“Fake news” is a term frequently used by newly-elected US President Donald Trump, who recently employed it to bully and belittle a reporter from CNN, one of the world’s most respected and successful news outlets. The term broadly refers to the recent surge in the shadowy use of false news websites and social media accounts in an attempt to control or influence public sentiment. This is nothing new to South Africa.
In the mid 1970’s the Apartheid government was starting to feel the pressure from an increasingly critical media. The state-controlled news was being crowded out by critical voices in the independent press. Their solution? Create their own “fake news” by bribing news agencies, buying international newspapers and using government money to establish The Citizen – an English-language daily that would print pro-National Party news.
The “Information Scandal” was traced all the way to the top – to then Prime Minister BJ Vorster, to Information Minister Connie Mulder and to the Secretary of the Department of Information, Eschel Rhoodie. Once exposed, Vorster was forced to resign in disgrace.
This week it was revealed that the ANC ran its own fake news propaganda machine in the 2016 local government election, complete with “fake news” website, false opposition party posters and “paid Twitter”.
To be clear, this wasn’t just an election strategy gone wrong. To say that it was merely a poorly thought-through PR campaign would be downplaying the severity of what the ANC has done. And to deny, in the face of mounting evidence, that this campaign carried both the knowledge and the blessing of the ANC (as both Zizi Kodwa and Gwede Mantashe have been scrambling to do) would simply be more of the same lies.
There is nothing wrong with having your message spread through advocates for your cause. Independent people who are known, liked and trusted can play an important role in amplifying a message. The DA has a large team of social media supporters that we call “brand ambassadors”, because they believe in our cause and want to add their voices to ours.
But this kind of advocacy has to be based on trust and truth. The “influencer” who might speak up for you must do so because he or she trusts that your message is not only for the good of the country, but also that it is truthful. It can never be part of a misinformation campaign, based on “alternative facts” and with the deliberate intention of misrepresenting other parties and defrauding the electorate.
Everything about this ANC campaign was deceitful and malicious. It had nothing to do with promoting the values, the achievements and the plans of the ANC, and was only about one thing: making lies about the opposition appear as believable and legitimate as possible. It included printing fake election posters and leaflets, setting up fake news websites and running a social media smear campaign against opposition parties and their leaders.
This goes beyond mischief. It is a criminal offense that carries, for good reason, harsh penalties of up to ten years in jail. Such actions threaten to derail the legitimacy of our democracy and could plunge our country into chaos and violence.
Little wonder then that the ANC are scrambling so hard to deny this modern-day Info Scandal. They know that this is one of the most serious allegations a party can face. They are now in full damage-control mode. But the facts, which include an offer from the ANC to pay R1 million in “hush money” to the whistle-blower, will not go away. Eventually they will have to take responsibility.
The DA will not let this scandal die down quietly. I will be meeting with the Commissioners of the IEC next week, and will press them for a full investigation into the ANC’s conduct. And, if we must, we will take this to the courts. We will continue to play by the rules that keep our democracy on track, and we will continue to expose those who violate these rules.
But in the meantime, keep your eyes wide open. Know that you are being targeted by fake news and propaganda. Question everything and make it your mission to know when your trust is being abused.