The Huffington Ghost: A New Low For SA Media

On Thursday, the South African version of HuffingtonPost, a website owned by Media24 and curated by former Mail&Guardian editor, Verashni Pillay, published an article called “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?”

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The author of the piece was one Shelley Garland, an “MA Philosophy Student”. Her Twitter bio said that she was a “Perpetual Feminist causing the retreat of patriarchy”, and that she was in Auckland, New Zealand.

Soon after it was published, the column was picked up by a number of right-wing websites, including Breitbart.com. The response was a predictable wave of outrage, ranging from condemnations of a clearly unconstitutional suggestion to outright, frothing-at-the-mouth misogyny.

If you’d visited HuffingtonPost SA on the 26th of January, you’d have encountered this:

clickbait

If you’d recovered from choking on your coffee and clicked the most-read story, you would have discovered that it was, in fact, an opinion piece about the dangers of fake news. Geddit? See what they did there? See how they showed how easy it is to fall for clickbait by, er, well, engaging in some primo clickbaiting?

In other words, Pillay and HuffPo SA are already experienced clickbaiters, and when Garland’s piece found international traction they were ready to cash in. Within a day, Pillay had written a piece called “This Blog On White Men Is Going Viral. Here’s Our Response”. In it, she listed some of the vilest responses the original post had received. Inevitably, it also elicited a flood of clicks.

Trending1

At HuffPo SA it wasn’t just Easter: it was Christmas, too. Sipho Hlongwane, head of the blogging division (or as professional writers call it, “the Helping Destroy Actual Journalism By Getting Amateurs To Write For Free And Thereby Keeping Rates So Low That Nobody Can Afford To Be A Journalist” division) was beside himself at all the clicks.

SiphoOh how we laughed. (He has subsequently deleted that tweet.)

However, angry white men, raving woman-haters and sweaty-palmed bean-counters weren’t the only people who’d noticed the posts.

Cape Town editor and writer, Laura Twiggs, had smelled a rat and soon started doing some of the best journalistic sleuthing I’ve seen in many moons.

The first alarm bell was the fact that Shelley Garland had only just joined Twitter and had no online presence whatsoever.

no trace

Things got odder, however, when she spoke to Garland on Twitter.

Laura2

A proud student of the University of “Johannesberg” would, of course, be known by her institution, even if she didn’t know how to spell the city in which it was. But again, Twiggs discovered a peculiar void where Shelley Garland should have been.

Laura3

And then, two even stranger things happened.

Firstly, in a direct message to Twiggs, Garland denied writing the piece and suggested that it had in fact been written in-house by HuffingtonPost SA.

Garland DMs

And then, hey presto –

Laura4

Shelley Garland, or whichever person, people or organization was claiming to be “Shelley Garland”, deleted her/their Twitter account.

On Friday evening, Twiggs began Tweeting questions to HuffPo SA, asking how they found Garland, if they were aware that she apparently didn’t exist, and what they planned to do about it.

HuffPo responded at once. Not by addressing Twiggs’s questions, of course, but by continuing to pump out Tweets advertising Pillay’s follow-up column.

Undeterred, Twiggs persisted, bombarding HuffPo staff with questions, even Tweeting Arianna Huffington and her successor, Lydia Polgreen, to inform them that their South African pup had just left a large turd on the carpet.

Of Pillay there was no sign, except for a couple of Tweets about geopolitics and her favourite flavour of hot cross buns.

But then, just as Saturday evening arrived, a full 24 hours after Twiggs had first raised the alarm, she re-appeared…

took it down.jpg

The “Garland” piece was gone. So, too, was Pillay’s “Hey look at all the hits the assholes are giving us!” follow-up. In their place was an explanation of why they’d taken them down.

“We have done this” wrote Pillay, “because the blog submission from an individual who called herself Shelley Garland, who claimed to be an MA student at UCT, cannot be traced and appears not to exist.”

