Let's Think

War rooms, fake news and democracy

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Any effective election campaign in a democracy needs a ‘war room’, but to call it a ‘war room’ is a very bad mistake. It can seriously poison the campaign and undermine a healthy democratic mindset.

The furore that followed the revelation, during a court case over money, of an ANC war room during the 2015 nationwide municipal election campaign exposed some serious landmines inherent in political campaigning.

It also exposed some concerns about the political mindset and weaknesses in a developing, radically changing, media/news landscape.

However, for the sake of balance, it should be said upfront, these are not issues that are unique to South Africa, much of them surfaced also during the 2016 presidential election in the United States of America.   

Central management and control

What is now happening with the ANC in the aftermath of the 2016 election, illustrates how things can go horribly wrong, unless a campaign is tightly managed on all fronts – from a well-defined, simple message, funding and resources, to manpower and consultants.

Above all, there must be an organisation-wide understanding of what the spirit and goal of the campaign is, as reflected in the terminology used by especially office bearers and/or functionaries of the party.

Starting with the last point, in the case of a splintering multi-message ANC this clearly did not happen.

Although he denies that he was involved in a “smear campaign” Shaka Sisulu last week in an interview with eNCA indirectly acknowledged the existence of the ‘war room’ and said it waged “aerial battle” during last year’s election. The mindset this reveals is one of “all is fair in love and war”.

Ironically, Sisulu claimed the campaign was a “love (for the ANC) campaign”, which allegedly had a R50 million budget and among other things had him hire public relations specialist Sihle Bolani.

How muddled things became, was exposed when Bolani went to court to claim outstanding money for work she and her company did for the ‘war room’ operation.

Despite denials by Sisulu and ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, that it was ANC-sanctioned, the ANC general manager Ignatius Jacobs signed an agreement to pay Bolani R1 million for her services.

One aspect of the judgement in the Bolani case was missed in most media coverage. The media just portrayed it as “rejected”. However, judge Leoni Windell only rejected the case as an urgent matter, but also told Bolani, who represented herself, that her claim appeared to be good, but that she should have first issued a summons.

The matter might be far from over – with both the Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighter having indicated they might take legal action and the Independent Electoral Commission that it would investigate the matter.

In the ‘all-is-fair-in-love-and-war’-mindset that prevailed in the war room there can be no doubt that some election regulations were transgressed. For one, the name and address of those responsible for the fake posters that went up, were not displayed on those posters.

Wider concerns

There are also, however, wider concerns for the wellbeing of democracy in the country.

First is the disrespect shown for the role of an independent media in a democracy, illustrated by Sisulu’s justification of their “aerial battle”, which he said “came out of our own knowledge of what is required” in what was an “extremely hostile media environment against the ANC”.

They assembled a team of internet and social media experts which effectively engaged in a so-called fake news campaigns, something that seems to be on the increase. It is a phenomenon that also played a major role in last year’s US presidential election campaign.

Social media expert Arthur Goldstuck is reported to have said he believed ‘fake news’ completely destroys public discourse and undermines democratic values.

“Anyone who participates in this in order to advance their objectives should realise the long-term damage. It ultimately renders everything they put out untrustworthy.”

Propaganda always was, and always will be part of, also the democratic, the political process of competition for power. However for democracy to stay healthy, the flow of independent information, and for voters to know where information or purported information comes from is crucial.

For the traditional media establishments to fulfil their role as channels for the flow of this kind of information it has become a major challenge worldwide.

In April last year the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) in a statement said it “has noticed an alarming trend by fake news websites to publish inaccurate information under the guise of news.”

It also called on “South Africans not to perpetuate false news cycles by sharing such stories on their social media networks”.

Political analyst, columnist and veteran journalist Justice Malala also recently wrote about a “group of faux Black Consciousness activists built around Mzwanele Jimmy Manyi and others. They use Twitter and other social media to champion the cause of the Gupta family …”

He also claimed that “someone created hundreds of fake Twitter accounts, all of them deployed to cast aspersions on those who have taken them on. At the weekend this nasty gang created fake Twitter accounts that looked remarkably like those of the new international website The Huffington Post in SA and a fake Talk Radio 702 account.

The Mail & Guardian also carried a report, claiming that there appears to be a renewed “smear campaign” on social media aimed at Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and senior journalist “as being agents of white monopoly capita”.

Another report has it that “employees from more than a dozen U.S. government agencies have established a network of unofficial ‘rogue’ Twitter feeds in defiance of what they see as attempts by President Donald Trump to muzzle federal climate change research and other science.”

Implications - conclusion

If one, against this background, then considers that recent research has found that even in the US, 62% of adults get their news on social media, it is clear that democracy based on voters being properly informed in a balanced way is in serious danger.

Some way to regulate social media seems urgently needed, but how do you achieve that in a sensible way in a country like South Africa where the governing ANC and the cronies of the head of state sit at the heart of the problem?


by Piet Coetzer

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