Goolam the 'Apartheid Spy', DA, Ramaphosa, and Troll Farms: Unmasking Smear Campaigns and Information Operations

Published Jul 5, 2024


Last week the SABC Radio 2000's morning drive show host, DJ Sbu, invited the operator of the sock puppet Twitter (now X) account called Goolam.

Posting to his million followers, DJ Sbu posed the question: "Who's behind the @goolammv account?! He's a politician's worst nightmare! We just want to praise their work. Goolam, perhaps you'd like to speak to us anonymously?" This post appeared to be a masked campaign to profile and promote the Goolam sock puppet account.

One must question why a national radio programme would praise and label a troll account that targets specific individuals with smear as the "politician's worst nightmare". DJ Sbu’s claim reveals either a glaring deficiency in the production team’s research or a deliberate intent to promote the Goolam troll account.

A cursory investigation would have revealed to DJ Sbu and his production team that Goolam is, in fact, a sock puppet account masquerading as an anti-corruption crusader whilst selectively attacking targeted individuals using smear.

The sock puppet account aggressively conducts information operations to silence those perceived as anti-establishment or against the mainstream agenda. It also does a bidding in service of a particular faction within the ANC. The X account, along with a network of related sock puppet accounts, trolls and attacks anyone who speaks out against mainstream narratives or is seen as misaligned with Ramaphosa, or Pravin Gordhan.

One notable target of these trolls is Dr Iqbal Survé, businessman and chairman of Independent Media. His transgression? The trolls accused the Independent Media was accused of taking an anti-Government of National Unity (GNU) stance during post-election coalition negotiations, and it also exposed the racism and the DA racists.

When Independent Media exposed racist videos of DA MP, Renaldo Gouws, the trolls launched into a frenzy, and the smear attacks escalated. Given that the puppet masters behind these accounts choose to hide behind digital anonymity, it's crucial to analyse their targets, tactics, and strategies to reveal who might be pulling the sock puppet strings.

A pattern analysis of the account's targets reveals a consistent bias and clear evidence of an orchestrated information operation. The EFF, Julius Malema and his leadership are frequent targets. Former president Jacob Zuma, his son Duduzane, and Paul Mashatile have all found themselves in the crosshairs.

The common denominator is that all the targets of the smear campaign are black, and happen to be perceived as not aligned with Ramaphosa or Pravin Gordhan. Conversely, the sock puppet and its troll army heavily support and campaign for Ramaphosa, Gordhan, and the DA, occasionally retweeting Presidential spokesperson Vincent Magwenya.

With the recent formation of the GNU, the Goolam sock puppet account also revealed a strong alignment with the Democratic Alliance. DA Federal Chair Helen Zille even tweeted at the account, saying: "Come on @goolammv. We have been relying on you to find out what has been going on throughout these negotiations."

This digital tango between Zille and Goolam played out on X for all to see. The bromance extended to DA-aligned trolls and sock puppets who collaborated to attack Survé and anyone perceived as anti-GNU or opposed to an ANC-DA coalition, from Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi to Nomvula Mokonyane and Andile Lungisa.

Angered by the attacks, Lungisa took to X, stating: "There's an old apartheid spy called Goolam who is using X Twitter working with those who collaborated with the apartheid regime to continue with the old order agenda to scandalise everyone else who understands the form and the content of our struggle. He uses a code name."

Lungisa’s post suggests that the Goolam account may be controlled by former apartheid spies or operatives or "askaris". Interestingly, when Independent Online exposed racist videos of Gouws, the Goolam account intensified its smear campaign against Survé, accusing him of “creating racial tension”. Since when does exposing hardcore rabid racists create racial tension?

The Goolam sock puppet account's sole purpose appears to be online harassment, attacks, and smear campaigns against anyone opposing those likely controlling the account. Analysis suggests it's part of a sophisticated information operation, potentially a State Security counter-intelligence effort or a rogue unit operation. The account occasionally releases sensitive information but often simply rehashes old information or packages smears to attack its current targets. Similar to apartheid-era STRATCOM tactics, the account employs a strategy of mixing a small percentage of truth padded with a deluge of lies.

The account operates in tandem with numerous troll accounts used to boost its engagement. Most interactions and engagement on the Goolam account are either fake or from X accounts with a few follower count and that post no original content, except retweets. The accounts reposting Goolam content are simply astroturfing, to create an illusion of widespread support of his propaganda and smear. Occasionally, genuine accounts like Zille's will engage or even retweet, depending on the tweet's purpose. With the Goolam account now verified, it's likely using hundreds of bot accounts to create engagement fraud, potentially for monetary gain from X.

Click farms, engagement farms, and troll farms are the primary mechanisms driving “engagement” on the account. These operations create fake engagement and artificially boost his popularity. In some now-deleted tweets, the Goolam account had over 100 retweets from "egg heads" or "avatars" mainly from Turkey and India—clearly bought engagements. When another X user pointed this out, Goolam's handlers changed tactics, using accounts with local African names. But those accounts almost exclusively retweet and like his posts, pointing to a bot/ machine controlled activity.

The scale of the Goolam information operation and troll farm makes the infamous Gupta Bell Pottinger operation look like picnic by comparison. When combined with DA troll accounts it has been collaborating with lately, it is Bell Pottinger on steroids. Industrial scale disinformation campaigns. Ironically, these accounts engage in the very behaviour that organisations like CACB or Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab DFRLab accuse others of perpetrating. For years, these digital watchdog groups have turned a blind eye to Goolam and DA-aligned troll farms, suggesting a potential bias in their investigations.

Goolam and its troll farm operatives are nothing more than smear artists, flinging mud at anyone perceived to oppose their puppet masters. Their campaign against Independent Media is an affront to democracy, media freedom, and free speech. One wonders if Radio 2000 would have been so eager to "praise their work" had their propaganda attacks targeted the SABC or its leadership. Were Radio 2000, especially Sbu’s Breakfast Show used as “useful idiots” to promote the troll account?

Whether Goolam actually called into DJ Sbu's show remains unclear. However, DJ Sbu's promotion of this racist troll account raises suspicions of an attempt to legitimise and promote the account as part of a broader information operation. This occurred at a critical time when the account was most active, releasing information and launching attacks against those perceived as anti-GNU during and post negotiations.

My hope is that Goolam’s operators are not linked to the government. Because if they are, it would be a sad day for democracy to see the government resort to an apartheid-era smear campaign and information operation that was so widely condemned.

* Sizwe Dlamini is the Editor of Sunday Independent.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL.

Related Topics:

mediamass media