/ 23 November 2016

‘Time to cause some havoc’: The weird web of Gupta-linked misinformation

Indian businessmen
Indian businessmen


There are many layers to the deception that is the disguised anti-Gupta landmine voetsekblog.co.za, starting with its pretence of being six crucial months older than its real age.

By appropriating articles from a range of other publishers (including the Mail & Guardian’s parent company), the minimalist news blog gives the impression that it has been around since August 2015, which happens to be several months before formal investigations into allegations of state capture were launched.

That lie is easily penetrated because Voetsek’s domain was only registered in July 2016, when that state capture investigation was already in full flight.

But that superficial bit of trickery acts as cover for a masterstroke of misinformation. Voetsek has penetrated what appears to be an online robot army working to discredit findings about the dealings between the Gupta family and the state. But it seems that Voetsek is actually an imposter in those midsts, a false-flag operation created to discredit a former Gupta employee and defender – and possibly to make the Gupta family itself look as if it is using proxies and placeholders to disguise its own increasingly scrutinised business dealings with the state.

Or perhaps not. In the web of misinformation that continues to be woven around the Gupta family, little is certain.

Towards the middle of this year, strange online activity touching on the Gupta family receded like a tide. Gone was the mysterious Connor Mead and his Gupta-defending website truthbyconnormead.co.za, which was later plagiarised verbatim by the Gupta family as it “set the record straight” on allegations of state capture. Gone too were the declared agents of the family tweaking their Wikipedia entry and arguing their case in comment forums.

Between August and October, however, as former public protector Thuli Madonsela’s report State of Capture was being finalised, both overt and aggressive anonymous activity started again.

At that time, many Twitter accounts were created, accounts with no individuals behind them, accounts that would later serve as a sort of echo chamber for the message that the Gupta family are the innocent, hard-working victims of a conspiracy by malevolent white capitalists, and that Madonsela was incompetent, among other failings.

At roughly the same time, agents of the family created a slick and fawning website for the family’s occasional spokesperson, AtulGupta.co.za, which describes how Atul “pioneered corporate sponsorship in South Africa in areas like educational programmes, literacy initiatives, social and religious campaigns, and sports development”. There is no mention of controversies such as his close personal relationship with outgoing Eskom chief executive and alleged benefactor Brian Molefe.

It was also during this time that the seemingly unrelated voetsekblog.co.za got into its publishing groove.

“You know what they say, don’t get mad get even so it’s time to cause some havoc. For too long black South Africans have been left out of the economy … our economy,” the site declares in a mission statement. “This needs to change now! It is time to stir things up.”

Voetsek sought to achieve this aim by publishing opinion pieces with headlines such as “South African businesses are deliberately derailing black economic empowerment” by anonymous authors. The promise of polemic notwithstanding, the pieces were as mild as they were faceless, and went almost entirely unnoticed – except in one particular community.

On Twitter, Voetsek proved popular with accounts including @abrahamcpt19 and @Tshepo_Magadi, accounts that data analysis shows act as important hubs in a network that promotes ideas such as #PravinMustGo and #JonasIsALiar, about the finance minister and his deputy respectively. The network acts in every way like a typical botnet, or army of automated accounts intended to give a false impression of grassroots support. Other than cast aspersion on investigators of Gupta dealings, the network expends significant effort to explain that state capture is, in fact, being perpetrated by the white mega-wealthy, such as Johann Rupert.

That Voetsek and the Twitter botnet see eye to eye is only to be expected. Both admire the likes of Molefe and the Black First Land First fringe group that once invaded the offices of the public protector while demanding the focus of state capture investigations should be moved away from the Gupta family. Both believe that all major South African media outlets (other than those owned by the Guptas) are conspiring against the family for reasons rooted in racism.

But all is not as it seems with Voetsek. The site was created using the same e-mail service, software and service provider as was TruthByConnerMead, and also using what appears to be a false name. On paper Voetsek is operated by Miraj Kuvan. Miraj is a city in India, and Kuvan is an uncommon variant of the surname Kuvani found in countries such as India and Turkey. Kuvan did not respond to attempts at making contact via e-mail.

The cellphone number used to register voetsekblog.co.za, on the other hand, is active, and was this week answered by former Gupta employee and online defender Himanshu Tanwar, who, records show, has used the same number for some time.

He has never heard of Voetsek, he said, has no idea who set it up, or why the creator had fraudulently used his cellphone number, and he would appreciate not being linked to the site.

The implementation and implications of making it look as if Tanwar is behind the Voetsek site, and perhaps linked to the Twitter botnet that helped promote the site, is a virtuoso bit of misinformation.

The link between Tanwar and the site is as subtle as the site itself is ham-fisted, making the link seem like a mistake rather than a deliberate plant.

Until earlier this year, Tanwar was employed as a marketer for the Gupta-owned Sahara Computers, and the family disclosed his efforts on their behalf when they complained that his forum comments defending them were being censored. He was among several employees, “frustrated by the ongoing reporting of false allegations, [who]have taken it upon themselves to comment online and on social media”, the family said in March.

In June, Tanwar left the Gupta employ for a company named FutureTeQ and at the same time his efforts at defending the family online ceased. Though FutureTeQ designed the websites of several Gupta online properties, including the sites for the New Age newspaper and television channel ANN7, it is not owned by the family.

The arms-length relationship between FutureTeQ and the Guptas is important legally and politically because FutureTeQ owns half of a company involved in a Transnet tender worth up to R800-million. Should FutureTeQ be a proxy for the Guptas, that Transnet contract could come under scrutiny in future investigations involving state capture. If the Gupta family does not stand to gain from the contract because the family has no shareholding in the tender winner, then it would arguably require no investigation.

By subtly making it appear as if Tanwar was acting as part of some concerted online campaign involving the Gupta family in July and after he left their employ, paints Tanwar as a placeholder for the family and so, in quite ingenious fashion, makes their lives harder.

Or perhaps not.