From its profile pic, the Twitter account @TracyZille seems to belong to a white woman. And it uses the surname of Helen Zille, the former head of the Democratic Alliance, a South African opposition party with a legacy of white voter support and representation.
The account is full of racist, sexist and sometimes homophobic tweets. Some of the worst have been deleted, but screenshots of them have appeared many times on Facebook and seem designed to be as controversial as possible. That’s because they were.
Curiously, the account also often posts seemingly uncontroversial tweets with links to similar-looking WordPress blogs.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab) recently revealed that @TracyZille is a fake account linked to a money-making scheme run by a member of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), another opposition party.
What is the scam, and how does it work?
On 10 July 2020, DFRLab published an in-depth report revealing that @TracyZille was one of several Twitter accounts that seemed to be operated by Anthony Matumba, an EFF representative on the executive committee of Makhado Local Municipality in Limpopo province.
The accounts drive traffic primarily to three WordPress blogs: whatsappgroup.co.za, search67.com and jobsfinder.co.za. DFRLab discovered all three were registered with Matumba’s email address – some under his name. The blogs are associated with the company Volongonya (Pty) Ltd, also registered under Matumba’s name.
The blogs publish clickbait articles and job ads such as this one, which appears to have been copied word for word from a real job advert in a recent government circular. Matumba also posted links to the blogs on his personal Twitter and Facebook pages, but deleted them after DFRLab’s report was published.
DFRLab found that most of the links to the blogs came from other accounts. Excluding @TracyZille (which DFRLab was unable to include in its analysis of the network of accounts) the most popular of these accounts appears to be @AmogelangPaswa.
Described in its Twitter bio as “A woman who is not afraid to express Herself”, @AmogelangPaswa does use hashtags and trending topics, but doesn’t resort to the @TracyZille tactic of deliberately controversial tweets.
But what is the purpose of this coordinated network of false accounts? And why does it seem like we’ve seen it before?
Exploiting AdSense, a familiar tactic
On 26 May, Africa Check published a report, researched in collaboration with DFRLab, about a trend of Facebook pages posting deceptive links to supposed jobs offers. These pages direct hopeful job seekers to websites that won’t get them employed, but will earn money for the site owner using the Google AdSense network.
The false promise of jobs draws people to a site hosting adverts, which then pays the owner a certain amount of money for each visit. Matumba appears to use the same tactic: whatsappgroup.co.za, search67.com, and jobsfinder.co.za all use Google AdSense and prominently display adverts.
So accounts like @TracyZille are part of a network designed to drive as many page views as possible, and work in a similar manner to the job scams Africa Check and DFRLab have reported on in the past. “Tracy Zille” doesn’t exist.
The account courts controversy and uses racist and otherwise divisive tweets to earn its owner followers and money. To combat tactics like these, be aware of them and avoid sharing anything that seems designed to provoke controversy – particularly if it is being shared by someone whose identity you can’t confirm.
DFRLab has investigated other false Twitter profiles using similar tactics for economic or political gain. It shares this research on its Medium page, and can also be found on Twitter and Facebook. – Keegan Leech
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