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 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:


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.


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.


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.


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 –


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.


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?


Things fall apart. But they also fall in love.


You probably haven’t heard of Hans Rosling. That’s because he’s trying to cheer you up.

The retired Swedish professor calls himself an “edutainer”, a necessarily pandering label in our vigorously anti-intellectual age. If he introduced himself more accurately as someone who does interesting things with statistics about humanity, he — see, you’ve glazed over already. So “edutainer” it is.

Rosling’s visual representations of our progress as a species are the sort of things that used to make TED talks quietly engrossing. When he speaks, people chuckle and raise their eyebrows. As promised on the bill, they are educated and entertained.

But Rosling is more than a genteel diversion.

These are hyperbolic times so I’m hesitant to exaggerate too much, but, increasingly, Rosling looks like a lifeboat: small and dry (sometimes very dry, those wry Swedes), bobbing brightly on a sea of heaving despair.

In graph after graph and tweet after tweet, Rosling’s message is clear: most things are getting better. Our crawl out of the muck continues. Sometimes there are setbacks, but they don’t mean we have reversed our climb or started subsiding back into barbarism and despair.

Most things are getting better.

And yet you probably haven’t heard of Rosling, or Max Roser, or any of the other statisticians quietly chipping away at our vastly misanthropic assumptions.

It’s all there, for free, online: consolation, information, perspective, all a few clicks away. And yet it is Naomi Klein and John Pilger and George Monbiot whose grim ruminations are celebrated as “on point” reflections of the world. It is Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, with its almost pathological bleakness, that is hailed as an accurate vision of how things will soon be.

The reason for this rush away from hope towards misery is plain and a little depressing and, like all things, rooted in our beautifully self-destructive psyches.

Simply put, we don’t want to hear good news. We think we do, and we claim we do, but we don’t. And that’s because good news doesn’t make us angry. Bad news makes us angry. And anger feels so damned good.

Again, the official line is that we don’t like feeling angry and we want to kick the habit. Get off Facebook. Mute Twitter. Stop shouting at other drivers. Count to ten. But those are an addict’s self-deluding lies.

We crave anger because the world is confusing and loud and being angry makes you feel like there’s a plan; that you’re taking charge, if only of your emotions for the next ten minutes. And that feeling is addictive.

I’ve seen the addicts because I’ve been a dealer.

When I’ve written a thing full of spite and judgment they’ve come sidling up to me, murmuring praise. And then they’ve asked for more. More anger. More spite. A bigger hit. “You should write a thing about Zuma where …” “The problem with affirmative action is …”

Sometimes I’ve refused, and they’ve turned away bitterly and told me that I’ve “gone soft”, “become a libtard”, and they’ve gone to find harder, more dangerous stuff in darker corners of the internet.

If you’re properly addicted to anger, good news feels lame. No matter how good it is, it just can’t compete with the deep-exhaling, eyes-rolling-back dark ecstasy of a report that makes you instantly, deliciously, angry.

I’m not going to tell you that everything is going to be peachy. That’s not what the likes of Rosling and Roser and Stephen Pinker are saying. But I am going to remind you that doom-mongers also have to pay mortgages.

I’m also going to ask you to try a little experiment I did this week.

The idea came from relationship- and sex writer Dorothy Black. I was making some gloomy, hugely generalised pronouncement on geopolitics in 2017 when she asked me why I was winding myself up over bad things that might not happen. Wasn’t it more useful — or at least healthier — to think about the good things that would definitely happen?

My immediate response was Scrooge-like. What good things would definitely happen? Well, she said, the good things that happen every day, somewhere in the world.

And so we started listing them. Not dreams or wishes but the actual blessings, great and small, which occur all the time, lighting up the world like fireflies, here, then there. Statistically verifiable joy.

Which is how I know that in 2017, every day, millions of humans are going to fall in love for the first time; truly, madly and deeply.

Millions will find a treasure they’d lost; remember something lovely they’d forgotten; begin an adventure.

Every day of 2017, millions of people will hear words they’ve longed for: “You’re hired”. “I love you”. “Mamma”.

And I know that over the next few weeks, many millions will find the deep, consoling pleasure that comes from switching off the internet and rediscovering the world as it truly is.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

We’ve got a fake news problem

fake news

Screengrab from ‘’

A man gets onto a bus, opens his coat, and reveals wires and blocks of putty-like material.

As passengers stare, unable to reconcile the banal reality of the afternoon with the impossible arrival of a suicide bomber, the man, grinning bizarrely, shouts, “I’m going to blow myself up!”

Some passengers scream. Some begin to cry. The man continues to threaten, still grinning.

Just then a police car arrives and armed officers pile out, yelling orders and pointing assault weapons at him. He stops smiling and hastily takes off the bomb rig.

Frightened, he starts yelling, “It’s satire! The bomb’s not real! I’m doing satire!”

He’s deranged, right? Nobody could believe that telling a lie, without irony, subtext or humour, to cause fear and potentially trigger a violent response, could ever qualify as satire.

And yet that’s what I’m seeing, almost every day, on the internet.

