HomeAfrica-NewsThe last time Jacob Zuma went to jail, Twitter was moderated. ...

The last time Jacob Zuma went to jail, Twitter was moderated. This time, not so much.

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The Jabulani shopping center in Soweto, on July 13, 2021, after riots sparked by the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma spread from KwaZulu-Natal to Gauteng. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

  • South Africa is now part of a natural experiment: what happens in a politically tense situation when no one is home on Twitter?
  • On Monday, President Jacob Zuma’s medical parole was declared illegal. The last time he was in prison, Twitter was implicated in subsequent riots.
  • In recent weeks, new owner Elon Musk has stripped Twitter of the moderators, and likely law enforcement links, that got involved last time.
  • For more stories, visit www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

In mid-2021, former President Jacob Zuma went to jail and deadly riots spread across parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

On Monday, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that Zuma should be returned to jail, though possibly only after he appeals to the Constitutional Court, and with the possibility that his sentence may still be considered served.

After the violence and looting spread in 2021, experts warned that the events had been something of a dress rehearsal for what would happen if Zuma were jailed again, although it was expected at the time that he would later face jail due to his prosecution for corruption.

Things have changed since 2021. The government has recognized and, it says, begun to correct the intelligence and surveillance failures that allowed the violence and destruction to spread. Political power has shifted, through events such as the door being opened when President Cyril Ramaphosa steps aside if accused of a crime. And Elon Musk has gutted Twitter.

In 2021, the alleged coordination and incitement to riots appeared to have occurred largely through WhatsApp, which is classified as a dark social network. That platform’s security architecture means that a participant in a group chat must file a complaint before parent company Meta can take any action, and recent innovations like disappearing messages make even that easy to circumvent. .

Twitter, on the other hand, acts more like a broadcast network, which is why the company considered moderation so important until recently.

On Twitter, Zuma’s sons Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla and Duduzane Zuma, as well as EFF leader Julius Malema, were among the most notable users accused of what could be read as cheers for the rioters, when did not amount to threats of more violence. The platform is also popular with key pro-Zuma, such as Mzwanele Manyi, sometimes a spokesman for the former president.

Later analysis suggested that the Twitter posts did not trigger violence and was not used as a coordination tool, but that misinformation on the platform may have contributed to the damage and destruction.

Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla’s Twitter account was temporarily suspended, apparently for spreading misinformation about the riots; Twitter does not provide reasons or details about these suspensions.

Twitter staff also intervened in another way, reportedly helping authorities track down suspected instigators by providing email addresses and cell phone numbers linked to accounts.

However, it is not clear that the company now has someone who can handle a request for help from law enforcement or intelligence officials in South Africa. And an action like the Zuma-Sambudla suspension seems unlikely to be repeated, because it relied on a part of Twitter that effectively no longer exists: human moderators who analyze the reports and judge whether the rules were broken.

Any Twitter user can still file a complaint, but there’s no one on the receiving end.

Since Elon Musk took control of Twitter at the end of October with the promise of greater freedom of expression, he has fired employees who criticized him, as well as entire support teams, such as thousands of content moderators who helped police. the place. In his only office on the African continent, at least half the staff have been laid off, and Musk may not be done yet.

The result has been dramatically illustrated in several ways. Twitter users have posted full length movies on the platform, after its mechanism to prevent such copyright infringements went offline. In one study, 99% of racist abuse directed at footballers went undisturbed despite the reports.

What will that mean in a politically tense situation where online misinformation and incitement play a role? That seemed to be a question that would be answered in Brazil, after his recent presidential election, or in the United States, where Musk reinstated Donald Trump’s account, which was banned after the January 6 riots in the United States.

Now, perhaps, that experiment will also be carried out in South Africa.

Business Insider South Africa contacted Twitter about its ability to handle complaints from South African users. Did not answer. It is believed that much, if not all, of its media communication team has been made redundant.

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