In the same week that Donald Trump’s spokesperson presented the concept of “alternative facts”, South Africa exploded with speculation about an alleged ANC dirty election ploy. In a country where online legions emerge to bolster the Gupta family’s reputation and that has seen ideas such as “white monopoly capital” rapidly gain currency, it rang all too familiar. Suddenly the debate is no longer about “fake news”, the territory of underdogs and shadowy figures, but about the stock in trade of rulers: propaganda. South Africa is no stranger to it but this is not the simple counterinformation of the past. It is online, it is fast, it is confusing. It skirts the law. It plays out in courts as well as on Twitter. And it may be determining the course of history.
The Economic Freedom Fighters said it was still considering whether to take legal action over allegations that an ANC-sanctioned marketing team printed fake EFF election posters in apparent breach of electoral law.
The allegations, first exposed by Sunday World, were made by public relations consultant Sihle Bolani in court papers filed this week in the Johannesburg high court.
The posters were just one of a number of initiatives taken by a team initially known as the war room, but later called the Media Advisory Team, whose work was purposely kept at a distance from the ANC, Bolani said. She is suing the ANC for R2.2-million, which she says the party owes her for the election work she did.
The fake election poster showed EFF leader Julius Malema armed with an AK-47 under the sign “Vote EFF”. In a smaller font above Malema’s image, the poster reads: “Take up arms and fight”.
The EFF said on Thursday, two weeks before the August municipal elections, its volunteers removed about a dozen fake posters from the busy Grayston Drive in Sandton and other areas such as Houghton.
“We believe that it was done in full co-operation with the ANC. We also believe that no amount of propaganda will ever restore the reputation of thieves and murderers, that’s why they still lost Johannesburg and Tshwane,” EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi said.
ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa and secretary general Gwede Mantashe have denied that the party authorised any covert campaign to win votes during the elections. “There is no such ‘black ops’ for the ANC,” Mantashe said at a press conference on Wednesday.
The ANC’s court papers also distanced the organisation from a deal with Bolani, with ANC general manger Ignatius Jacobs denying that the party was liable for the payment and saying the contract Bolani entered into was with a PR company called Black Carbon. A search on the internet for Black Carbon revealed that the company has no website.
But Bolani said in her affidavit, although she was hired by Black Carbon’s Joseph Nkadimeng, the work of the Media Advisory Team, which recruited social media “influencers” and produced content with a pro-ANC bias, was authorised by the ANC. As evidence of this, she referred to a settlement agreement on an ANC letterhead and signed by Jacobs.
She said the agreement illustrated “the connection between Mr Nkadimeng and [the ANC] in that, although [Bolani] contracted with Mr Nkadimeng, the real agreement was between [Bolani] and the [ANC] and thus the [ANC] is liable for the full invoiced amount,” she says.
But Jacobs said the “purported settlement agreement was … an effort to assist the applicant purely as a gesture of goodwill”.
A central figure in Bolani’s allegations is social media magnate and TV personality Shaka Sisulu, who Bolani said was the liaison between the Media Advisory Team and the ANC.
In a video interview with News24, Sisulu said the work of the war room was not contracted by the ANC but was of their own initiative.
“This was an initiative that came out of our own knowledge of what is required [and] what we felt was an extremely hostile media environment against ANC, and [we] looked at ways that it can be dealt with,” he told News24.
Sisulu and Nkadimeng had key roles in the war room, according to Bolani.
But Sisulu on Wednesday denied any involvement in a covert campaign, telling News24 that it was instead a “love campaign” he had volunteered for.
It has not been possible to reach Nkadimeng since the saga started unfolding.
Sisulu said he believes that the allegations against him are politically motivated because he began using social media tracking tools to analyse discussions on the alleged “black ops” campaign.
When asked about the poster of Malema with the rifle, Sisulu said he had entered into legal discussions about the posters and could not comment. Sisulu said: “The team didn’t pay anyone to tweet, we didn’t create any fake news, and we didn’t do anything illegal.”