The fake news pandemic has started in South Africa, and instead of calling it what it is — shouting “Bomb!” on a crowded bus, deserving swift and merciless retribution from the legal system — it is being excused as “satire” by people who clearly believe that satire means “making up stuff” rather than using irony, mockery or humour to point out the vices or wickedness of the powerful.

I’m not going to name the sites at the vanguard of this onslaught because I believe they need to be starved of oxygen. Also, you already know them: your friends have been posting them onto your Facebook feed, reacting to the news that Jacob Zuma has collapsed or that the DA has vowed to fire all black employees in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Of course, wildly fictional drivel has been a hallmark of the internet since its inception. The lunatic fringe, managing to be both as pedantic and prescriptive as a teenaged collector of superhero figurines and as vague and contradictory as a drunk uncle presenting his world view, has always lurked just a few clicks away. And it’s had incredible stamina: there are web pages about lizard people with a longer and prouder history than the Huffington Post. Sometimes with better reporting, too.

The problem, though, is that that paranoid, endlessly creative creature has escaped from the zoo. It’s snuck into the suburbs and is breeding with your poodle. And the puppies are bouncing up everywhere.

For what it’s worth, I believe that South Africa’s current outbreak is more sinister than commercial click-baiting. I have a feeling that whoever is responsible is making a small fortune from clicks but a large fortune from powerful paymasters who have mandated them to muddy the waters with a campaign of intense, fairly co-ordinated disinformation.

a cacophony of competing whoops and screams

The timing of this upsurge might be coincidental, but I find it interesting that we’re starting to doubt everything we read online just as the ANC loses support by its largest margin ever. After all, if you can’t control the national conversation any more, surely second prize is to turn it into a cacophony of competing whoops and screams in which nobody can be right and, therefore, nobody can be wrong.

The media, too, must carry plenty of responsibility for the current crisis of authenticity. The whole thing was holed below the waterline the moment news organisations began reporting on celebrity gossip as information worth knowing. (The Kardashian-Industrial Complex is what happens when people who know better give people who don’t know better exactly what they think they want.) The moment you know your preferred news organisation is publishing “stories” cooked up by PR gurus, doled out to lackey publicists, and then “leaked” to completely undiscerning news wires, how can you fully believe its front-page exposé on some political scandal?

I don’t know how the South African media industry is going to put the fake news genie back in the bottle. Draconian laws around news production will inevitably be used against legitimate journalists by a government desperate for an excuse to gag independent voices.

But we do have a problem, and we need to be aware that if we don’t tackle it, we’re going to find ourselves in an appalling national crisis. With news even partially discredited, we’d never believe reports about the next Nkandla, or the next Marikana, or the results of the next election. We’d be lost, adrift in a typhoon of noise and contradiction and hearsay, without a clue where we were or which direction we needed to go to find salvation.

When you print fake banknotes you go to jail because you’ve undermined trust in your country’s currency, and without trust in its inherent value, money becomes worthless. Fake news should be treated exactly the same way. Counterfeit information undermines our faith in our institutions, in our news gatherers, even in each other. Worse, it undermines our faith in our own critical faculties. And once we lose that, we’re done.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

“Smoking is good for you”

smokingDear one,

I’m so sorry about vanishing like that just before Christmas, but I couldn’t stand the traffic and the wailing toddlers snotting on sweating Santas. I had to get away.  I hope you’ll forgive me for not forwarding an address for postcards and the like. The thing is, I’ve deliberately come to a place where news travels very slowly, if at all. You know how I’m always droning on about how there’s too much news and too much stupid? Well, I decided to go to a place where there’s none.

In the end I didn’t need a visa or even any money. All I needed was a decision: to switch off the babble for a few weeks. So I did.

I haven’t looked at Facebook or Twitter or news websites for two weeks.

Two weeks! Do you realise what that means, dear one? How much rancour I’ve avoided? How much prose-farting I’ve dodged? I feel that these two weeks have added two years to my life. What a glorious place this is!

You’d love it here. At first glance it looks a bit like South Africa, but the longer you stay here, the more you see the differences. The main one is that here, people just get on with things. Those who talk, talk to each other. If they fight, they work it out afterwards, like adults. Nobody drops an imaginary microphone and prances out of a non-existent room. And the most wonderful difference: in this country, people who lecture other people are actual lecturers rather than flakes who think that an audience is a substitute for years of therapy. Lord but it’s good to be free of the aggressive self-pity of the Internet Republic!

I won’t lie, though: getting here was tricky. Call it the turbulence of going cold turkey.

I can admit to you that I was properly hooked, and I knew it. But like a true addict I was deluding myself about the nature of my addiction.

I told myself that my need for news was virtuous; that the urge to check my phone was a desire to stay informed, and that each tweet or headline was contributing to a godlike view of the world, which, by implication, would ultimately lead to a godlike righteousness and wisdom.

You’ve felt it, too. I know you have: that subtle but relentless pressure to have an opinion about everything, to engage earnestly with everything, and, once the virtue commissars have named the target for the day, to rain down rhetorical fire upon it.

Yes, dear one, I told myself that I was hooked by a desire to be informed so that I could use my knowledge for good. But it wasn’t that. After all, if I was after knowledge I would have spent my days reading books by experts rather than poring over the nervous tics of nobodies.

