Fake news websites fall foul of the IEC after marked ballot paper story

In mid-July the website African News Updates reported that controversial artist Ayanda Mabulu had been “gunned down in Soweto”, with the implication that he had been assassinated for insulting President Jacob Zuma. A very alive Mabulu was not amused.

Two weeks later the site reported that Zuma had moved the date of the local government elections to August 27 because he would be “tired from doing his shopping and buying groceries”.

According to the website’s own measurements each article was shared more than 10 000 times on Facebook. As potentially harmful as the articles (and many more in the same vein) may have been, the website remained in operation, shotgunning advertising for vehicle finance and home loans at visitors.

But on Tuesday the site suddenly disappeared after it fell foul of one of the very few limits on speech in South Africa: spreading false information about elections.

“Two arrested with over 80 000 ballot papers already marked as ANC votes,” its headline read on Monday.

The article claimed the number of ballots was actually almost 100 000 and quoted an unnamed Gauteng ANC representative speculating that the whole thing may have been a false-flag operation by the Democratic Alliance or the Economic Freedom Fighters intended to make the ANC “look corrupt”.

There was no indication that the article was false, or satire, or otherwise not to be taken literally. The site’s “About” page proclaimed the site to be “Africa’s leading real and satirical news website”.

By Tuesday afternoon the article had been read 38 468 times, according to the site’s own measurements and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) had taken note.

“A case has been opened with the SA Police Service to investigate the source of the false reports and for referral for prosecution,” the IEC said in a statement.

Under the Municipal Electoral Act publishing false information with the intention of, say, “creating hostility or fear in order to influence the conduct or outcome of an election” can carry a jail term of 10 years. That came with no apparent concern for the 28-year-old Middleburg registrant of the site’s domain name, Thulani Msibi, when the Mail & Guardian reached him for comment on Tuesday.

“As far as I’m concerned that website allows people to submit articles, so why would I personally be at risk?” he said.

Msibi, the only individual who can be linked to the website, or any of the sites involved, said he did not operate African News Updates but that it was owned by “a client”. He declined to identify the client, but took down a message asking the client to contact the Mail & Guardian. Asked whether he would volunteer the identity of the client if contacted by police Msibi said he would do so if he had the information “but I don’t have anything now”.

When pressed whether he did or did not know the identity of the operator, he said: “I prefer not to answer that.”

Msibi also said he would “consider it offensive” if the M&G named him.

Minutes after the conversation the African News Updates site was wiped clean of all content, although the articles persisted in cached versions elsewhere and remained available via Google search.

Msibi conceded that he may have seen the article in question. “I think it is from a website called Gossip Mill. I think they are the ones responsible for that.”

The African News Updates article credited, and copied in full, an article published on GossipMillSA.com, which was still available at the time of publication. Unlike African News Updates, GossipMill is registered and hosted in the United States, with deliberate steps taken to shield the identity of the owner. GossipMill did not respond to an attempt at contact.

The same article had also been reproduced on another fake news website, MzansiVille.co.za. An operator of the site, who would not disclose his real name and was reached by phone, said the article had been removed from the site after “we received a message via Facebook”.

The website had been registered using a false name.

By Thursday the African News Updates website had reappeared, as did the fake rigged-election article. Site, and article, sported a small redesign: instead of just “politics”, the article was now categorised as news politics satire. Msibi could no longer be reached by phone.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Phillip De Wet
Guest Author

Related stories

“You are too young to mock the government”: Zimbabwean comedian relives her abduction

Samantha Kureya, aka Gonyeti, did not quite understand the power of her jokes — until she was abducted and tortured for them

Madam and Eve: Farewell

Click on image for full-size view.

Carlos: Boris at the Beach

Click on image for full-size view.

Madam and Eve: What do you remember Zuma

Click on image for full-size view.

Carlos: RIP Johnny Clegg

Click on image for full-size view.

Carlos: Cape Flats Fatalities

Click on image for full-size view.

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Meyiwa murder case postponed amid drama in court

The murder case of Senzo Meyiwa has been postponed to next month after the appearance of the five suspects in the Boksburg magistrate’s court took an unexpected turn

Does the Expropriation Bill muddy the land question even further?

Land ownership and its equitable distribution has floundered. Changes to a section of the constitution and the expropriation act are now before parliament, but do they offer any solution?

Wheeling and dealing for a Covid-19 vaccine

A Covid-19 jab could cost hundreds of rands. Or not. It’s anyone’s guess. Could another pandemic almost a century ago hold clues for handling the coronavirus today?

The European companies that armed the Ivorian civil war

AN OCCRP investigation reveals that Gunvor and Semlex brokered weapons-for-oil deals in early 2011 when Côte d’Ivoire was in crisis, despite a UN arms embargo

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday