Fake news has become an explanation for political rupture, a byword for our current age of crisis and resurgent extremism, responsible for everything from Donald Trump to Brexit. South Africa has also been beset by its own fake news scandals over the past few traumatic years, through Bell Pottinger and other assorted clandestine operators who created havoc in our public debate through legions of bots, failed columnists and disgraced politicians.
Perhaps one of the greatest casualties of the Zuma era has been truth itself. Wild claims, disinformation and fake news are normalised to such an extent that the former president calling a minister he himself appointed “an apartheid spy” is met with a shrug and then regurgitated as a “revelation” rather than a wild accusation by an, at times, disturbingly pliant media.
Although politicians lying is as old as history itself, there is something new and significant about the current wave of social media-driven disinformation.
Contrary to narratives of a self-correcting “public sphere”, there are no or very few consequences for blatant lies emanating from the mouths of sullied politicians and it seems that, more often than not, a not-insignificant section of society will believe you. This is no accident; it is a consequence of long-term, deliberate and ongoing disinformation campaigns that are more widespread than those peddled by Bell Pottinger.
But what are the actual effects and goals of these campaigns? They are more subtle and perhaps more dangerous to democracy than the conventional narrative of fake news winning over the public with seductive lies. These types of disinformation campaigns undermine the foundations of democracy, closing possibilities for public engagement through this civic action itself, not because media lies or disinformation have not been with us in ages past, but precisely because it takes advantage of understandable scepticism that exists among the South African people.
Fake news alternative media
Social media and public dialogue in South Africa are increasingly characterised by the rise of mysterious new think-tanks and foundations with even more mysterious funders and organised trolling campaigns against journalists and other public figures (often spurred on by politicians). The surprising return of disgraced journalists to public life is not so surprising any more, and neither is the proliferation of fantastical new publications and the willingness of more traditional media to grant these voices time as respectable commentators.
ANN7, Bell Pottinger and The New Age may no longer be with us but those they put into the game remain employed. These types are by no means the only ones out there. There is, of course, the parallel network of reality plugged into the global right spouting nonsense about white genocide or other fantastical atrocities. It is all too easy to assert that such voices represent that elusive thing known as “public opinion”, especially when the gauge for it is a manipulated social media platform such as Twitter.
Reaction is part of the problem
Part of the problem with analysing fake news is that it has been granted a supernatural catalytic power by some of its more vocal critics. Fake news, Cambridge Analytica and Russian bots alone cannot explain away moments of political trauma such as Trump’s election or Brexit. Indeed, there are some in South Africa who blame Bell Pottinger for the rise in racial tensions — as if a London-based PR firm invented the racial divisions four years ago.
The truth, however, is that fake news is most effective when it contains some grains of the truth or caters to existing sentiment. Although there might be no ongoing white genocide in South Africa, for instance, there are several horrific murders of farmers that can frame the entire narrative.
Capitalising on a media in crisis
There are many good reasons to distrust mainstream media. For example the paper of record of the United States, The New York Times, published fake news to disastrous effect when it published false stories about “weapons of mass destruction” in the run-up to the Iraq War. South African media is no exception and has all too often fallen prey to dirty tricks campaigns and spy-versus-spy intrigue; one only need look at the Sunday Times’s “rogue unit” reporting.
Part of the sophistication and power of these fake news campaigns is their ability to take advantage of justifiable scepticism towards the South African media and other widespread sentiments that the media is too English, untransformed and in the pocket of a few monopoly capitalists.
In a population already beset by distrust and scepticism, fake news aims at once to cater to existing sentiments among the South African people, polarising them to the point where either debate becomes impossible or fatigue sets in — to the extent that it is easier to just disengage than follow such distasteful news cycles.
Sowing the seeds of doubt by calling particular journalists “useful idiots” or “willing tools of white monopoly capital”, these campaigns aim to turn major scoops or revelations into a merely one-side-of-the-story partisan narrative rather than evidence-based reporting. Journalists are part of a “cabal” rather than merely doing their jobs, or voices of a political agenda rather than objective conveyors of the truth. This is compounded when disgraced voices are awarded space as somewhat respectable commentators in media outlets.
The primary goal of this campaign is, in essence, to make political dialogue between those of different political leanings — a foundational principle of constitutional democracy — impossible. If people can no longer share a mutual basis in truth to begin a conversation, any sort of meaningful dialogue is rendered impossible.
Anyone could understandably want to tune out and avoid the disorienting array of hyperbole and viciousness in this mess. This tuning out is the second goal of such a campaign — it seeks to further distance segments of the population from political engagement. In a society as divided as South Africa’s, where the diminishing amount of news that is published predominantly caters to an English-speaking audience, this is relatively easy to achieve.
I have had the misfortune to have witnessed first-hand the elections of both Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. I have seen the dangers of these campaigns up close. In Brazil, a highly sophisticated fake news campaign helped push Bolsonaro into office. The campaigns — in equal parts absurd and horrific — spread such stories as “gay kits” being handed to toddlers by the Workers’ Party (PT) as part of a “communist” plot to introduce gender ideology into kindergartens.
These stories seem so absurd that it is hard to believe anyone could actually believe them, but therein is the kernel of truth. These stories did not convince undecided voters that the PT and its candidate was the devil incarnate. No, it had a different aim. It targeted sections of the population already inclined to be hostile to the PT. Those sections already conditioned by years of misleading and hyperbolic stories in the mainstream press were, by nature of their own political leanings, inclined to want to believe anything negative about the PT and spread it to their kin.
Rise of the right: Despite his polarising rhetoric, Jair Bolsonaro still managed to garner enough support to secure the position as the president of Brazil at the beginning of 2019. (Sergio Lima/AFP)
It is different from when some Black First Land First Guptabot with 112 followers tweets something about “London” to when your beloved but wacky uncle reaches your out-of-touch grandmother on the family WhatsApp group.
This helped drive the savage polarisation and hatred that made once reasonably civilised voters contemplate Bolsonaro’s backwards authoritarianism as the lesser evil to the PT.
Fake news drives this dynamic of polarisation and apathy. The population are not mere dupes, they are instead encouraged to tune out while biases are stoked — to the point where they are permanently angry at something or someone for a reason long forgotten.
Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University