Xenophobia on Social Media

by | Oct 13, 2019 | Business

Press Release: Xenophobia on Social Media in South Africa 2011-present day.

The Citizen Research Centre (www.citizenresearchcentre.org) has recently published a report on Xenophobia on Social Media in South Africa from 2011 to present day. The full report is available on our website.

Using an analytics platform called Crimson Hexagon we isolated and then analysed all public social media pertaining to xenophobia in South Africa – across Twitter, Facebook, tumblr, Instagram, forums, chat rooms, comments and blog posts.

Working with social media data is an amazing process, and unlike any other form of research. All the data we look at represents the unsolicited views of ordinary citizens expressed on a public platform.  In this study on Xenophobia in South Africa, we didn’t go and ask as many people as possible what their views on xenophobia are. Rather, we looked at what tens of thousands of people had to say on social media about xenophobia. 

In this sense, data from social media represents the truest expression of people’s views on any given subject – we are looking in on people expressing their opinions, unsolicited, on social media platforms – and it is a treasure trove of information. 

It is simultaneously a very ‘big’ and a very ‘small’ process. We typically analyse millions of posts in our studies. Behind the big numbers though, are millions of uniquely expressed individual opinions. Each post is a uniquely created piece of information giving an individual citizen’s opinion on a given subject. Our task is to look at trends and changes in tone over time on a ‘macro’ scale, while also showing the nuance of the conversation at an individual level. 

Social media is a giant conversation – people’s views are complex, and that is expressed in the intersection between opposing views within individual conversations.  

In looking at xenophobia on South African social media, we excluded all media posts and all posts related to xenophobia in other countries.  

The remaining comments made by individuals constituted a data set of almost 2 million relevant posts since 2011. Remember that this is all public social media – so the reach of these posts is even more dramatic. If we isolate just the twitter posts from this data set, they had a total of 5.7 BILLION potential impressions. This effectively means that collectively these posts landed in 5.7 billion twitter feeds.

Our analysis of these posts provides us with some clear lessons in how xenophobia on social media is linked to xenophobia on the streets, as well as in how to help moderate the conversation.

Xenophobic content on social media has been ever present. From 2011 to now the average number of posts has ticked along at 760 posts per day.

Social media, of course, responds to ‘real life’, and these numbers spike dramatically during times of crisis. There were 2 main xenophobic outbreaks in our study – one in April 2015 and one in February of this year.

In April 2015, King Goodwill Zwelethini, made his infamous statement that ‘all foreigners should leave the country’. Violence directed at African foreigners erupted in KZN and rapidly spread to the rest of the country. During the violence, social media conversation around xenophobia grew to 5670 posts a day.

In January and February of this year, there were an average of nearly 2000 posts per day on the subject. This was in the build up to the march at the end of February. Again this was inflamed by a public figure – with Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba linking foreigners to crime. He was quoted as saying: “You see, for me, when I call these criminals criminals, I want them to understand that they are criminals. They are holding our country to ransom and I am going to be the last South African to allow it.”

Looking at the total conversation in detail, we see several key themes emerge:

  • Xenophobic social media posts comprised between 8% and 28% of all conversation, depending on the year. They have been a smaller percentage of the conversation during actual xenophobic crises – as this has been when more pacifying voices have joined the conversation.
  • There is a more recent tendency to associate foreigners with criminal activity. This was aggravated by – if not caused by – Herman Mashaba’s recent comments. As a result, hateful speech against foreigners associating them with crime have risen threefold to 13% of the total conversation since his statement.   
  • What we would classify as extreme hate speech and incitement to violence has remained a fairly small component of the total conversation, but is still of great concern.  In 2015 there were 21 660 posts that could be classified as such and in the first two months of this year there have already been 1100 posts that fit this description.
  • Pacifying voices rise in times of crisis, and range from 15% to 42% of the conversation. Crucially, pacifying voices have been weakest before xenophobic violence/protest hits. For example, only 15% of posts spoke against xenophobia in 2016, but by the time of the march in February they had risen to 38% of the total conversation.
  • Politicians play a very important role in pacifying sentiment. Their anti-xenophobic views are widely distributed and discussed on social media. Julius Malema, Fikile Mbalula and Mmusi Maimane all tweeted strong statements against xenophobia.  Julius Malema, though, had the biggest effect in countering xenophobic views – probably because he engaged early and because he has an active support base on social media. 
  • Then a really dramatic shift in the xenophobia conversation has occurred in the last year. Posts are anti-xenophobic AND anti-colonialist or anti-white South Africans have grown exponentially. The typical narrative here is that we shouldn’t take our anger out on fellow Africans, but rather on ‘the real enemy’ – colonialism or white South Africans.  This is allied to the #feesmustfall movement. From comprising less than 1% of the conversation in 2011, in the first 2 months of this year, it made up 24% of the total conversation around xenophobia. In other words, in January and February this year, 1 in 4 posts referring to xenophobia from any angle – positive or negative – on social media in SA fell into the anti-white or anti-colonial category. This points to a dramatic in South Africa’s political landscape, especially amongst young Black South Africans.

So what can we learn from all of this?

  • Firstly, government needs to admit that there is a problem – saying that South Africans are not xenophobic does not change the fact that a great many South Africans are xenophobic. The first step towards dealing with a problem is acknowledging that it exists – various politicians, including Former President Zuma have denied that there is a xenophobia problem. 
  • Secondly, politicians have to be far more responsible in what they say.  Both the 2015 and the 2017 xenophobic outbreaks were preceded by irresponsible statements by public figures. This is profoundly unhelpful and is a display of poor leadership. Negative opinions are dramatically amplified on social media, and comments like those made by Herman Mashaba provide justification for xenophobic views. They embolden xenophobes, and can directly contribute to violence – both verbal and physical. 
  • Thirdly, it may be more helpful to start calling xenophobia what it actually is in the South African context – it is Afrophobia.  The most hateful, unpublishable bile that is said on social media is directed towards Africans from other countries.
  • Conversely, politicians can provide the necessary momentum in the counter narrative against xenophobia. Very few politicians entered the conversation, rather sitting silently by. and more can definitely be done here.  Politicians need to be heard as early, as unanimously and as unambiguously as possible – speaking out loudly and clearly against xenophobia. 
  • Lastly, a twin strategy of consistently bolstering, encouraging and emboldening the pacifying voices and challenging the provocative voices must be pursued. To this end, the Citizen Research Centre aims to engage in ongoing, live engagement on social media – with the intention of changing mind-sets and behaviour.


The Citizen Research Centre (www.citizenresearchcentre.org) conducts research on social media in the public interest, in partnership with Crimson Hexagon. They have recently published extensive material on the conversation on xenophobia on social media in South Africa. They hope to secure funding to complete this work, engage in ongoing live dialogue on social media to help ‘reduce the temperature’, and to repeat the process for racism, sexism and homophobia.  For more information, or to assist us in our work, contact: info@citizenresearchcentre.org