For just over a week in July 2021, chaos reigned in two provinces in South Africa following the imprisonment of South Africa’s former president leaving 340 people dead and causing billions of rands in damage. Social media played a pivotal role in the July riots, with people documenting roadblocks, raging warehouse fires and the devastation caused to businesses by looters. The Outlier team, with funding from the Henry Nxumalo Foundation, collected tens of thousands of social media posts from Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and Facebook posted by ordinary people and media outlets to build a picture of what happened.
Most of the coverage on the July unrest before the publication of our project had focussed on identifying the instigators of the violence. However, we took a slightly different approach in which we used technology and open source investigative tools to plot how the events unfolded in a project that can be used by active citizens, policymakers and journalists for future research and potentially aid the South African Human Rights Commission which is currently investigating the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
To gather the initial data for this project, we used search terms to scour Google for posts from TikTok, Instagram and Facebook for the videos and photos of the July unrest, limiting our search from 8 to 16 July. We then used AFP Media Lab’s tool InVid to scrape Twitter with a focus on the popular hashtags from the week of unrest: #FreeJacobZuma, #KZNShutdown, #ShutdownKZN, #GautengShutdown, #PhoenixMassacre, #RamaphosaMustFall. For the final visualisation of the project, we chose four of the hashtags.
Once we had cleaned our data, we began locating where the tweets took place. We reversed searched images to find locations. Then we used Google Maps, Google Earth and local knowledge to pinpoint the exact latitude and longitude, which we collected into a Google spreadsheet. We used Google Maps to explore the data before designing the map using d3.js and Svelte.
In the completion of the project, we used tools such as Figma and Notion to brainstorm and map the posts and events that occurred concurrently with the looting and death of protestors.
What was the hardest part of this project?
One of the hardest aspects of the project was how to concisely portray what happened during the week of unrest in South Africa with nuance. By the time it came to putting the project together, we had so much information that we had to decide what our audience needed to know. Another challenging aspect was because of the wealth of data we had collected we had various visualisation options so we spent a considerable amount of time unpacking which way our visualisations would have the most impact.
What can others learn from this project?
I think journalists can firstly use this project for their future investigations on the July unrest. I also believe that our project can help connect Twitter accounts to potential instigators of the unrest based on our groundwork research and analysis.
This project can also be used as a reminder of what happened in that week and how things unraveled online which can be used for future researchers, educators and policy makers.
When we began the project one of our plans was to explore new ways of telling stories through open source tools, programming, research and narrative. We believe we achieved this objective.