Assuming that “Garland” told Pillay that she was at UCT (given her spelling of “Johannesberg” I can imagine her claiming to be at the University of Cap Toun), I would have thought a quick email to UCT might have been a good idea before they hit “Publish”. But maybe that’s unfair. I mean, clickbait waits for no man, whether real or imaginary, and checking Garland’s credentials would have taken precious time away from HuffPo’s busy schedule of cashing cheques from Sun International for explaining that golf is totally groovy in a drought-stricken, water-scarce country.

golf

But don’t worry. They’re not going to do it again. According to Pillay, they “will hold discussions on putting in place even better quality controls”.

Given the fact that they have just published a highly controversial, probably divisive piece, without having a clue who wrote it (or in the interests of which paymasters it was written), I have to ask about their “even better quality controls”: even better than what? Is Pillay planning to enlist a team of squirrels to do fact-checking, as opposed to the team of air molecules she’s been using until now?

It’s tempting to roll one’s eyes and laugh, or to dismiss this because it was “just a blog”, but Pillay and her team have done enormous damage to causes I’m sure they care about deeply.

For starters, they have handed megatons of ammunition to misogynist trolls, who will now cry, “See?! They’re so desperate they’re resorting to making stuff up!” Some of South Africa’s most prominent right-wing trolls are already making hay with this online.

Secondly, they have confirmed the current creeping paranoia that we cannot believe anything we read in the media.

Pillay has already contributed to this state of affairs. In February last year she had to apologise for a largely fabricated story in the Mail&Guardian claiming the Mmusi Maimane was being “tutored” by FW de Klerk.

Of course, HuffingtonPost SA is not the Mail & Guardian. I don’t know anyone who takes HuffPo SA seriously as a credible news source. But it is part of the Media24 stable and its stories regularly appear on News24, the country’s most widely read news site. Given this debacle, News24 readers would be forgiven for becoming more suspicious than ever.

Just one day before she signed off on this fakery, Pillay was quoted in an article on Al Jazeera titled “Fake news ‘symptomatic of crisis in journalism”.

Al Jazeera
I’ll ignore, for now, her use of the word “audience” to describe readers, with all its implications of passive, wide-eyed consumers wanting to be entertained rather than informed. Likewise, I’m going to give her the benefit of enormous amounts of doubt and assume that this was simply rank incompetence on her part rather than an example of “open disdain” towards her audience. After all, she knows about how important vetting is: at the end of March she published this…

Fact Checking HuffPo
But if HuffingtonPost South Africa had a shred of credibility left, it has evaporated along with Shelley Garland.

South African journalism – underpaid, understaffed, under pressure – cannot afford this kind of ineptitude. When people no longer believe what they read, journalism loses its ability to shine a light in dark places. And when that happens, we’re all in deep trouble.

But perhaps there is a silver lining to this mess. Perhaps we can use it as a reminder of the importance of proper editors running proper newspapers staffed by proper journalists.

So, in the coming week, how about we all go out and pay actual money for a copy of our favourite newspaper or news magazine? How about we support actual journalism?

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54 comments

  1. Brilliant piece, depressing reality. It feels, though, a bit like the “converted” being the only ones who care about the quality or veracity of news. The rest may not have the will or the time to double check facts, or indeed just plain get a kick out of being outraged. Which seems to be the new(ish) game in town (re Brexit, Trump). But at least there are still some brave and ethical souls out there flying the flag gor the rest of. Thank you!

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  2. yes, I have seen and eventually stopped reading huffington post because of the kinds of articles they show on the sites. and to me… it’s not like any other sites you can get news from, this one sounds and smells rotten fish.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I know this is South Africa and so what I am about to say will be reviled and ridiculed. When will some investigative reporter look at the atrocious manner in which Trump’s statements during his campaign were decontextualized and reported in terms of the established media’s agenda to deny him success?

        I took the trouble to watch his campaign speeches from beginning to end over many months. What was portrayed by the media was nowhere near what was actually being said and done. I am in no way saying that he was above criticism but the distortion was dismaying.

        Add to that the useless pundits and prognosticators working in the media and is it any wonder many people have simply stopped paying attention to what the media is saying. I understand that different publications have their biases but this antipathy was almost universal.

        If he is as bad as you all claim why was it necessary to distort what he was saying? Surely it would have been sufficient just to report the facts.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. It’s all part of the same problem, Keitho. Newsrooms are so short-staffed, because paying journalists is so last season, that few journalists have time or resources for that kind of investigation.

