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#HandsOffLeratoPillay: Lerato Pillay is trending online, Who is Lerato

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Who is Lerato Pillay

For long his identities were hidden until lately, he has been identified as a man.

His real name is Sifiso Jeffrey Gwala, a former lance corporal with the 121st SA Infantry Battalion in Mtubatuba in coastal KwaZulu-Natal, Sifiso Jeffrey has been the brain  behind the “anonymous” Twitter account previously known as @uLerato_pillay, which has been accused of inciting xenophobic tensions in South Africa.

In recent weeks, these narratives have bubbled to the surface of mainstream media outlets as public officials from fringe political parties echoed these nationalist sentiments in what appears to be reckless political opportunism.

The @uLerato_pillay account was the focus of a DFRLab investigation published on July 3, 2020. Although that investigation correctly identified the name of the person behind the account as “Sfiso J Gwala,” it fell short of identifying a specific individual.

In the time since that story was first published, @uLerato_pillay changed its account handle to @PutSAnsFirst_, and has apparently changed hands, to a member of the South Africa First political party. Meanwhile, an entirely new account has laid claim to the @uLerato_pillay handle.

In the earlier investigation, the DFRLab found that after it was created on November 1, 2019, the @uLerato_pillay account was initially known as @sfiso82648954. The account only adopted the @uLerato_pillay persona — that of an Indian woman from Gwala’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal — sometime around November 6, 2019.

Cached and archived versions of the account as it appeared back then were used to confirm that both of these user handles belonged to the same Twitter user ID. Although a user can change its display name, user handle and profile images, the user ID cannot be changed.

This association was corroborated during the investigation with several interactions between @uLerato_pillay and another Twitter account called @sfisogwala_sa. The latter account claimed to be part of the South Africa First party, a fringe political movement with strong nationalist tendencies that features frequently on @uLerato_pillay’s timeline.

The investigation also linked Gwala to @uLerato_pillay through a Change.org petition created in late April 2020. The petition called on DStv, the South African satellite television provider, to drop their subscription prices in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The petition was created by a user called Sfiso J Gwala.

By comparing the source code of the Change.org website with the timestamps of the tweets from @uLerato_pillay and @sfisogwala_sa sharing a link to it, the DFRLab found that @uLerato_pillay shared a link to the petition 93 seconds after it was published by its creator at 11:44:23am local time. The @sfisogwala_sa account only shared a link to his “own” petition several minutes later.

Gwala’s lie was called out using his real name, and within seconds of being named “Sfiso” @uLerato_pillay deleted the tweet and blocked the DFRLab researcher that named him. Later that evening, @uLerato_pillay brigaded its followers to use the hashtag #HandsOffLeratoPillay in support of the “attack” against him.

This reaction stands in contrast to previous attempts to identify the owner of the account, which were met with disdain and ridicule from Gwala.

Further corroboration was soon found when a Facebook profile identified during the earlier investigation, called Sfiso J Gwala, was taken offline. While this Facebook account was identified during the previous investigation and was suspected of being the creator of the Change.org petition, it was not included in publications as it could not be conclusively linked to either the @uLerato_pillay or the @sfisogwala_sa accounts, until now.

Within hours after the earlier DFRLab investigation was syndicated by local news publication Daily Maverick, attempts were made to destroy key evidence linking Gwala and the @uLerato_pillay account.

First, the Sfiso J Gwala Facebook account identified earlier was either deactivated or made private and could no longer be found when searching for either the username or the Facebook user ID of the account. The date of this is undetermined, but it was first noticed on 11 July.

Second, the author of the DStv petition attempted to close and delete the petition later on the same evening — peculiar timing considering that months had passed with no new updates. The Change.org page source code shows that changes were made at 10:08pm local time on 13 July 2020.

Last, the @uLerato_pillay account tweeted at 6:47pm local time on July 13, 2020, in an attempt to distance itself from Sfiso Gwala. This tweet not only displayed intimate knowledge of Gwala’s suspended accounts (whose only known personal account was suspended months earlier) and political affiliations, but also claimed that Gwala had never hidden his identity. The tweet was later deleted, although archived copies are still available.

Culled From: Dailymaverick.co.za

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