/ 2 May 2024

Social media the battlefield for SA’s political parties in this elections

Social Media App Photo Illustration
Even social media during the 2019 elections did not have as big a presence as it has in the 2024 elections. (Photo by Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Social media, a lucrative, private, profit-making platform, has in the past decade transformed how we live and do business. To generate its revenue and power, social media has used “surveillance advertising” in designing algorithms to manufacture our needs, desires and choices. Normal activities that we all used to do on weekends with our loved ones, in the privacy and comfort of our homes and neighbourhoods, have all been shifted to our smartphones. 

Banking, shopping, exercising, reading, partying and conversing are all activities we can now do in the comfort of our homes. But, as we click on all these items in our bedrooms, including “liking” our favourite photo, status, video, movie, outfit, meal, our smartphones keep all this data, and sell it to the advertising industry. In return, we receive a layout of our favourite commodities, news and narratives in our smartphones that influence our insights, consumption habits and emotions to maximise corporate profits. 

In the past decade in South Africa, social media has shown its widespread reach, influence and effect on the political landscape, business practices and popular culture. The #FeesMustFall movement clearly demonstrated to all of us the amount of muscle that social media has in the modern era. Most organisations, movements, businesses and individuals have an account with followers on Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and WeChat. As a result, political parties in recent times have also realised the importance and influence of social media. But their involvement and engagement with this platform has not been at the same intensity over the years. 

The ANC initially viewed social media as a tool of Western imperialism, opposition parties, white corporate media and civil society to instigate regime change. This view intensified during Jacob Zuma’s presidency of the party, until the ANC Youth League and the South African Communist Party advised the liberation movement to rather see social media as a contested site of struggle where they should also subscribe and participate. The Democratic Alliance (DA) adapted to social media much earlier, given the white privileged class of its leadership and its voters, but it still did not receive a following that represents the rest of the South African demographic that is online. 

 On the other hand, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) was founded in 2013 by  urban black youth with an online presence. This group shares common frustrations with the majority about the disappointing post-1994 socio-economic conditions, and the aspirations that black people have if they could be truly free. The increasing spread of access to higher education and the affordability of data and use of smartphones in the same period as the growing popularity of the EFF has intensified the online traffic around the party’s brand, leadership and political culture. 

“Black Twitter” is the theatre of the critical language of frustration, impatience and radical change that resonates with the concept of the EFF, and all political parties have been forced to improvise their social media conduct to fit into this influential online community. Traditional media houses themselves have shifted from print newspapers to social media to catch the news “as it happens”. In fact, anyone with a smartphone today can break the news for us or start a podcast to run a live broadcast free from the regulations of corporate boardroom newspaper interests. 

Undoubtedly this has stretched the freedoms in our democracy for the better. In the same vein, social media also carries its own risks during an election, such as the offering of disinformation and pamphlet knowledge that can deny the voter crucial in-depth facts to make informed decisions. Just on X (formerly Twitter) alone, the ANC today has 1.1 million followers and its leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, has 2.8 million. The DA has 741 thousand followers and its leader, John Steenhuisen, has 227 thousand followers. At 2.2 million, the EFF has the biggest following on the platform and its leader, Julius Malema, is the most popular politician with 4.2 million followers. 

The 29 May election will be the third national election that plays itself out in the presence of social media, and it is the most engaged election on this platform when compared with the 2019 and the 2014 elections. The investments that all political parties and media houses have made to the hiring of social media specialist administrators is a clear demonstration of how crucial social media is in shaping and determining the insights and outcomes of this election. 

As things stand, data from the Electoral Commission of South Africa shows that in the 2019 elections, most registered voters were above the age of 40, and the election outcomes were largely predictable given that only a fraction of them voted with the influence of social media. 

The average registered voter for the 2024 elections is younger and more digitally connected. The outcome will be interesting .    

Dr Pedro Mzileni is a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Zululand. He writes in his personal capacity.