South Africa

2024 ELECTIONS

Disinformation nation — a concerted campaign to destabilise SA post elections

Disinformation nation — a concerted campaign to destabilise SA post elections
An informal settlement resident walks to cast his vote on election day, 29 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla) | Disinformation. (Photo: iStock) |

In this particularly delicate moment for South Africa’s political future, there are indications that an orchestrated campaign is playing out to discredit the elections and warn political leaders off a government of national unity.

‘BREAKING NEWS: The ANC has been sold for R150-million!’

This is the headline on a piece of disinformation currently circulating on WhatsApp, with the byline “News Reporter”, and a footer attributing it to the Mail & Guardian.

The fake news story claims that the Oppenheimer family and businessman Johann Rupert have together brokered a deal in which they pay the ANC R150-million in exchange for a DA-ANC coalition. The arrangement, according to the fictional account, would see Cyril Ramaphosa remain as South Africa’s President and John Steenhuisen take the deputy role.

The story is false, but being circulated as fact – its authority bolstered by the fraudulent imprimatur of the Mail & Guardian.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Elections dashboard

ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula dismissively made reference to its implausibility at a press conference at the national results centre in Midrand on Sunday morning, 2 June, asking why, if ANC leadership was in bed with the Oppenheimers, the mining family had chosen to fund only opposition parties ahead of the election.

A close reading of the text makes its ideological underpinnings clear. One of the false claims it contains is that the “deal” is motivated by Rupert’s desire to sink Eskom in order to make money off independent power producers.

This is a classic Radical Economic Transformation (RET) talking point. And one party, more than any other, has made a commitment to coal-fuelled energy a fundamental policy position: the uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party.

In its manifesto, the MK party refers to the move towards clean energy as the “unjust transition” and states that it would plough money into rebooting Eskom’s coal fleet.

It is evident that this piece of disinformation has originated from the RET milieu, and its ultimate purpose is clear: to delegitimise the notion of ANC-DA political cooperation at this crucial moment when politicians are beginning coalition talks in earnest.

“In the next few days after the IEC results, the media will hear the DA-ANC coalition on radio, print, and all media,” the piece of fake news concludes.

“This is not normal news, but it will be the media selling the coalition pact designed and forced by big business, which paid a few ANC leaders a pittance to sell the soul of the 112-year-old liberation movement.”

In this way, social suspicions will be sown about the prospect of some kind of government of national unity – which most centrists believe is the only prospect for reasonably stable rule after elections in which no party received a clear majority.

The alternative is some form of coalition involving the ANC, the EFF and the MK party – and there are signs of a coordinated campaign to promote this project as the more legitimate political solution.

Social media trolls aided by traditional media

Attempts to discredit the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) and the electoral process began well ahead of the polls.

disinformation elections 2024

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has produced a report it presented to the IEC on 31 May showing that pre-election disinformation was most prevalent on X. A word cloud produced by MMA shows how prominent the words “vote rigging” and “MK” were in advance of the elections, as if the ground were being laid to discredit the results should they not land favourably for Jacob Zuma’s party.

Examples of disinformation collected by MMA included a post falsely claiming that the MK party had won the majority of ballots from overseas voters, and another post claiming that the ANC and IEC were in league to steal the MK party’s votes.

disinformation elections 2024

disinformation elections 2024

An investigation by Tabelo Timse, Kyle Findlay and Aldu Cornelissen published in Daily Maverick just ahead of the elections detailed how “nano-influencers” online are paid to help spread political messages – receiving EFTs of small amounts of money for producing proof that they have re-tweeted or posted a particular message.

Influence-for-hire trend is distorting public discourse, poses threat to foundations of democracy

In the days before the elections, the X hashtag #Dontstealourvotes was used to spread lies about both the IEC and the DA, with the party accused of stealing votes.

Accounts like @phindile_Rsa were used to pump out multiple similar posts within a short period: “The DA’s secret cache of ballots in a car is a reprehensible attack on democratic fairness and a stain on their reputation”, it tweeted, followed by “The discovery of DA ballots hidden in a car is a disquieting sign of electoral manipulation and a discredit to the DA’s integrity”, followed by “The uncovering of DA ballots in a car is a scandalous breach of public trust and a damaging blow to the DA’s credibility”.

This kind of tweeting behaviour normally points to an orchestrated campaign.

But social media users engaging in this kind of behaviour have also been aided by the traditional media: to be specific, Iqbal Survé’s Independent Online (IOL).

A piece published on IOL on 1 June headlined “We told you so! Ramaphosa, Naspers and the rise of the ANC-DA coalition” ventilates strikingly similar talking points to the Rupert/Oppenheimer disinformation piece being circulated falsely as originating from the Mail & Guardian.

The IOL piece, labelled as opinion, implies that an ANC-DA coalition is being puppet-mastered by Naspers, on the grounds that Naspers made donations to both the ANC and the DA before these elections. (As far as is publicly known, Naspers always does this in a demonstration of political even-handedness.)

“The post-election scenario possibly suggests a strategic intent behind the donation, as Naspers appears to have anticipated and perhaps even facilitated the emergence of a coalition government,” the piece claims.

Its political intent becomes crystal clear three lines from the bottom, where the piece – not attributed to any journalist – asks: “Could it be argued that capital needs a DA-ANC coalition and the majority of South Africans need an ANC, EFF and MK coalition?”

South African political leaders have two weeks from the declaration of election results to put together coalitions.

It is a frighteningly tight timeframe, which is why the campaign to delegitimise DA-ANC political cooperation is likely to accelerate and intensify online – while an ANC-EFF-MK coalition is presented as the more socially progressive, politically palatable alternative. 

Political leaders will need to keep their wits about them during this crucial period – and ideally, perhaps, stay offline. DM

 

Election quick links

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Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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