Opinionista

‘Influencers’ are dangerously willing to throw out their principles for a paying gig

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Toby Shapshak is publisher of Stuff (Stuff.co.za) and Scrolla.Africa.

AmaBhungane’s investigative journalists broke an extraordinary story last week, which details how the government’s emergency power supply regulations were 'legally rigged' to favour the Turkish powership company Karpowership SA. Amazingly, the biggest news about the powership scandal was that “someone” seemingly reported amaBhungane to Twitter, which then stopped linking to the investigative journalism centre’s website.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

AmaBhungane’s investigation shows how the Turkish-led consortium was tipped as a preferred bidder for an estimated R225-billion energy deal, and “was dealt an extraordinary series of aces during the tender process”.

These “trump cards”, amaBhungane reported in an article that appeared on their own website as well as on Daily Maverick and News24, demonstrated how the unlikely scenario emerged that had “permitted temporary leases of second-hand ships to qualify as ‘greenfield projects’ and magically meet a 40% local content threshold during ‘construction’ despite the fact they are foreign-built”.

After years of waiting, the successful bidders of the Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (RMI4P) were announced by Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe in March. But even non-participants in the energy sector were bewildered by how foreign-owned floating power stations had won the lion’s share of the new power capacity.

“The signs of blatant tampering are everywhere,” an anonymous insider told amaBhungane.

With an average of 300 days of sunshine a year, people wondered, where was solar in the mix? Why did gas make up 60% of the new energy?

The key energy requirement in the RMI4P was new builds that create jobs. And what emergency requires a 20-year contract – after which the foreign-owned ships depart?

Logic has never been the ANC’s strong suit but they’ve clearly started believing their own “propaganda” as President Cyril Ramaphosa recently insisted the SABC should broadcast more of this year’s local elections. For veracity’s sake, he said: “The ANC should also saturate both conventional and community media platforms with our message and propaganda. This would mean our message should be short and punchy. It must grab the people.”

Amazingly, the biggest news about the powership scandal was that “someone” seemingly reported amaBhungane to Twitter, which then stopped linking to the investigative journalism centre’s website.

That wasn’t the only bizarre happening, which respected tech consultant Andrew Fraser revealed with an analysis of the Twitter activity of a strange group of Twitter “influencers”, who usually tweet about more frivolous things.

Fraser has previously applied his unique brand of logic and common sense to attempts by the Gupta-employed Bell Pottinger to influence South Africa’s attitude towards the Indian family and their outrageous and shameless State Capture plans.

Fraser noticed how, on 13 May, the day before amaBhungane’s explosive revelations were published, there was a sudden surge of social media activity from consumer-focused accounts with big followings that appeared “too good to be true”.

And it was. Not only did these so-called influencers fail to mention they were clearly being paid, but the process seemed obviously orchestrated.

The first tweet by @danielmarven – using the hashtags #karpowershipSA and #AlternativeEnergy – went out at 10.13am and read: “Thank you @Powerfm987 for bringing this Thought council to the listeners. So they can understand the transition of energy in a cheaper way.. I guess we will defeat loadshedding” (sic).

As Fraser noted on technology news portal TechCentral: “Over the next two hours and eight minutes, there was a torrent of pro-Karpowership tweets. Nine hundred and seventy original tweets in all, plus an additional 1,580 retweets. And then the original tweets just stopped.”

But, as he pointed out, there was “a large volume of activity from a relatively small group of users, some tweeting more than 100 times in a relatively short period. Also, the topic seems odd for many of these accounts, which tend to tweet about music, make-up, food and beverage, and sport. It is slightly odd to see a cosmetics ambassador tweeting more than 200 times about a powership.”

I’ve got another word: shameless.

Sadly, this is not new. In 2019, amaBhungane’s Susan Comrie published an exposé of how the ANC had used Twitter influencers to try to drum up election support. “The party of liberation appears to have bought into the fake politics of paid Twitter,” she wrote.

After another exposé about Geoff Makhubo, the current mayor of Johannesburg and then chairperson of the ANC’s Johannesburg region who allegedly received millions from the Gupta-linked consulting firm Regiments Capital, she noticed “something unusual”.

Self-professed Twitter influencer Karabo Motsoane (@Tswana_Guy3) “posted six tweets about Makhubo along the same theme: that the allegations against him were a DA-plot to undermine the ANC ahead of the elections”, Comrie wrote.

He was not alone “in rushing to Makhubo’s defence. For 25 minutes, Twitter – which had largely ignored Makhubo’s six-page ‘right of reply’ all morning – came alive, with 63 tweets from Motsoane, his girlfriend and 13 other accounts, all repeating the same narrative. They then followed up retweeting each other about 200 times.”

Luckily, Comrie and Fraser exposed these kinds of crazy, obviously paid-for tweet storms and the foolish thinking behind them. So-called influencers who tweet about make-up, dining and music suddenly leaping to the defence of the indefensible are just making themselves less credible when they pretend they aren’t being paid for it.

The advertising industry wants something like a #Ad hashtag to identify paid-for tweets. So-called influencers are a dangerous bunch of people who will lend their names to any payment opportunity. The sooner the advertising industry realises this trend is defunct, the better. Nobody believes “influencers” because they know they are only posting about a subject because someone paid them to.

Let’s be honest, most of these lifestyle and consumer “influencers” are only popular because other people long for a life of glamorous parties, champagne and freebies. How exactly are they making the world a better place? And why do social networks still allow it?

As Comrie, Fraser and a legion of good people who track these trends have shown us: social media “influencers” are dangerously willing to throw out their principles for a paying gig – no matter how toxic the subject matter. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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