#Xenophobia: what Twitter can tell us

South Africa has been hit anew with a spate of xenophobic attacks, and it is clear that until something substantial is done, foreigners will continue to be blamed for major systemic issues within our society and government.

In the 21st century, social media is able to shed a light on social crises that has never been available to us before. So we thought it might be interesting to break down exactly how South Africans are talking about xenophobia on Twitter.

We asked Crimson Hexagon if they could send us an analysis of #xenophobia to see how the hashtag was being used. The analysis was done on 27 February 2017, and looked at tweets from 30 January to 26 February.

In total, 17 000 tweets were issued with the hashtag, peaking on 24 February — the day of the anti-immigrant march.


11.1% of #xenophobia tweets included the #foreignermarch, while only 8.9% involved #TshwaneUnrest.2

Of the top ten hashtags involved in the conversation, only one was aimed at an individual.

Malusi Gigaba, South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs, has been criticised for furthering anti-foreigner rhetoric when declaring that he was “coming for” businesses who hired undocumented immigrants. He has also denied the existence of xenophobia, stating that it is merely crime, drugs and prostitution that South Africans are fixating on.

Along with connected hashtags are words that are often used in conjunction with #xenophobia.

7.7% of tweets with the hashtag included the word “fellow” — indicating that many are discussing the fact that foreign nationals are “fellow” Africans.

Along with “fellow”, “crime” and “jobs” also played a major role — highlighting high crime and unemployment rates as central causes for concern.

While many studies are able to look at negative and positive sentiment within a hashtag, #xenophobia posed a problem.

People who were both for and against foreign nationals discussed the topic negatively. On one side, people were condemning the march, and on the other, people were condemning foreigners. This means that the algorithm used to decipher sentiment would not render an accurate picture of how many users were for and against the conversation.

What it can do, though, is break down the emotions of the users tweeting.


The majority of emotions expressed make sense: Fear, anger, sadness, disgust. These are emotions expressed by both sides of the camp.

Tweets that are associated with joy mostly include the words “peace” and “love” — signalling attempts to inspire compassion in those persecuting foreign nationals.

Another fascinating outcome of the analysis is the demographic.

The majority of those talking about xenophobia on Twitter were men over the age of 34.


What stands out is the 18 to 24 year old demographic, who seem to have steered clear of the conversation. Considering students and the youth are often the spokespeople for change, the silence on this issue is contrary from what we’ve come to understand of South African students.

Even minors are discussing #xenophobia more than students — doubling the number of them using the hashtag.

69% of users were from Gauteng, and only 10,7% were from the Western Cape.

While there were definitely people from both sides of the crisis using #xenophobia, the most popular (in terms of retweets) were those condemning the acts.

Though it can definitely be argued that Twitter is an elite left-leaning platform that excludes much of the debate, it does help break down who is talking about the issues and how it makes them feel. It condenses a very heated complex issue into its core elements — much like a census would do. Analyses like this work as a mirror for our democracy.

And in this scenario, tweets are these people’s votes.



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