On February 23, the “Gupta family” entry in the Wikipedia online encyclopaedia was significantly updated in a single swoop. Gone was the opening assertion that the family is “best” known for a close relationship with President Jacob Zuma; it now “owns a business empire spanning computer equipment, media and mining”. That the family is also “known” for its Zuma association was moved a crucial few lines down – just far enough to no longer be displayed immediately at the top of the first page of results for the Google query “Gupta family”.
The same update gave a new context to several key recent events involving the family. The allegation that the mining minister, Mosebenzi Zwane, gave Gupta-owned company Tegeta preferential treatment remained, but now had a balancing denial by Zwane. Similar additional details were inserted about Zuma’s firing of finance minister Nhlanhla Nene, as well as trade unionist Zwelinzima Vavi’s description of the family wielding the power of a “shadow government”.
The new information was scrupulously annotated. There was no attempt to remove anything controversial. But at a stroke the entry went from distinctly hostile to just on the sympathetic side of neutral, adding a bit of polish to the tarnished reputation of the family. In the three weeks since, it has stood unchanged and unchallenged, despite public controversy about the Guptas. And across the web the many sites that replicate and archive the free Wikipedia content have since largely updated, relegating the aggressive coupling of the Gupta family with Zuma to history.
The Wikipedia edit is the single instance of success in a concerted online counterpropaganda campaign launched on behalf of the Gupta family in February, other components of which have failed miserably.
“I’m a representative of Oakbay Resources and Energy,” said Wikipedia user “OakbayRep” by way of introduction on February 18, two weeks after the Economic Freedom Fighters had launched a blistering attack on the Gupta family. Oakbay Resources is a listed company controlled by the Gupta family. “I intend to work with other editors to ensure balance and accuracy and will abide by Wikipedia policy concerning conflict of interest editing at all times.”
Over the next few days that user civilly approached the original creator of the Gupta family entry and skilfully lobbied for changes to the page, showing a greater than average knowledge of Wikipedia policies and conventions. An attempt to make the changes by proxy (and leave fewer digital fingerprints) failed, but in every other respect things went smoothly and OakbayRep disappeared, mission accomplished.
Other efforts were neither as clearly disclosed nor as successful.
On March 1, user Aurrel Phumelo joined the Disqus comment network and started making contributions on a few of the news and business news websites that use the system to carry user contributions beneath articles.
At first Phumelo sought to explain and inform, posting the same information, verbatim, over and over again: “Gupta family companies have created over 4 500 jobs for South Africans” and a controversial Tegeta acquisition “helped save 3 000 jobs”. But as Phumelo was mercilessly dismissed and mocked as a shill, the responding comments became considerably less measured.
“I stopped responding to mamparas like u,” Phumelo responded to one user, in self-contradictory fashion. “Please reboot yourself to get sense into what you are saying!” Phumelo told another. By the middle of this week Phumelo, posting comments at an average of about 15 a day, had chided others about their “obsession” with the Guptas 24 times. Phumelo was not obsessed, it turns out, but working.
On March 9 London law firm Schillings wrote to business journalist Alec Hogg on behalf of Atul Gupta to demand that an article about the family be removed from his BizNews.com website. Hogg was clearly engaging in one-sided journalism, the lawyers said, and had stifled attempts at correction such as when “our clients’ employees, Himanshu Tanwar and Aurrell [sic] Phumelo, tried to post a comment correcting inaccuracies”.
Phumelo referred attempts at contact to a generic Oakbay email address where a spokesperson confirmed that Phumelo is an employee of Oakbay Investments, but did not answer related questions.
The mysterious “Connor Mead” could also not be reached, neither by way of a Gmail account nor through a cellphone number that perpetually defaults to notifying the user of missed calls by SMS.
Mead appears to have been the first attempt to counter EFF pronouncements about the Gupta family, and a relationship with the family can be inferred only circumstantially – for instance, by way of retweets from the likes of Atul Gupta and Gupta family spokesperson Nazeem Howa, who seem to approve of what Mead has to say in blog posts such as “Gupta family – the inconvenient truth”.
“As the global economic slowdown began to bite, the family became the scapegoat for every calamity and misfortune that South Africa has faced,” Mead wrote on the website truthbyconnormead.co.za.
Though the site and associated social media accounts disclose no direct relationship with the Gupta family, the content suggests a connection that is less than arm’s length.
“They have been quiet until now but given the recent xenophobic and hate speech directed towards them … now is the time to set the record straight,” Mead wrote on February 22.
The website hosting the posts was created through a local internet service provider on February 8, four days after the EFF called on the Gupta family to leave South Africa. A full set of accounts was created on major social media platforms almost simultaneously. All the profiles use the name of Connor Mead – a character played by Matthew McConaughey in the movie Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, a retelling of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
All use the same imagery of a biblical herald trumpeting the Christian apocalypse, with the Twitter account referencing a Bible verse that promises “the truth will set you free”.
The site was apparently abandoned before March, but this week was still promoted by adverts urging those googling the phrase “Gupta family” to “know the real facts, the truth”.
The Gupta family has previously referred all Mail & Guardian questions to Oakbay. An unnamed spokesperson for that company responded to detailed questions by saying all of its communications are completely open and transparent.
“There is no co-ordinated online or social media campaign by Oakbay Investments or the Gupta family,” the spokesperson said. “However a number of our employees, frustrated by the ongoing reporting of false allegations, have taken it upon themselves to comment online and on social media.”