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Picture: 123RF/OLEGDUDKO
Picture: 123RF/OLEGDUDKO

Social media is usually blamed for the spread of disinformation. But I observed this week how mainstream media plays a key role.  

It started with investigative unit amaBhungane looking into the closure of website New Frame when its funder, Roy Singham, a Jamaican-American now based in China, dumped it. “Circumstantial evidence suggests,” amBhungane’s Micah Reddy and Sam Sole wrote, “that the Singham network became an increasingly coherent political project intertwined with the propaganda and disinformation machinery of certain state actors, most importantly the Chinese Communist Party.”

The piece was vintage amaB, as they are known: it was a 4,000-word “follow the money” deep-dive, laden with evidence and making it clear what was fact and what was claim or their own analysis. Apart from linking Irvin Jim’s National Union of Metalworkers of SA and Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party to this network, they made a passing mention of businessman and activist Phillip Dexter and his Pan-African Institute for Socialism. Dexter, they said, was “one individual rumoured to be involved in the conspiracy to reorganise the left”.

Dexter responded with a counter-conspiracy. “The SA mediascape has been captured,” he and Roscoe Palm wrote on the site Common Dreams, “by a coalition of right-wing and neoliberal forces, with key online publications like News24, amaBhungane and Daily Maverick [all of which carried amaB’s piece] all firmly under neoliberal control.”

Now Dexter is entitled to his view of the SA media. There is a lot to criticise, and they certainly have their biases and ideological bents (though it is a stretch to call these outlets right-wing). But there was a problem with the counterattack: it was based on obvious falsehoods.

Dexter and Palm said these sites received a “stream of cash from a web of funds that are so wedded, directly or indirectly, to the US intelligence network that they have become an extension of the CIA”. He accused Daily Maverick of refusing to divulge its funders.

Yet a simple search of its website would have given him a list of the Daily Maverick’s funders, as it does for amaB. And none of these funders can plausibly be linked to US intelligence or the CIA. News24, of course, is part of a publicly listed company, not a funded nonprofit, but Dexter and Palm did not see the distinction.

The best part was that Dexter and Palm accused them of being captured by “off-the-record briefings and collaborations with USAID or National Endowment for Democracy-funded projects”. Their evidence was a second-hand anecdote: New Frame editor Richard Pithouse wrote that former US ambassador Lana Marks told him she provided “first-class transport and accommodations as well as excellent food and alcohol” for a monthly meeting of editors in Cape Town. She invited Pithouse to join them as it would be “good for my career”.

Dexter and Palm made a big thing of this. Would the editors confirm or deny “being party to a covert project to influence the national narrative?” they asked. “What is the position or policy of the SA National Editors’ Forum on this kind of attempted interference?”

Somebody needs to tell Dexter and Palm that it is part of a journalist’s job to attend briefings. All embassies offer them, as do many other interest groups. Besides, if they had done some fact-checking they might not have got it so wrong. I asked the editors of these three outlets about this. Two said they had never met the ambassador, one said he had once had lunch with her and he paid. All laughed at the notion that free flights or whisky had made them CIA suckers.

Up to this point, this was a fringe argument. Then two television channels, SABC News and Newzroom Afrika, decided that this was news. Both ran soft interviews with Dexter, allowing him to repeat and embellish his outlandish claims. He followed a Trumpian approach: ignore the facts, repeat the lies and insult everyone in sight. Neither outlet had done much research, spoken to the other parties or prepared probing questions. They let Dexter’s falsehoods go with barely a challenge, spreading the disinformation.

Newzroom had contacted amaB 20 minutes before the broadcast. AmaB’s written response was not used. SABC did not contact it, but mentioned that it would probably want a right of reply, then waited for it to demand that right.

On major newsite IOL, Jamie Roz went further. He called Dexter and Palm’s piece “an explosive exposé” in which “Daily Maverick and some local media houses were exposed as a nexus of media houses funded by the CIA”.

This is how wild allegation transforms into “fact” and is authenticated and spread by mainstream media. Before we blame social media, we need to fix our own house.

• Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression and Caxton professor of journalism at Wits University.

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