Bolani said Sisulu oversaw his team to create a website called the New South African, which was produced as a news platform for the campaign.
The website, which was registered by local celebrity Phat Joe, has been removed but Bolani’s court papers show that the website once carried stories.
Sisulu said the website had been removed because it was no longer necessary.
The Municipal Electoral Act states that publishing fake misinformation with the intention of influencing the conduct or outcome of an election is prohibited.
Sisulu said the site was established to create “balanced” news because “most newspapers” in South Africa were “skewed” in their reporting.
One Twitter user who was inside the Media Advisory Team told the Mail & Guardian that fake news was never spread through the Twitter accounts. The user cannot be identified because he signed a nondisclosure agreement preventing him from talking publicly about the campaign.
“The electioneering was done to closely resemble American-styled campaigns which are known for their use of already existing sentiments. So no actual fake news was orchestrated more than the available articles which were written by credible media houses,” he said.
Fiercely disputed is the figure of R50-million, which Bolani claimed had been raised by Nkadimeng for the campaign. Sisulu referred to this as a “figment of someone’s imagination”. He said the group had its own working budget, which didn’t even go into double-digit figures.
The insider agreed: “The R50-million figure won’t stand any ground because the ANC didn’t even raise anywhere near or close to a million. She [Bolani] didn’t plan and or research this properly,” he said.
The IEC released a response to the story on Wednesday, saying it would not comment on the allegations until the court case with Bolani had been concluded. If it became necessary to intervene, the IEC said it would do so.
Go ahead and lie – you’ll probably get away with it
In one very specific instance, the spreading of fake news is a serious criminal matter — when it comes to elections. But that is only in theory. In practice it seems that, for knowingly spreading pernicious lies, there are few consequences — other than perhaps having to fob off attempts to solicit a bribe.
In the thick of the August 2016 local government elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) decried a fake news website that claimed “people had been arrested with large quantities of ballot papers already marked for a specific party”.
That is illegal, the IEC said, and opened a criminal complaint.
The operator of the MzansiVille fake news website said this week: “We received an inbox [message] through Facebook from a guy saying he works with the police. He said, ‘If you give me money, we won’t pursue this.’ We told him we took it [the report] down and he must go away.”
MzansiVille was one three sites to publish an article headlined “Two arrested with over 80 000 ballot papers already marked as ANC votes”, which went viral.
Under the Municipal Electoral Act, publishing false information with the intention of “creating hostility or fear in order to influence the conduct or outcome of an election” can carry a jail term of up to 10 years.
This week, the IEC could not provide details on the progress of its criminal complaint.
Lying is a criminal matter only in specific cases, such as lying under oath, said Rohan Isaacs, a director of Norton Rose Fulbright. “We’re pretty sure there are no criminal consequences for the act of spreading fake news itself.”
Depending on the consequences and context, lying could also constitute harassment, but besides that, a victim’s only recourse is a civil claim, such as defamation.
A party with the money and an appetite for litigation can turn to the courts for relief if they believe lies are being told about them, said Verlie Oosthuizen, a partner at Shepstone & Wylie Attorneys, but that might be hard to prove.
If a political party complained that a rival’s approach was costing it votes, said Oosthuizen, the courts are likely to respond: “That’s the whole point of electioneering.”
In 2015, after a battle involving three courts, the Constitutional Court said the Democratic Alliance had not been in breach of electoral law when it sent an SMS to voters reading: “The Nkandla report shows how Zuma stole your money to build his R246-million home.”
The result was three different judgments, one of which found the DA was expressing an opinion and so could not be said to be spreading falsehood and another held that it could be accurate to say that President Jacob Zuma had stolen money, if “stole” was interpreted broadly enough.
But at least the threat of sanction has some effect as a deterrent.
“We actually stay clear of politics stories after that issue,” said the MzansiVille operator. “We don’t publish politics unless we have verified that it is completely true.” — Phillip de Wet