July unrest report: Panel finds that social media played a huge role in driving chaos

Hundreds of protesters looted Jabulani Mall in Soweto during the July unrest. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Hundreds of protesters looted Jabulani Mall in Soweto during the July unrest. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Feb 8, 2022


Johannesburg - The use of social media by various networks to instigate violence and to organise themselves to carry out violence, played a major role in the July 2021 unrest

This has been revealed by an expert panel, appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa last year to probe what led to the public violence, destruction and sabotage that engulfed parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

In its report, the panel said the instigators and their respective networks left a clear trail of evidence and as a result, several could be apprehended and charged.

The 154-page report was released by Ramaphosa on Monday.

The report said the use of social media platforms seemed to confound the security services, who seemed unable to process the information that was spreading in the community, and to put in place operational plans to respond.

“It appears that the violence was largely enabled by social media. Tweets, WhatsApp messages, Facebook, and other media were an easy way of spreading the news about what was happening or about to happen. In organising to defend themselves, communities and even businesses used the same methods: it was fast, inexpensive, and efficient,” said the report.

The report further said: “One problem is that social media is also a way of spreading false information, rumours, and sowing panic. The role of traditional media with trained and ethical journalists was a critical factor in the information equation. The media covered the events extensively, often taking risks to bring what was happening to the attention of the public. This was commendable and the alternative, of under-reporting, would have left an information gap.”

The report also revealed that there was debate about whether the media, by focusing the spotlight constantly on the violence, did not give more publicity to the attention-seeking instigators than was due. This criticism was expressed by some in the SAPS.

Police also criticised the media for allegedly not reporting on their successes, saying there were many instances where they had successfully defended and protected property and infrastructure.

“But the police cannot place all the blame on the media. They could have taken the initiative to publicise their own successes and perhaps won back some of the confidence that had waned,” said the report.

The report further said the recent signing into law of the Cybercrimes Act 19 of 2020 may provide the state with additional tools to counter cybercrimes, and provide clarity on where the lines should be drawn regarding legitimate voicing of political opinion using digital tools, and the use of such tools to threaten persons with damage to property or violence or to send data messages which incite damage to property or violence.

The act also provides the SAPS with the authority to investigate, search and seize, and co-operate with foreign governments to investigate cybercrimes. Some have argued that if the act had been in operation in the period before the unrest, it might have been possible to apprehend any instigators using social media platforms.

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Political Bureau