Wednesday, October 28, 2015

South African Parties Shape Their Narrative Using Twitter
October 28 2015 at 02:35pm
By Daniel de Kadt

An analysis of the tweets send by the ANC, DA and EFF tell a tale, writes Daniel de Kadt.

The student protests and the rapid changes in the political dynamics therein provide an opportunity to study the reaction of political parties to public protests in a dominant party democracy like South Africa.

Political response to the protests varied over the course of the week, and by political party. How can we know this?

By analysing the messages parties broadcast via their official Twitter accounts. Twitter allows us to study politicians’ real-time responses to events, which is particularly useful in countries where cellphones (and thus access to social media) are the primary tool for media consumption.

To analyse political response to the ongoing protests, I collected the tweets and retweets from official Twitter accounts associated with three major political parties: the ANC (ANC: @MyANC_), the EFF (EFF: @EconFreedomZA), and the DA (DA: @Our_DA).

The two primary opposition parties, the DA and the EFF, have unsurprisingly both jumped on the protests as a vehicle for their own agendas.

This makes much sense – the DA struggles to find support among young black South Africans, while the EFF’s manifesto is on the extreme end of redistribution, so calls for free education are a logical fit. Yet there are subtle differences in both the ability of the parties to respond, and the strategic approaches they take.

The DA, a wealthier and more institutionalised party than the EFF, had a faster and more co-ordinated public communication campaign. Further, the DA attempted to shape the Twitter narrative to target the ANC’s minister of education, Blade Nzimande. By contrast, the EFF appears to have simply shown solidarity with students, largely following the students’ narrative rather than attempting to shape it themselves.

What do we learn from Twitter about the ANC? Their response to the protests appears to be a quintessential example of patronage politics. While the protests were focused on university campuses and administrations, the ANC encouraged them very gently from a distance. Once the protests targeted the ANC, its president and its ministers swiftly changed tack, first adopting a stoic repressive silence, and then a rapid outreach to students and policy capitulation.

The frequency of public communications changed with the rise of the protests. The ANC out-tweeted its opponents dramatically throughout October (considering the whole month allows us to see contrasts in behaviour), though its communication frequency changed over time. For instance, the party did not tweet at all on October 16 or 17.

 In terms of frequency, the DA comes in second, with a lower, but fairly constant frequency of tweets per day throughout the month. The EFF appears to be the least prolific user of social media. Again, these patterns make sense – the ANC has by far the most resources of the three parties and has over 230 000 Twitter followers, a large market for it to address. The DA and EFF, by contrast, have fewer followers (170 000 and 82 500 respectively) to target, and the EFF, a relative newcomer to the political scene, lacks the organisational capacity that the DA has generated in the last decade.

 Although all three parties reacted to the protests on social media, the DA’s response was clearly the best co-ordinated and pointed. The DA’s frequency jumped three-fold from a daily mean of roughly 25 tweets to 75 on October 20 and 21. Once the mass protests were established, on October 22 and 23, tweets dropped to lower levels, though they were still above the monthly mean.

Likewise, the EFF’s frequency of communications on October 21 was far higher than the monthly average, but the party was slower on the uptake, and faded as the protests continued, suggesting that much less energy was committed toward communication by the EFF than by the DA. The ANC’s communications during the protest were systematically but not abnormally high, compared to the rest of October. They dropped notably on October 20, but the party was back to its prolific self on October 21, 22, and 23.

But what do the tweets actually say?

Message content gives a sense of the parties’ strategies in response to the protests. A simple way to visualise tweet content is word frequency clouds. Note, for instance, that on October 19, when the protests are just beginning to grip Wits and UCT, the DA is very quick to orient its public messaging around them. This maps well to the previous finding that the DA was the fastest party to move on the protests, where its tweet frequency jumped more rapidly than the other parties. Their tweets are almost exclusively focused on education, with the most prominent term being “blademustfall”, a reference to Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande.

The ANC, however, was busy elsewhere on October 19, focused on the Hamas visit to South Africa, and on Palestine. In fact, the ANC did make mention of the protests (eg “witsuniversity” and “freeeducation”). Recall that while October 19 was the start of the protests, they were at this point still focused on universities and not the government. The ANC, it seems, was happy to score points by endorsing the protests while the ire was not focused on them.

 The EFF, meanwhile, had little content of interest on October 19, with only a brief mention of fees. By October 20, however, it had a single-minded narrative – “feesmustfall”, and an exclusive focus on education. The ANC, on October 20, was again talking about “freeducation” (supporting the students who are making demands of universities), but still had time and energy to focus on other issues. The same day, the DA was exclusively focused on the protests, while also building in name recognition for its leader, Mmusi Maimane, who visited (and was rejected by) protesting students on UCT’s campus.

