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Editorial: Fake news drags us into a war for truth

The tsunami of fake news, half-fake news, secret propaganda, “black ops” and the like that is sweeping the world could hardly have swelled so fast and spread itself so widely were it not for the greatest invention of the 20th century — the internet. But sowing confusion among your enemies and using dodgy information to discredit your rivals is hardly new to politics. It goes way back in time to when people were ready to believe all sorts of myths and narratives to justify their doings. Alexander the Great claimed to be descended from a god, as did Julius Caesar, and such claims worked very well for them. In other words, they were successful pieces of propaganda.

The papacy, it should be remembered, and thus the Roman Catholic Church as it came to be, is founded on a forgery — the Donation of Constantine, which conferred imperial powers upon the church and primacy to the bishop of Rome (later the pope). Of course, the famous document was only discovered a few hundred years after it was supposed to have been written, just at the right moment to provide legitimation for the emerging power structure of the Holy Roman Empire.

Things happened much more slowly then. Today, you can invent many different kinds of propagandistic enterprises to confuse your enemies and get them out there as fast as an electron moves through a conductor. The speed and effectiveness of such techniques has been demonstrated recently by Islamic State, the Vladimir Putin oligarchy in Russia (which pioneered it), and the Donald Trump presidential campaign in the United States. Even the vote to leave the European Union taken by the stereotypically phlegmatic Brits was driven largely by a range of half-truths and misunderstood ideas that people simply took on board without thinking them through.

In this week’s edition of the Mail & Guardian we peer into this murky world, one in which sock puppets and bots, which simulate human activity on the internet, spew forth opinions and reproduce dodgy claims. What is going on? Are we to trust what serious people are saying?

It is not yet possible to uncover all the links between who’s producing this weird discourse, but it’s clear that there is a war going on — a war for the truth.

Fake news not only convinces some people of the truth of what is often an obvious lie, but it so muddles the discourse set before the public that it becomes difficult to believe anything one reads.

That suits the purveyors of untruths, first because it hides wrongdoing and makes it harder to discover and, second, because it makes it difficult for citizens to distinguish between lies and truths. Now, when a story appears that tells of malfeasance, the accused simply has to say it is “fake news”, and the process of getting to the truth is dragged out even further.

In the past few days we’ve seen two instances of this business of generating minsinformaiton and disinformation, one playing out in the public sphere of social media and the other a court case uncovering a secret propaganda assault.

In the first case, Ferial Haffajee, a former editor of this paper and now the editor-at-large of The Huffington Post in South Africa struck back against mysterious forces that set up a “satirical” Twitter account and used it to put words in her mouth — and to Photoshop her into a supposedly compromising position, which was to have her sitting on the lap of billionaire Johann Rupert.

The second case involves a set of claims about a secret “black ops” programme to undermine the opposition to the governing party in the recent local government elections. This job of making fake Economic Freedom Fighters posters and the like, if it went ahead at all, wasn’t as sophisticated as the Russians hacking into Donald Trump’s Democratic adversaries’ emails, but still it allegedly came at a fee of about R50-million (paid by donors to the ANC, apparently).

There seems to be, in this, not only a political and ideological scam but also a scam to defraud the paymasters. It must be confusing, when you are producing half-truths, imaginary online personae and other forms of smoke and mirrors, to keep track of who you’re lying to, who you’re undermining and who you’re conning.

Such campaigns have also played out, only partly in the open, in recent South African history. Think of spy chief Richard Mduli’s report to the president about who was undermining him. Think of the tale of the “rogue unit” at the South African Revenue Service, now seen to be largely untrue but still, it seems, part of the propaganda arsenal of the new powers at Sars, chiefly Tom Moyane, who have used the “rogue unit” narrative to seize control of the service and purge any dissent or opposition.

More than ever, now, it is important for news organisations such as the M&G to keep digging for the truth, to keep trying to sort the lies from the facts. And, more than ever, citizens need to have their critical antennae in working order to work out what’s going on. 

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