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Pro-Kremlin content targets South African social media users, pushing narratives around Ukrainian neo-Nazism

Analysis released today by the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), in partnership with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), reveals how false and misleading narratives are being spread to tens of thousands of South African social media users. 

The narratives attempt to portray Ukraine as a neo-Nazi state, justify Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and influence public opinion in South Africa. The new research provides insight into how Russia’s offensive is being played out in plain sight on social media – despite attempts to curb Russian disinformation – with the digital realm becoming a “crucial front” in the war, according to CIR and ISD’s report.

Researchers collected and analysed posts from Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) and also investigated the role of South African news sites in pushing pro-Kremlin narratives. 

While narratives were mainly spread through official Russian and Russian-controlled social media channels, they were also promoted by popular Western-based influencers on X – some with over a million followers and based in countries such as the US. 

According to the study, these Western influencers, who often derived their information directly from Russian government-affiliated sources, “drove the narrative into South Africa via organic shares, quotes, and replies”. 

Several South African news sites were also found to have syndicated content from Russian state media agencies or posted verbatim statements from Russian diplomats and other Kremlin-aligned figures. 

Three key narratives 

Researchers identified over 12k posts referencing Nazism in Ukraine among South African X users during the data collection period, which ran from 1 September 2023 to 1 April 2024.

Since the full-scale invasion in February 2022, pro-Russian accounts have peddled the narrative that Russia’s so-called "special military operation" serves to "denazify" Ukraine, with multiple sub-narratives and conspiracy theories spawned on social media since the invasion. 

CIR and ISD found that the three most prominent sub-narratives in South Africa were that the Ukrainian government is a neo-Nazi regime, that the Ukrainian military employs Nazi-like tactics in its "indiscriminate killing of civilians", and that the Ukrainian military willingly permits Nazis into its ranks. 

Some of the content citing Nazism in Ukraine centred around Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, with roughly 15% of around 12.6k mentions on X and Facebook mentioning Zelensky by name.

The controversy surrounding the celebration of Yaroslav Hunka in the Canadian Parliament last year drove a spike in the discussion – with over 2.5k mentions during the week of 25 September 2023. The revelation that Hunka had fought with a Nazi military unit prompted an online frenzy among South Africans, with some users drawing attention to President Zelensky’s attendance at the event. 

Kremlin posts found to flourish on X 

Posts from official Kremlin sources received more engagement on X than on Facebook, the study found. 

For instance, the Russian Embassy in South Africa received 30.7k engagements on 41 X posts positioning Ukraine as a "Nazi state", compared with 1.3k engagements on 57 Facebook posts. 

Elon Musk’s controversial takeover of Twitter in 2022 has been at the centre of a debate around content moderation on the platform – with many suspended accounts since reinstated, and the introduction of a monetized verification system fuelling misinformation about Ukraine.

Upcoming election    

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the South African government has maintained an open dialogue with the Kremlin, despite pressure from both Ukraine and the US to take a harder stance. 

With South Africa’s general election at the end of May fast approaching, attempts to influence public opinion – and amplify Russian interests – appear to have intensified.

Recent CIR analysis shared with Bloomberg revealed how X accounts used to promote Russian interests in South Africa attempted to rally support for former President Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation) party, also known as the “MK Party”.  The investigation identified several accounts that praised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and drew parallels between Zuma and Putin. One account had around 170,000 followers and regularly interacted with others to amplify its reach – at times generating over 1 million impressions per post.

Zuma was recently disqualified from running for a Parliament seat in the upcoming national election because of a previous criminal conviction. 

Download and read the full report, here:

240429_CIR_ISD_SA_Pro-Kremlin Propaganda Targets South Africans Online
Download PDF • 868KB

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