South Africa

ANALYSIS

As the ANC conference nears, get ready for the peak disinformation

As the ANC conference nears, get ready for the peak disinformation
Images: iStock | An ANC member wears the party flag. (Photo: Gallo Images / Beeld / Thapelo Maphakela)

As the ANC’s elections committee is opening the envelopes with branch nominations, we are about to enter a twilight zone of intense political contestation and weaponised deliberate disinformation. This is the moment where our ever-uglier politics meet the great need for power that makes politicians drop all pretences of decent contestations and where the campaign of dirty tricks is guided by remorseless, principle-free people working for conscience-free leaders. The implications for our democracy could be serious.

That said, there are still ways to avoid such disinformation floods, and for the damage inflicted by this process to be limited. In the meantime, it will be supremely important to verify claims before believing them.

There can be no doubt as to the importance of the branch nominations process to the ANC’s leadership race. As each branch sends at least one delegate to the conference (some bigger branches send two, and sometimes two branches will have a delegate each and share a third), the number of nominations announced by this process should be an almost exact proxy for what will happen at the elective gathering itself. There is a caveat to this, however: a delegate can be lobbied at the conference and with their vote still a secret one, it is technically possible for many of them to change their mind, an especially lucrative process as well.

This is why this announcement, now due in less than two weeks’ time, will be so important. If it is the case that President Cyril Ramaphosa has garnered, say, two-thirds of the nominations, it would be seriously unlikely for him to lose the leadership election. If he has only, say, 40% of the nominations indicated, and the rest of the votes are split between other candidates, then things would be an order of magnitude more complicated – even as those other candidates would still have to be nominated by a province to be eligible (or on the floor of the conference itself). 

Last week, the acting ANC secretary-general Paul Mashatile told SAfm that the nominations will go from branches to the elections committee. Once they are consolidated, they go back to the provinces to allow them to decide who they will nominate at their level (in reality, all provincial leaders have already said in public who they will nominate).

Mashatile also said that when it came to the official nominations, “You will know properly in a week’s time (ie. last week – Ed) the official nominations because of the consolidation that’s going to take place.” 

This, however, is not what’s happened.

Instead, it appears the national executive committee adopted a plan during its weekend meeting which will see the final nominations list being published only on 29 November.

Despite this, on Twitter and WhatsApp, documents were circulated, claiming to show the results of the nominations processes in at least two provinces (KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape). It is entirely likely that there will be more of these distributed via social networks in the next few weeks.

This information is impossible to verify. It might be true, but it also might be deliberately untrue.

It is important to remember here that it seems unlikely that provincial leaders already have this information themselves (at least officially, it would be foolish to think that they are not in constant communication with their own branches).

Technically, the only people currently with the official information should be the members of the electoral committee. It appears unlikely that they would leak it, although anything is possible.

There are other forces at work that could make the spreading of disinformation cheaper and more deadly effective.

On Twitter, its new owner, Elon Musk, has indicated that he is not that worried about the truth. Two weeks ago, US President Joe Biden described Twitter as a platform “that spews lies across the world”, and advertisers are leaving the platform in droves. 

There is plenty of evidence that many wish to lie in this contest for ultimate power and Elon’s struggle to keep Twitter from falling over while exercising little to no oversight regarding the spread of false information could be manna from heaven. His reinstatement of Donald Trump’s account will just add to chaos and cacophony. 

During the 2017 Nasrec conference, an entire television network, the Gupta-owned ANN7, deliberately focused on mangling the narrative. When it was “bought” by Mzwanele Manyi, there was no discernible improvement in its truth-telling ‘standards’.

It was also clear that there were people who would literally defend everything the then president Jacob Zuma did, never mind the truth or reality. They were happy to tell lies, and attack journalists. Some of those are still around, still fighting the same fight against the truth.

Some are liars addicted to attention, and some belong to political factions.

But recent revelations at the Parliamentary Inquiry into the Public Protector’s fitness for office have also shown that many will simply lie for money. It was revealed that Kim Heller and Professor Sipho Seepe had sought money through non-lawyer Paul Ngobeni (who is still on the run  after skipping bail in the US) for trying to change the narrative on behalf of Busisiwe Mkhwebane.

They are not the only ones who are prepared to practise the art of disinformation in this growing industry of lies for the highest bidder.

While ANN7 is now firmly in our State Capture past, Independent Newspapers is consistently pushing a stream of false narratives.

As was revealed by News24, even its entire Nasrec reporting plan appears to be directed towards ensuring that Ramaphosa does not win a second term.

Recent reportage reveals that this plan is being implemented. Just a few days ago, a piece was published under the headline “Leaked KZN branch nominations list reveals Zweli Mkhize is set for ANC presidency”. The story itself focused entirely on KZN. It was as if the other eight provinces of the ANC simply did not exist.

While the print circulation of the Independent Group newspapers has plummeted in recent years, these stories are weaponised by Twitter. They are used to give credence to the wild claims of Twitter bots and trolls. To the outside eye and, at a first glance, these “factual” tweets appear popular – with hundreds and thousands of positive reactions and seeming amplifications. That those groups are almost human-free escapes the scrutiny of the overwhelming majority of Twitter users.

WhatsApp groups are also rather useful in widely spreading this kind of information. However, this is impossible to quantify precisely because of the encrypted nature of those conversations.

Close to Surve’s “empire”, the entire armies of bots and trolls commingle and interlace with their “journalists” in their joint attacks on truth. The RET propaganda armies (remember July 2021 riots, the Zuma twins, IOL journalists and hate-spewing trolls?) are joined at the hip with the EFF-aligned armies in their fact-free war on all who criticise Jacob Zuma, Julius Malema, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, Iqbal Surve, Judge John Hlophe, Ace Magashule, Lindiwe Sisulu and so many others. In some ways close and in some ways opposite, the #putsouthafricafirst bunch spews their xenophobic propaganda since April 2020 and has given birth to the Operation Dudula, which brought the spectre of violence back to our shores. 

Needless to say, these armies are not kind people looking to help South Africa heal and prosper.

This is the age in which pointed campaigns can easily take root in our very fertile soil. It may be possible for the ANC’s electoral commission to limit some of the damage that may come their way – it could, if the data were ready, release it earlier than 29th November, or release at least enough to reduce the impact of this deliberate disinformation.

This would have the impact of reducing the damage caused by those who wish to lie deliberately, and who do not fear the consequences, or feel any shame for bringing South Africa to its knees. 

In the coming years, this type of warfare will continue to be the best weapon available to many a hatemonger. If we fall for it, it will only be our fault – the fight for democracy is also a fight for truth and we should never lose sight of it. Remember these words when the next genuine media house comes under pressure. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    And yet the reality is, Stephen, that with or without lies, the majority will willingly elect liars, cheats, and scoundrels. Viva, ANC, Viva.

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