CHRIS ROPER: Truth runs aground as misinformation takes off
Dislodging fake news, once it’s been launched into the world, may be as painstaking — and boring — as digging a 400m container ship out of the sand alongside the Suez
How about that ship, huh? At the time of writing this column, the world was still gripped by the saga of the Ever Given, a huge, 220,000t, 400m container ship that inadvertently blocked the Suez canal for six days, causing a logjam of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of global trade.
Well, perhaps not the whole world. Mainly those anxiously awaiting their Ikea flatpack furniture, 80 containers of tea trapped on 15 different ships, and a large variety of other goods that are indispensable to keeping the engine of capitalism ticking over smoothly.
Included among the vessels held up were about 20 livestock ships, with about 130,000t of livestock on board. That all sounds very detached and technical, as if the animals were like flatpack furniture. Of course, the reality is that, because of delays at sea, thousands of other cattle have already been slaughtered this year.
Because of a perceived health risk from the bovine disease bluetongue, for example, two ships were forced to spend months away from port because their original destination refused to accept their livestock cargo. The animals were in such poor condition that authorities in Spain ordered them to be slaughtered.
I’m sure there are lots of intriguing back stories to the Suez traffic jam — marriages missed, people dying, consignments of Barbie dolls doomed to roam the high seas like perky, indestructible versions of the crew of the Flying Dutchman.
There were lots of human interest stories to be found, and a bunch of memes released into the world, but not a lot of information about the actual situation on the ground, to which the Ever Given was seemingly inextricably bound.
We people in the Cape of Good Hope, living up to the name, got very excited at the prospect of all these ships being rerouted past Cape Town. We dreamt of a reinvigoration of the dockside economy, of a run on tattoo shops by sailors looking to commemorate their visit with an anchor or two, and of making new friends among the hearty sea folk sure to frequent our dying bars and restaurants.
Somebody tweeted a data visualisation into my Twitter timeline, a thing of colourful beauty showing a rash of ships sailing past the Cape. In my enthusiasm, I shared the graphic, only to find that, alas, I had been guilty of sharing misinformation.
The graphic showed the normal number of ships for that day, not the increase that all the pretty dots seemed to indicate.
Humbled by falling for some misinformation, especially since my day job includes working with digital forensics investigative teams, I turned to Bellingcat for an update.
Bellingcat, for those of you unfamiliar with the organisation, is an investigative journalism site that uses open-source intelligence, known as OsInt by those in the business, to investigate a variety of subjects, "from Mexican drug lords and crimes against humanity, to tracking the use of chemical weapons and conflicts worldwide".
One of its more famous investigations was into the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17, shot down over Ukraine in 2014. Using open-source intelligence, "Bellingcat discovered key information about the downing of MH17, including tracking the missile launcher that shot down MH17 from its base in Russia to Ukraine, locating the field where the missile was launched from, and identifying a number of suspects involved with the incident. Bellingcat identified that the Russian military was involved years before it was confirmed by European officials."
So if you want fact-based information, the sober truth rather than a pretty piece of misinformation, you turn to Bellingcat.
That organisation’s story on the stranding of the Ever Given includes the following passages:
- "Open-source information can also shed light on how the Ever Given became stuck."
- "A Google search for ‘Suez canal cross section filetype:pdf’ finds an engineering document with cross-sectional diagrams for multiple locations along the canal, hosted by a maritime protection and indemnity insurance company."
- "A diagrammatic view of the Ever Given can then be scaled along the x-axis by 64% to represent the view in cross-section. This stretched diagram can then be scaled using the overall length and dimensions in the cross-sectional engineering illustration. Open-source imagery shows the approximate angle of the vessel with respect to the surface of the water, and the approximate position of the front of the vessel with respect to the side of the canal."
Riveting stuff, you’ll agree. Alas, my little vignette illustrates why it’s so difficult to fight lies with the truth: sometimes, the truth is just so boring.
I was reminded of this by a story (and I’m using the word "story" in the dictionary definition sense of "an account of imaginary people and events told for entertainment") in the Daily News section of Independent Online, the news website that puts the L into IOL. (Yes, I’ve made that joke before. I’m trying to get it to catch on.)
Even more ridiculous is the transparent attempt to make us believe that if you’re against the likes of Magashule and Carl Niehaus, then you’re for Rupert and against the people of SA
Written by a proudly self-styled "Reporter [and] Chief Counter-propagandist", who doesn’t seem to realise that if you think your job is to fight propaganda with propaganda, then you have no idea what a news journalist actually is and certainly can’t call yourself one, the story is titled "Exclusive: Rupert gives Ramaphosa an Ultimatum."
The "exclusive" (yes, for once it is exclusive, as it’s entirely made up) makes the startling claim that "billionaire businessman Johann Rupert has allegedly given President Cyril Ramaphosa a marching order, instructing him to toe the line and fire Ace Magashule, ANC secretary-general".
You’d think that, if you’re making up a story, you could make up more than one fake source — but no. This is so bad it’s actually single-fake-source fake news.
According to the story, "it is alleged that the very tense instructions added that it was time to cleanse the ANC and ‘bury’ the supporters of radical economic transformation (RET) once and for all".
The whole thing is a desperate attempt to protect the assortment of fellow-travelling crooks that make up the RET section of the ANC, people so without shame that they’re happy to identify themselves using a trope popularised by the Guptas’ former spin doctors over at Bell Pottinger.
The story itself is not worth deconstructing, though special mention should be made of this gem: "The ANC is allegedly split along the lines of those for Rupert and those for the people of SA. Some within the party feel that the ANC has become a puppet of ‘white monopoly capital’."
Again, no qualms about using a phrase concocted by Bell Pottinger.
But even more ridiculous is the transparent attempt to make us believe that if you’re against the likes of Magashule and Carl Niehaus, that delicious duo of dangerous comedians, then you’re for Rupert and against the people of SA.
The journalist (or "alleged" journalist, to use one of his favourite words), followed up his "exclusive" exposé a day later with a Twitter thread posing questions to Rupert.
"Dear Johann Rupert. I am Thabo Makwakwa from the Daily News. First, I deny allegations that I write fake news and spread propaganda. I have nothing to benefit from either Ramaphosa or Magashule.
"Second, I request you to place on record and respond to the following."
Yes, incredibly, this is a "journalist" who first writes the article, then asks the questions on which the article should be based. And it’s embarrassingly revealing that he chooses to "deny allegations that I write fake news" in questions to someone he is investigating.
For years to come journalism schools will be using this as an example of how not to do journalism.
Take this sample question: "Do you Johann Rupert, confirm nor deny that you had a meeting with Ramaphosa, [Trevor] Manuel, [Derek] Hanekom and others, to discuss removal of Ace Magashule and thos[e] in support of the RET policies?"
Do you "confirm nor deny?"
I mean … yes? No? What’s the right answer?
Unfortunately, refuting made-up facts, otherwise known as lies, leads us into an unequal contest — that of sensationalism over sobriety.
As with Bellingcat’s fact-based, open-source analysis of the plight of the Ever Given, nobody really wants to read an article painstakingly refuting utter nonsense. And, let me tell you, writing it is almost as boring. Which means that The Daily Drivel’s take will stay out there in the world, especially as the man who made it up has told us that "I stand by my story that the meeting did take place and the Ice-boys did take the Instruction from Johann Rupert … To hell with journos and ANC leadership calling me to withdraw my article."
To stretch a metaphor: like the Ever Given, Independent Media’s propagandists-formerly-known-as-journalists are a huge obstruction to the flow of truth necessary to keep our democracy flourishing.
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