POLITICS

Ferial Haffajee: The Gupta Fake News Factory And Me

'The online attacks made me feel dirty and endangered.'

06/06/2017 05:57 SAST | Updated 02/08/2017 16:44 SAST

For months, I've looked at them when I'm alone. Quickly, like a dirty secret. The images make me wince with their distortions and insults. I snap my phone shut and move to another screen. Or make a cup of tea. Images are powerful and the designers have very specific messages. That I am a whore, a harridan, an animal and a quisling. I feel shame, and fear that my family will see them and not understand their genesis.

Twitter

I thought I knew myself better than the crafters of these images do, and so sometimes I've laughed them off when asked about the score of images that have linked me to the hashtag decrying #whitemonopolycapital (white monopoly capital) and which have labelled me variously a presstitute (media prostitute) and a lapdog of the Richemont chairman and South African billionaire Johann Rupert. But upon reflection, the instinct to feel ashamed and to worry about what my less digitally savvy family might think means this kind of trolling works.

Rupert dropped Bell Pottinger as Richemont's public relations specialist, accusing them of running the campaign on white monopoly capital and making him the poster boy. Bell Pottinger was also working for the Gupta family on a hefty retainer. They are now widely believed to be the masterminds behind efforts to divert attention from the family's capture of the South African state.

Although I have never met Rupert and only spoken to him once or twice, the images had me (or a very badly Photoshopped version) in his lap. There is one of Rupert walking a dog with my face plastered on the pooch and another of him milking a bovine with human visage - mine. The attack is patriarchal and gendered: I am the woman as cow and bitch. The contrivers couldn't get more stereotypical if they tried.

Twitter
Twitter
Twitter

Last week, as the #Guptaleaks spluttered all over South Africa, the graphic artists had one more message. This time, I was "Torchbearer of Discredit Media" (sic) with the sub-heading "Killing Black Leaders, Protecting White Monopoly Capitalist". My image was stamped with the headline "Intellectual Mafia or a Presstitute?" Also labelled as "Intellectual Mafia" were the Daily Maverick's Ranjeni Munsamy, News24's editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson and amaBhungane managing partner Sam Sole.

Twitter

Now that the contours of Bell Pottinger's propaganda campaign in South Africa are clarifying, the anatomy of the Gupta family's fake news factory is showing up under the x-ray of investigative journalism.

Four Days in December

My online trouble started some time ago. I joined Twitter when my former colleague Nic Dawes showed me how the microblogging site works. Its instant opinion and news loop is wonderful - as a former weekly editor, I revelled in its speed, and the community of global news I was suddenly a part of was very different to my previous world as a national print editor. But soon, I would discover the little bird's dark heart.

In 2012, City Press, which I edited at the time, published an image of The Spear, the Brett Murray painting featuring President Jacob Zuma as naked emperor. We got into a lot of trouble for the art review.

Mostly, I've brushed off tweeted attacks by developing a felicity with Twitter's block and mute function– my phone is my space and if you are being a pig in my space, I'll chuck you out.

Twitter was in flames and at the time, I faced a barrage of lewd commentary about penises and my single status. The attack made me feel dirty and endangered. Even more so than when the local ANC leader used the social media platform to spread fake news (before we had a name for fake news), saying City Press would not be published as I had been fired.

A parody account posing as belonging to businessman Patrice Motsepe was particularly painful in its attacks and I complained to him. He got it shut down but not before I learnt that women get attacked viciously by Twitter mobs who turn your gender, age and marital status into ticking time bombs when you write what they don't like.

This report outlines what happens to women journalists across the world.

Mostly, I've brushed off tweeted attacks by developing a felicity with the site's block and mute function - my phone is my space and if you are being a pig in my space, I'll chuck you out.

Things continued at a low level of harassment until the City Press editor, Mondli Makhanya, asked me to write a story called "Four Days in December" which chronicled the removal of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister over an infamous weekend in December 2015.

My view, then, was that Twitter and social media are great media democratisers: they level the playing field, giving readers as much power as the mass media. It follows then that if I want my freedom of speech to be sacrosanct, then others are entitled to the same. I block them but do no more than that. What strikes me now is how well the campaign worked.

Things continued at a low level of harassment until the City Press editor, Mondli Makhanya, asked me to write a story called "Four Days in December", which chronicled the removal of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister over an infamous weekend in December 2015. His brief was to use that telescope to develop an understanding of what Solly Mapaila, the second deputy general secretary of the SACP, called state capture.

The term refers to how the state becomes distorted in every way, from policymaking to procurement, by the efforts of cronies and politically connected networks.

This definition perfectly suited the ambitions and actions of the Gupta family. By then, the story of how they had tried and failed to make the then-deputy finance minister, Mcebisi Jonas, the top guy at the Treasury, was well known. The story we published in the City Press in December 2016 pulled together a year's coverage of state capture.

In the months that followed, a pattern emerged: every time I typed a tweet including the family's name or linked anything about state capture, the army would be out trolling. It was like an automated response.

By the next day, Twitter attacks had been started, fuelled and spread by a range of fake accounts. Upon investigation, they were run by false names and profiles using images of models you can find online. This army of hundreds of fake accounts run by master accounts are now known as #paidtwitter - a social media army aligned to the Gupta family network.

Investigative research by Jean le Roux in the Daily Maverick first revealed the fake army and how it was a controlled and manipulated "bot". In the months that followed, a pattern emerged: every time I typed a tweet including the family's name or linked anything about state capture, the army would be out trolling. It was like an automated response.

AmaBhungane reporters all got trolled this way. So did Radio 702's Stephen Grootes, whom Bell Pottinger failed to game into a sweetheart or controlled interview with the Gupta family. BizNews publisher Alec Hogg was on the radar of the paid twitter army.

Other research has shown that the fake army only retweeted itself and that the only "real world" or authentic accounts that spread its messages included those of Black First Land First's Andile Mnxgitama, the Decolonisation Foundation's Mzwanele Manyi and Uncensored Opinion's Pinky Khoabane.