OPINIONISTA

Chris Roper: OPINIONISTA: Iqbal Survé’s Top Misinformation Tips for Boys and Girls

The truth is that most people can spot the crudely inept sort of fake news that Iqbal Survé’s attack poodles peddle, but it’s not about entirely fake news and disinformation any more, but about the steady feeding of misleading misinformation into the mainstream, designed to exacerbate the already stark divisions in South Africa.

The trail of misinformation scarring the South African social media landscape is marked by irruptions, key moments in real-time history that provoke the conditions allowing trolls, bots and liars to flourish. Events like the ANC 54th national elective conference, #SheepGate, the #GuptaLeaks, and many others you could list with a heartfelt groan.

In fact, one could make the case that the condition of being South African is to lurch from crisis event to crisis event.

Because everyone is interested in those irruptions, the potential for the amplification of misinformation multiplies. This potential isn’t confined to social media. Misinformation becomes widespread on all media platforms, both captured (like Independent Media) and free.

One such event is careering towards us with the speed of a politician pocketing a bribe: the SA national elections in May. We’re going to see a surge in fake news* and misinformation. Much of this will be around a targeted outcome (destroying an opposition party’s credibility, deflecting guilt from a corrupt businessperson, getting Andile Mngxitama a paying job), but the unfortunate truth is that democracy will always be collateral damage.

The main casualty of misinformation is trust, and without trust, democracies die. When people lose trust in business, government and (most importantly, as the institution monitoring all three of these, including itself) journalism, an environment is created in which disinformation and populist demagogues can thrive.

South Africans are aware of this. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, 62% of us “believe that the average person does not know how to tell good journalism from rumour”, and 54% believe that “it’s becoming harder to tell if the news was produced by a respected media organisation or not”. The result is that 69% of South Africans are “worried about false information or fake news being used as a weapon”.

My fellow South Africans (I’ve always wanted to say that), you are right to be worried. An Oxford Internet Institute report reveals that countries where formally organised social media manipulation occurs increased from 28 to 48 in 2017, and "the majority of growth comes from political parties who spread disinformation and junk news around election periods”. And a 2018 Freedom House report found that governments in 30 countries are now “mass producing their own content to distort the digital landscape in their favour”. So ahead of the elections madness, here are a few tips on how to spot misinformation and fake news*, using lessons drawn from The Collected Sayings of Mandela’s Dr Iqbal Survé™ (otherwise known as The Cape Times).

Mandela’s Dr Survé™ is acknowledged globally as one of South Africa’s masters of misinformation. He’s received fake awards from the Newseum in Washington, DC, and has six times been honoured by Independent Media as “Owner of the Year”. He also holds the official Davos record for photobombing unsuspecting politicians and businesspeople, once even managing to get a photo of himself giving Steve Jobs business advice after he died. Truly impressive stuff.

So if you want to “Do Disinfo”, as the spin-Doc laughingly calls it in editorial meetings, here are his Top Three Iqtips.

Iqtip #1

Tell a little bit of the truth to hide the big lie.

I tried to keep it factual, but not giving them 100% of the story – there were gaps in what I was saying, but I kept it factual.” Some great advice from Mandela’s Dr Survé™, showing how he gets away with lying to the PIC. Drop some facts into your misinformation, so that nobody will realise you haven’t actually answered the accusation.

Iqtip #2

Use the media as an excuse when you haven’t done something you promised you would.

I didn’t tell the PIC anything about (the BT) discussion, I told them the media environment has made it difficult for (us) to do this thing. I tried to get out of it by saying that.” Survé passing on his wisdom to the Ayo board.

Iqtip #3

Order some poor idiot to create a bunch of Twitter troll accounts to slavishly retweet your message.

Three fake pro-Survé accounts (outed by digital vigilante @arfness) were started at the same time in February, called South Africa Transformation, Expose_Hypocrisy and AyoTechnology_Solutions.

Which leads us to the next bit of this lesson:

Five Things to Learn from the Spin-Doc’s Incompetent Attack Poodles.

As much as I hate to criticise Mandela’s Dr Survé™, a man who has done so much for the cause of transformation (assuming we define transformation as “turning a respected media group into a national laughing stock overnight”), we can also learn a lot from his mistakes. Here’s how to spot when the good spin-Doc is trying to push misinformation and fake news.

We’ll start with Twitter, and the three fake pro-Survé accounts mentioned above.

#1 Check when the account was created.

In the case of all three of the above accounts, it’s February 2019, which indicates they were created expressly to deflect attention from Survé’s travails. It’s blatant when you check out Google Trends and see how searches for Survé spiked in February.

[caption id="attachment_238553" align="alignnone" width="480"] Google searches for Iqbal Survé in the last 90 days. (Screengrab on 19 February 2019)[/caption]

#2 How many followers does the account have?

In this case, Survé’s idiot attack poodles don’t even have the brains to follow each other up his backside. At the time of writing, the SATransform_ account has zero followers and follows zero other accounts. ExposeHypocris_ has only four followers (weirdly, two of them also follow me). Ayo Technologies has zero followers.

#3 Does the account have design or text errors?

SATransform_ proudly misspells transformation in the catchphrase on its masthead: “SA Trasformation”. Of course, this could also indicate that the account was created by someone at Independent Media, the company that actually managed to misspell the name of their lord and master on the front page of its newspapers. (And some might argue that “trashformation” is the perfect word for what Survé has done at Independent.)

#4 Are accounts trying to impose a new narrative using a hashtag that only they care about?

Out of the 321-million Twitter accounts in the world, only three use the hashtag #ayotechnology. You guessed it….

#5 Does the account always include Survé’s honorific, “DR”, and always in all uppercase? It’s a classic case of someone being betrayed by their own ego. Even his bots are too scared to upset the good spin-Doc.

I could go on, but you get the idea (for a proper lesson in how to spot bots, read DFR Labs’ primer, and for tips on how to fact check, see this useful guide from AfricaCheck.)

And as much as I think Mandela’s Dr Survé™ is a laugh a minute, there’s a serious point here. People who are much, much better at misinformation and disinformation are going to be infecting the run-up to elections in May, and we need to be aware of how to spot them. The truth is that most people can spot the crudely inept sort of fake news that Survé’s attack poodles peddle, but it’s not about entirely fake news and disinformation any more, but about the steady feeding of misleading misinformation into the mainstream, designed to exacerbate the already stark divisions in South Africa.

I’ll leave you with another quote from the spin-Doc, where he’s trying to get the Ayo CEO to call up the PIC and blatantly lie about a deal. This is the way I picture Mandela’s Dr Survé™ and his clown car trolls, them doing the dirty work, him sitting like a badly dressed Mr Burns twiddling his fingers and cackling: “Phone (troll) them, I’ll sit here… but don’t tell them I’m here. I just want to hear what they’re going to say.”

Trashformation indeed. DM

* The term “fake news” has gone out of fashion, with many people decrying the looseness of its definition. That’s precisely why I still use it, because it can be all things to all people. As with belief in a god, understanding it requires a leap of faith, and an ever-changing societal consensus on what it is and isn’t. The Unholy Trinity of disinformation, misinformation and fake news are the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost of propaganda

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