SOUTH AFRICA (DANIEL VAN BOOM) – June 19, 2017, a news site in South Africa runs a story. It’s no normal story.
“National Treasury Sold to Johann Rupert,” reads the headline.
In a majority black country, Rupert, a white business magnate worth an estimated $7 billion, is the second richest man.
There was no evidence to support the explosive headline, but the story wasn’t retracted or corrected. It wasn’t designed to inform, it was designed to mislead. It was fake news.
The story was posted on WMC Leaks, one of many fake news sites making up an online network of misinformation. Behind the network: a trio of Indian businessmen known as the Guptas. The Guptas are infamous in South Africa.
Ajay, Atul and Rajesh “Tony” Gupta aren’t your regular family of businessmen. With close ties to former president Jacob Zuma and constant whispers of politicians in their control, the Guptas were increasingly at odds with a hostile public who saw them as the face of corruption in South Africa.
In a move reminiscent of Russian operatives looking to disrupt the US during the presidential election and the UK during the Brexit referendum, the Guptas in 2016 decided to use the power of the internet, and social media in particular. What ensued was a scandal that became part of the increasingly global issue of fake news.
The phrase may be synonymous with the US’ 2016 election, but fake news has caused concern in countries around the world. Many in Italy feared it would inform the country’s early-March election, for instance. Meanwhile, the US ambassador in Kenya said the country’s democracy is being undermined by fake news. The European Union said it found spikes in misinformation posted in Catalonia during its independence referendum last year.
In these cases, fake news campaigns focused on an election or referendum. South Africa’s fake news campaign was similarly political — it sought to protect President Zuma, but its real mission was broader in scope: improve the reputation of the Guptas, whose alignment to Zuma was strong enough that some of the public referred to the group as the “Zupta government.”
Through their Oakbay Investments company, the Guptas hired UK PR firm Bell Pottinger, allegedly paying it $2 million (24 million rand), to set up an online fake news campaign. The network went into effect around July 2016, working in full force for around a year.
Divide and conquer
The Guptas and their team got the message out with fake news sites and bots that shared stories from these websites, as well as retweeted Gupta-aligned political voices en masse. This worked in tandem with Gupta-owned TV and print media. All of it promoted one simple message to South Africans: You shouldn’t be worried about the Guptas, you should be worried about the white elite.
The campaign’s key phrase: “white monopoly capital.” Embedded in that phrase were two key components: The fact that South Africa’s economy is still dominated by white-owned businesses, and the argument that these businesses influence the government more than the Guptas do — and work to exclude the black majority from rising into affluence.
Here’s how the campaign was run, according to data from the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR).
Politicians and activists worked with the Guptas, either because they were paid to or because it was mutually beneficial to do so, to push messages online in support of Zuma, or disparaging those who opposed alleged Gupta corruption. Scores of bots were used to amplify these messages. Bots amassed over 215,000 retweets of Gupta-aligned voices from July 2016 to June 2017.
All of these messages were magnified with the help of ANN7, a 24-hour news channel, and the New Age newspaper, both owned by the Guptas.
Here the campaign ran differently from Russia’s meddling in US politics. Russian operatives stole or created identities to pose as Americans on Facebook and Instagram. The Guptas’ campaign, meanwhile, relied more on real people to make political statements, and used a swath of bots and their own official media channels to trumpet those messages.
One such voice, ANCIR says, is Andile Mngxitama. Mngxitama is president of Black First Land First, a revolutionary political party.
“Andile would tweet about white monopoly capital or would tweet a link to one of his fake stories, and the bots would retweet it as much as possible,” said Amanda Strydom, managing editor of ANCIR. “But Andile also had his little posse who would retweet what he had done or write their own tweets, so there were actually human people who would tweet, and the bots would be used to amplify whatever they tweeted.”
This was further bolstered by a set of news websites, set up with corresponding Facebook pages. These included Gupta-linked “alternative news” sites like Weekly Xpose and Mngxitama’s own Black Opinion, which resemble editorial-heavy propaganda sites, as well as completely phony ones like WMC Leaks, according to ANCIR.
“The stories [some sites] created were completely fabricated,” Strydom said, pointing to one of the sites posting photoshopped images of journalist Ferial Haffajee sitting on the lap of Johann Rupert in an attempt to slander her reports on government corruption.