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.