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      3. Fair comment MXM. It is truly a sad state of affairs and it plays directly into the hands of the iconoclasts. I remember with some yearning that old expression, stop the world I want to get off.

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    1. yep the Cape Times actually belongs to the Sekunjalo Investments after they purchased Independent News & Media to whom CT belongs. This was after it’s editor, Alide Dasnois, published a front page article of how Sekunjalo were irregularly, fraudulently, illegally (mismanagement) awarded a fishy Fisheries R800mil contract by old Tina Joemasepoes Pietersen https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cape_Times . Anyways, they baught the paper and fired that editor and now they publish shit too

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Do you REALLY not know who the actual author is? Did someone break up with a white boyfriend, or did a WCP grab their parking spot? I’m not defending white men, but dismissing her premise because white women on the whole vote like their men. She should rather have unpacked white male patriarchy and its toxic effects on history and society.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had to ask around before sharing this post, whether this post in itself was not me falling into the ‘fake news’ trap. That’s how sad our world has become, there is now a fine line between the signal and the noise. Great piece Tom, and thanks for the reminder about the dangers of the “pursuit of likes”. My special gem, “the Helping Destroy Actual Journalism By Getting Amateurs To Write For Free And Thereby Keeping Rates So Low That Nobody Can Afford To Be A Journalist” 🤓

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    1. “Division”, you forgot to include division in the quote :
      “Helping Destroy Actual Journalism By Getting Amateurs To Write For Free And Thereby Keeping Rates So Low That Nobody Can Afford To Be A Journalist DIVISION”.

      I also liked that. Haha.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That was for dramatic effect… It worked for Huffington Post SA, so figured let me give it a swirl 🤓🤓

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  5. One of the finest commentaries I have read in a long time. May I suggest to your readers that researching publications and paying for their subscription is a good place to start. My Personal favourite happens to be The New Yorker.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. A very thorough article. I was equally shocked by Huffpost’s very sloppy handling of the entire situation. Thank you for this, you make the Internet a nice place to be in again and standing by proper journalists and investigative reporters

    Liked by 2 people

  7. shelly-garland-bb86a3133 profile on LinkedIn met the info available to the public, bu has also mysteriously been deleted. IMO, it sounds like someone went to a great deal of trouble to manufacture this identity. It doesn’t sound like an attempt at trolling to me, but instead a purposeful attempt to design a ‘deep cover’ for long term manipulation, and whoever it was ended up getting caught in the lie.

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    1. http://www.spectator.co.uk for stories and ideas that nobody else comes close to publishing, and The New Yorker is very good. Cliff central is new to me but actually is impressing me. Huff Post is rubbish, it’s just an aggregator and not a publishing house at all, and the ed-in-chief (nice title!) is not worth the paper she is written on, IMHO.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The thing is, does the general public have the time or inclination to verify (twice) the credibility of every story they read? Because how would you tell whether a story is real or not. Maybe journalism’s time is up. We can use our fake money to buy more useful fakery.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m afraid this is the new reality of media. HuffPo SA is still in business because the business is clicks, and HPSA gets plenty of them. Good luck with your studies: you’re going into an industry under pressure. Still, it will always need truth-tellers of sharp eye and quick wit!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks Tom for the usual magnificent article. Just to add to your suggestion that we support newspapers, The Guardian is struggling and needs support. It is imho the finest newspaper in the Engish speaking world especially for its independence and extent of investigative journalism. Go online and click at the bottom of a page on the “While you are here …’ or “For less that the price of a coffee…’ banners.
    https://www.theguardian.com/uk

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Well done. Nicely nailed to the wall of insignificance. Never pays to shoot from the hip thinking it’ll stick without smart and experienced scribes smelling a rat.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Well done. People are lazy and will not take the time verify most social comments at the work place. It is a reach to expect those people to do so online. We have become a sensationalist network of fear and mongering people. Reading anything online is risky, unless you can verify everything yourself. Which most can not. This peace will serve as a reminder to all the fools and less diligent out there. Fast forward 3 months and we will see the same situation mushroom before wiping out our confidence in everything real, before the shock wave that follows reminds us. … I have seen this before …. and yet be doomed to repeat again.
    We do not need these socialist experiments to prove the facts knows since Plato and crew.

