Manipulating information was a feature of human history long before modern journalism. An early example dates back to Ancient Rome, when Antony met Cleopatra and his political rival Octavian set out to discredit him with fake news slogans written on coins (imagine an antique form of Twitter if you must).
The smear campaign was a success and Octavian became the first Roman emperor. They say when in Rome, do as the Romans do, unless of course the Romans are spending their time spreading disinformation for political gain.
Fast forward to the 20th century, and we have George Orwell describing his vision of a disheartening dystopian society in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where bureaucrats from the Ministry of Truth and the Thought Police distort reality by spreading misinformation and rewriting history.
At present, largely thanks to the spread of social media and wearable technology, Orwell’s prediction of omnipresent surveillance seems to be frighteningly accurate. But whereas his fears were well founded, assaults on the integrity of truth have occurred in a manner which he could not possibly have foreseen.
Simply put, it’s not so much a problem of concerned citizens being lied to as it is a problem of being regularly misled by the truth. As Samuel Johnson put it: “It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.”
Today, the weaponisation of information has developed into an arms race of national and international disinformation spread through partisan news agencies and social media platforms on an unprecedented scale. The proliferation of new technological tools makes the manipulation of content relatively straightforward, and social media channels drive ‘alternative facts’ pushed by populist politicians and untrustworthy corporate agencies.
In addition, the nature of social media has limited quality control standards for determining what constitutes legitimate news and these platforms have become fertile ground for sock-puppet networks and troll armies.
There are many instances when social media content has been produced by public relations (PR) companies working on behalf of political actors or entire governments themselves and this article deals with one of the most notorious examples: The case of Bell Pottinger in South Africa.
In 2017, investigative journalists acquired a trove of emails and files, subsequently named the Gupta leaks, which appeared to confirm the allegations of the state being captured by the Gupta family. In the emails, the London-based public relations firm Bell Pottinger stood accused of promoting a racially divisive campaign using a variety of media channels to advance a harmful narrative, which could be neatly summarised into two slogans: white monopoly capital and economic apartheid. Bell Pottinger’s blatant abuse of race as a sensitive issue may have had untold consequences, as renewed racial tensions had the potential to destabilise South Africa.
The campaign appears to have started when pressure on the Gupta family increased halfway through 2016, after claims of state capture in the final report of the outgoing Public Protector Thuli Madonsela. Bell Pottinger’s brief was to design a targeted campaign to deflect attention away from the revelations of state capture.
To achieve this end, the firm used both the domestic and international media by packaging the story into content which could then be widely spread in order to legitimise the narrative for the South African audience. The campaign spread misinformation via websites, social media messages and a paid Twitter army which attacked journalists, business people and politicians with offensive messages and photoshopped images, designed to intimidate and counter their investigations.
The goal of the PR campaign was to use creative political communication techniques in a consistent manner in order to promote white monopoly capital and economic apartheid as scapegoats for South Africa’s troubles, and in so doing, divert attention away from the “Zuptas”, (a moniker referring to the relationship between former president Jacob Zuma and the Gupta family) and the failings of the ANC. The most destructive part of the campaign was not spread by word of mouth, but through an unprecedented online onslaught. Bell Pottinger created an intricate web of fake social media accounts, which attacked those individuals who had played a leading role in exposing state capture or dared to challenge the Guptas’ shadowy dealings and the prevailing narrative.
For example, the campaign acted to shape the political discourse by driving the narrative of white monopoly capital and economic apartheid on multiple media platforms, ranging from fake Twitter accounts and hate-filled website articles, to newspapers and television news channels partisan to the Zupta network.
The Bell Pottinger campaign was said to have been just one part in the construction of the Gupta family’s propaganda empire that included The New Age and ANN7, a multifaceted online strategy using social media and the allegiance of several outspoken public commentators such as Black First, Land First (BLF) leader Andile Mngxitama.
Astroturfing was another method employed by Bell Pottinger during its social media campaign which involved the use of bots to disseminate well-directed false information and pointed propaganda with the aim of mimicking organic public reaction.
Usually, sophisticated social media automation techniques are used to rapidly conjure up armies of fake accounts, which are almost indistinguishable from real people, pretending to represent waves of genuine public opinion.
Technology was also used to create ‘deepfake’ videos and other forms of content to discredit journalists, and particularly female reporters. For instance, prominent editor Ferial Haffajee was targeted in a campaign of online harassment during this time, which saw her image manipulated to produce false impressions of her moral character, along with the hashtag of #pressitute. Former finance minister Pravin Gordhan was also the target of a Twitter crusade by the former government spokesperson and Gupta ally Mzwanele Jimmy Manyi.
Although Bell Pottinger stood accused of creating and disseminating fake news, much of the inflammatory content the firm promoted was factually accurate. More than two decades after 1994, the majority of the country’s wealth remains in the hands of the white minority. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, who analysed South Africa’s income distribution in 2015, many of the same structures of racial inequality which were prevalent during apartheid are still present today.
Building on this reality, Bell Pottinger utilised convincing research, case studies and statistics to demonstrate that economic apartheid still existed. Indeed, parts of the speeches, social media posts and slogans that Bell Pottinger created contained some important partial truths.
For example, few South Africans would disagree that the need for economic emancipation should be a priority on the government’s agenda. The deceitful motive of the campaign, however, was to use these partial truths to deliberately deflect attention away from state capture, rather than answer critical questions regarding economic inequality.
Essentially, Bell Pottinger was hired by the Guptas to pervert an essential debate about the transfer of economic power to a broader section of society as a means of alleviating poverty and inequality. At the centre of this political project was a rhetorical commitment to radical economic transformation. The term ‘radical economic transformation’ had been used repeatedly to give ideological legitimacy to what can only be described as a political project carried out by a powerful elite to capture state-owned enterprises.
The case of Bell Pottinger also demonstrated how state capture was in large part assisted by the involvement of international parties who acted as professional enablers to help facilitate the transfer of stolen funds through complex corporate structures out of South Africa to the Gupta’s financial safe havens across the globe.
In a country already plagued with serious socioeconomic issues, this manufactured narrative of economic apartheid directly undermined the work of years of reconciliation. The campaign has been described as the first large-scale fake news propaganda war in South Africa, and caused visible national discontent, eventually leading to the collapse of the infamous London firm which was put into administration.
The great irony is that a public relations agency renowned for its ability to reshape reality was ultimately unable to save its own reputation. This is why we should not forget the role played by journalists who uncovered state capture and demonstrated the crucial corrective function of journalism in a democratic society.
We owe it to ourselves and our young democracy to become more responsible in consuming media by challenging the multifaceted information disorder which threatens to reduce public discourse to a means of misinformation.
Every individual or organisation has interests, and it is to be reasonably expected for communicators to select those truths that further their cause. But this can be done in an ethical or a deceptive manner. Ultimately, information is like a box of matches, a morally neutral but fundamentally powerful tool whose manner of use determines its impact for good or ill.
It would be wise to end by taking some final words of advice from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four protagonist, Winston Smith, who desperately tries to resist the government’s lies by telling himself: “There was truth and untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”