of coordinated narrative manipulation by inauthentic – highly likely paid – accounts. See relevant CABC reports on the campaign to promote xenophobia; rapid economic transformation; and the RET forces network and the July 2021 unrest.   

What is evident, is that there are actors who are clearly investing great effort and resources into the same strategy that Bell-Pottinger did (see text box below) in the hope of manipulating social divisions to destabilize the current political leadership and win political power for themselves. Hence, at the very heart of the need to maintain a broad-based political compact between government, civil society, and business – as well as between different racial, ethnic and class groups – in South Africa lies a woeful central vulnerability. That is, there is ample fuel for seeding coordinated narratives that spread like wildfire and take hold in broader society, and social and online media can easily be weaponized to achieve this. This places the quest to bring about deep systemic change in South Africa at great risk, as without a healthy society that can cooperate effectively and exhibit tolerance over our differences, it is unlikely that broader cooperation will be effective.

This vulnerability is not limited to South Africa but is rather a global vulnerability in democracies around the world. We now live in a fully augmented reality where the virtual realm plays a significant role in constructing our reality and notions of what the truth is. Powerful foreign and domestic actors have quickly cottoned on to this and have effectively exploited it to sow discord in democracies around the world, adopting a divide and conquer strategy. That is, they do not care whether a left-wing, right-wing, or centrist ideology wins out; their strategy is to push the divisions in society further to its extremes so that democratic politics can be manipulated for their gain. It is a destructive but effective strategy, as demonstrated comprehensively in democracies around the world. Hence the question, “who is defending us from social media and online media” today, is central to protecting democratic processes and outcomes.

We are living in a world where democracy itself is likely to increasingly become more digitalized over time. It is not unreasonable to imagine that the citizenry may one day be able to interact more closely with democratic decision-making processes – even vote – using our mobile phones. This may ultimately prove more enabling of a healthier, more responsive, transparent, and accountable democratic society and state. However, what has become clear is that it is highly likely that as this new terrain of social and political contestation evolves, the need to develop measures that protect society and democracy from the dangers that present alongside the opportunities that emerge.

Civil society itself will need to be able to engage better in the virtual realm if it is to be successful in its messaging to, and impactful in dialoguing with society. Ultimately, whether we are able to act in concert effectively to face and overcome some of the grand challenges that we are presented with in the 21st Century – such as climate change mitigation and adaptation, poverty and inequality, the collapse of global life-supporting ecosystems, hunger and food insecurity, gender as well as other social transformation prerogatives – will likely be in large part mediated by how well we engage in the virtual realm, alongside real-world face-to-face activism. Philanthropic efforts hence need to recognize and engage with the realities of this new terrain of contestation if their efforts are to prove effective in real-world terms. For the world we know is changing rapidly, and the focus of philanthropic efforts need to change with it.

 

HOW BIG DATA AND SOCIAL MEDIA IS USED TO UNDERMINE POLITICAL AND SOCIAL COHESION AND HOW SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS CAN DESTABILISE SOCIETIES THROUGH NARRATIVE MANIPULATION

India, the Philippines, Brazil, the USA, and the UK have all undergone severe shocks to their democracies because of the new terrain on which political contestation is playing out, and South Africa is no different. What has changed is that instead of targeting the citizenry with political messaging that is designed for broad demographic bands (e.g., white males between the ages of 20 and 30), big data – collected from social media and other online activity – and advanced analytics has enabled propagandists to target individuals and small groups more precisely than ever before, based on a deep understanding of their biases, preferences, fears, and anxieties. Simply put, it has become easier to manipulate people through information and psychological warfare styled propaganda campaigns that have been weaponized by developments in online social media and media over the past decade or so.

While the percentage of South Africans on Facebook is high (at 60.46%) the percentage on platforms such as Twitter remain low (at 10.43%). On the face of it, Twitter, for example, would pose a very limited threat to the social compact and political stability of South Africa. Yet this is not the correct way to interpret how platforms – particularly Twitter – are leveraged to destabilize societies and their body politic. Coordinated narrative manipulation campaigns are conducted on Twitter with the objective of seeding narratives that can spill over into the broader societal ‘ecosystem’ and become normative in the public discourse.

And this narrative manipulation has been successfully conducted by both foreign and domestic actors and agencies seeking to destabilize societies and their democratic processes. Bell-Pottinger’s infamous socially and politically divisive campaign in South Africa in 2016-2017 – at the behest of those now accused and charged with the project of state capture in South Africa – left a lasting and damaging imprint upon the body politic of South Africa, seeding terms such as white monopoly capital, land expropriation without compensation and radical economic transformation. These terms quickly became normative and are now part of the mainstream political discourse in South Africa today.

MORE ABOUT DR CAMAREN PETER

Dr Camaren Peter (PhD) is an associate professor at the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at the UCT GSB. He is also the Executive Head of the new Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC NPO). He is a pure scientist by training, having studied theoretical physics and astrophysics before obtaining his PhD from the UCT GSB in 2010.

Peter is a systems and complexity theorist who has applied complexity thinking to a variety of problem domains. Over the past decade he consulted extensively in a policy and advisory capacity on sustainable development, with a particular focus on the urbanisation challenges of the developing world. Peter has worked closely with a wide range of local and global institutions, and has published widely, contributing to both policy and academic discourses.

His first book – titled “Lazarus in the Multiple: Awakening to the Era of Complexity” (Zero Books, UK) – was published in 2016, and is a posthumanist exploration of the 21st Century human condition. It deals with themes ranging from memory to forgiveness, reconciliation, ethics, freedom, disruption, and the need for a transition to a new politics and society. It is aimed at leaders and strategists in particular, who are grappling with the challenges of the 21st Century.

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