    But it makes for a good story, and the realization of how fragile our hope and trust in the man next door fails miserably to the already weakening humanitarian concepts, simply fuels the troll in all of us. Thank you Tom, a great entertaining read as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What is said is local dogma. Accept it. Whites have accomplished nearly all that civilization offers us. They are leaving here in droves. That is why things like water and electricity fail. Get used to it. Things like food might be next.

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      1. OK. Let’s do this.
        “What is said is local dogma. Accept it.” Dogma implies a widely-taught and accepted belief. Show me one study proving that a majority of South Africans want white men disenfranchised and I’ll listen to you. Otherwise, fuck off.
        “Whites have accomplished nearly all that civilization offers us.” What have whites accomplished? Because what I see is a country built, physically, by black people. What is “civilization”? I know what you think you mean, but what you think you mean is a Victorian fantasy. Read a book.
        “They are leaving here in droves.” Stats, please. And once you send stats, and I see that white people are leaving SA at a larger than normal rate, I will ask you: so what?
        “That is why things like water and electricity fail.” No, Don. Water and electricity don’t fail because white people leave. Water and electricity are not kept going by low melanin counts. They are kept going by competent people. If you are implying that black people are automatically less competent than white people, a) please send just one study proving this and b) fuck right off.
        “Things like food might be next.” Food security will be threatened by bad policy and climate change, not by the skin colour of South Africans.
        So. Thanks for the comment but best you go back to 1962 now and leave 2017 to the rest of us.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Horse and rider stuff really. Tom, in his response, thinks that the horse does stuff regardless of the skill of the rider. Of course we have a new rider with the same old horse and things are failing on many fronts. Tom thinks that the fault of the old rider who has been forcibly dismounted.

        Liberalism is a mental illness.

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  12. Its time to use blockchain technology to provide authentication of source in journalism. Blockchain technology has a broader capability than just fintech.

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  13. To Laura Twigg, ‘The first [note first] alarm bell was the fact Shelley Garland had only just joined Twitter and had no online presence whatsoever’.
    Twigg’s first impulse was to check Garland’s Twitter profile – and its absence was ‘alarming’ – before checking ‘her’ student status, a credible indicator. Is this what journalism has become – fact checking via Facebook and Twitter, and the important stuff is secondary?
    Many people are not on social media, by choice. That should not be suspicious. But the print media asks for address and contact details as a condition of publication. Online publications are happy with with Twitter, etc and email.
    This debacle says a lot about Media24’s, Huff Post’s and media in general’s credibility.

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    1. It’s very easy to create a false identity with an anonymous GMail account. Facebook doesn’t vet you. Google doesn’t care if you’re a dog. You can open a blog account under any nom de plume you wish, and disappear as quickly as you arrived.

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  14. What a tsunami in a teacup! This whole thing is irritating because, sorry, it /is/ just a blog. And it /is/ just Huffpo. And Media24 comments section is full of trolls spouting equally nonsensical tripe (not to mention their badly written opinion pieces masquerading as ‘articles’).

    Do we really think that blogs need to pass editorial muster before they can be published? Does every blogger need to be Verisign certed before they can publish? Everybody knows the old saying: “On the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog”.

    Let’s not forget the issue of ‘freedom of speech’ that SA white males cling to like zealots. There’s more than a little disingenuous flim-flam going on here.

    Anyone with an IQ above 90 can tell the difference between such obvious trolling and a NYT article. Blogs are NOT journalism. Blogs are two levels below opinion pieces in terms of credibility – only bloggers who have built up a reputation of integrity (normally as journalists) will survive to build a readership — the rest will get shot down in the flames of natural selection.

    This smacks of an opportunistic attack on Verashni as a person — as a soft target. No, I don’t think she’s a great editor. She seems impulsive and naive. But she’s probably as good as the Huffpo deserves. And demanding she resign? Really? I would think the DA had better fish to fry at this time — they’re the last who should be throwing stones.

    Like

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