On October 21 – the day the students marched on Parliament – was when the strategies diverged most notably. The DA and EFF were then working the same angle – all education, with repeated demands for Zuma and Nzimande to address the students and their grievances. Note, however, that the DA and EFF were split in their use of key hashtags – the EFF was focused on “feesmustfall”, the primary hashtag of the student movement, while the DA was more overtly political, still demanding (and attempting to build a narrative around) the resignation/firing of Nzimande. Crucially, the ANC was then utterly silent on the issue of fees, free education, and students, and returned its focus to the Hamas visit to South Africa.

Come October 22, with students still protesting, threatening marches on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the camel’s back was broken. The ANC capitulation beginsan, and it changed tune dramatically. Then nothing but education mattered, and, crucially, the communication strategy was focused directly on “students”. While the EFF was still talking exclusively about “feesmustfall” (and the DA had jumped on to this bandwagon and had left “blademustfall” behind, having failed to sustain the hashtag), the ANC was focused on welcoming students to Luthuli House, talking about the importance of education, and building a connection between the party and the students.

 We can see this as the ANC attempting to use patronage politics (its favourite tool) to de-escalate the situation. The students had made themselves known, they had demonstrated a legitimate threat, and then the ANC welcomed them in, would listen, talk and make commitments to them. The opposition parties, which control scarce resources themselves, could make no promises and had no counter to this strategy. Indeed, some of the ANC’s tweets had been remarkable. Consider the two below:

In both tweets, the ANC was clearly signalling it was the party students should trust, rely on, and engage with. In the first tweet, the purpose is clear: the ANC stands with students on the issue of free education (or lower fees). The second tweet is even more instructive: here, the ANC was attempting to merge itself with the student movement, blurring the lines between protesters and the regime.

On October 23, while students were marching on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the DA pushed the same line as the day before, with added references to its leadership (who joined the march) and students. Curiously, the official EFF twitter account was silent, possibly because its resources were exclusively dedicated to the march. The ANC continued to place students front and centre of its communication strategy, legitimising their complaints and grievances, and attempting to establish itself as the party that cares for them, with words like “meetings” and “outreach”.

 Twitter data gives us insights into the communication strategies of parties. In South Africa, the ANC remains essentially all powerful. In the face of this month’s protests it seems to have adopted a strategy of patronage politics, including and compensating those who threaten their power.

But opposition parties, which don’t have those strategies available to them, attempt instead to score political points and shape public narratives in the face of mass protest. Whose approach is most successful remains to be seen.

Social media tracks protests

Thousands of protesters took to the streets this week, mostly students demonstrating against the rising cost of attending a university.

And the protesters are not without cause. Tuition fees (and, correspondingly, student debt) are high, universities remain exclusive and study conditions are often far from optimal.

The most recent wave of protests began in earnest on Monday with protests that had been simmering at the University of the Witwaters-rand rapidly gaining momentum. Although not well covered in the mainstream international media, inform-ation about the protests was shared widely in social media. Protesters and journalists provided updates, photos, and video of marches across the country. The corresponding hashtags #FeesMustFall and #NationalShutDown trended worldwide on Twitter.

From October 14-16, the hashtag #WitsFeesMustFall received roughly 20 000 tweets per day. On Monday #FeesMustFall had started to trend, with just under 50 000 tweets, and on Tuesday it was tweeted roughly 75 000 times.

Tuesday saw the protests spread to numerous other campuses, including the University of Cape Town, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Stellenbosch, and Rhodes.

On Monday and Tuesday, protesters focused their attention on their universities’ administrations, demanding fee hikes be lowered for the coming academic year. On Wednesday, students marched to Parliament, attempting to disrupt the mid-term budget speech being delivered by Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene.

On Thursday, the protests became truly national, no longer isolated to campuses. The hashtag #FeesMustFall was featured in well over 200 000 tweets, and #NationalShut-Down featured in just over 100 000. (By contrast, the hashtag for the South Africa vs Wales world cup quarterfinal – #RSAvWAL – topped out at around 25 000 tweets on one day.)

The protesters, whose marches had been largely peaceful, were met by public order police, tear gas, stun grenades and Tasers.

On Wednesday, 29 students were arrested. Unsurprisingly, Thursday was another day of mass protest, and on Friday, students marched on the Union Buildings.

In the late afternoon, President Jacob Zuma announced the government’s response, a capitulation to the of the students’ demands of a 0 percent fee increases for 2016.

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