No. The truth is, I was hooked on the jolts, the small but relentless bursts of anxiety that happened every single time I opened Twitter or Facebook or any local news site. I was plugged into an endless stream of second-hand disasters and third-rate manifestos. And every time one of them flared onto the screen, presented as the outrage du jour, it lit me up with a dim, smoky spark.

I know the brain doctors have figured out how this all works and their findings are depressing: it turns out that we’re all just lab rats pressing our noses against a red button marked MORE PLEASE. But I also think I was mistaking anxiety for a feeling of engagement. I was confusing chaos with connectedness.

Dear one, you know that I can be overly dramatic, but this holiday has made me begin to think that the internet is very, very bad for me, and I don’t only mean bad as in distracting and confusing. I mean that I suspect it’s bad for my physical and mental health.

Yes, I know the internet democratised knowledge (or at least porn and kittens) and helped the Arab Spring bring democracy to — oh, wait, never mind that second one. Anyway, it’s hailed as a Good Thing. But so were cigarettes, once. Doctors said so.

And I’m now convinced that we’re in the “smoking is good for you” phase of the internet.

In fact I’m sure that, 50 years from now, medical people will shake their heads and murmur, “Can you believe the toxic filth those poor rubes deliberately pumped into their eyeballs every single day?”

And they’ll be doubly grateful that China banned the internet once it bought the last independent country back in 2045.

I’m sure I’ll see you soon. Writers can’t stay off the internet forever. But, dear one, when I come back, it will be carefully. Very carefully.

Yours in being much more cautious and much more content, T.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail.

I haven’t signed the petition

voteI haven’t signed the petition. Not that one, anyway; the one in which an angry nation is calling on Thuli Madonsela to remove Jacob Zuma from office.

I haven’t signed it because I have an irrational fear that it might actually work. I worry that, given enough signatures, Ms Madonsela might somehow be legally obligated to go to the Presidency and to wrestle Mr Zuma out of his chair, down the passage, and into some sort of container with breathing holes punched in it. Which would be upsetting for everyone involved. (I’m sure she can hold her own in a bare-knuckle brawl, but nobody wants to see a person as poised and serene as the public protector get all wheezy and sweaty as she eye-gouges a thrashing head of state.)

Mainly, though, I haven’t signed the petition because I’m not really sure what it‘s demanding. I mean, if the plan is for opponents of the ANC to remove Zuma from office within a week or two, without the co-operation of his party and without consulting the constitution, then isn’t that just a coup? And if that’s not the plan, and the point of the petition is to force Zuma to see how unpopular he is, then I’m not sure a document signed by 0.4% of the population is going to give him sleepless nights.

Then again, maybe I’m just confused by the wave of online activism swamping us, for example, the proposed “tax boycott”. As I understand it, this is a plan to force the state to listen by cutting off its allowance. Basically, it’s a game of fiscal chicken in which taxpayers hope the government will blink first. It’s going to be a long wait: there are parts of this country where the government hasn’t blinked in 20 years.

My main concern with the tax boycott, though, is that it ignores the damage it would do to our most vulnerable compatriots. If you managed to turn off the money tap it would mean you’d also turned off social grants and basic services. The state would scramble. It might even give you what you wanted. But in the meantime babies would die and grandmothers would starve. Have we really reached the point where we would knowingly destroy poor families in order to inconvenience a rich one in Nkandla?

But let’s opt for a best-case scenario. Let’s imagine that the petitions and boycotts work and sense prevails and the country smells of ubuntu-flavoured apple pie: what then? How do we come back from having set that kind of precedent? Surely if we start believing in the power of petitions rather than the rule of law we are completely at the mercy of the most vocal groups? After all, if we believe in the validity of a petition calling for a president to be removed by a civil servant, then we must also respect the results of a petition that calls for homosexuality to be outlawed or the death penalty to be introduced or white people to be repatriated to a bog in Flanders. We must be ready to live in a country whose policy is created on Facebook and is governed by a parliament of Likes. You might want to live in a Buzzfeed article — You‘ll Never Guess What Crazy Legislation Just Got Passed! I‘m Crying! — but I prefer my laws crafted by experts.

Yes, I know that the government seems reluctant to put the constitution first. I know it needs a kick in the rump. We all know this.

But we also know what the remedy is.

Basic civics.

It’s boring as hell. It has none of the Wild West glamour of sending the Lone Madonsela to face off against Jake the Joker at high noon. But unfortunately it is fundamental to the future of this country.

For 20 years I’ve assumed that democracy was something that just sort of happened; a basic self-regulating machine that ticked along, powered by the inherent goodness of people and a shared belief in not being kak. But of course that’s simply not true. Democracy relies on informed citizens demanding democratic leadership. And democratic leadership is a crop that must be endlessly husbanded, weeded and, if necessary, burnt out and replanted.

It’s repetitive work. It can be tedious. It requires knowledge, too: a smattering of economics, a smidgen of law, a spot of political theory — just enough knowledge so that when we complain we don’t sound like a medieval slop-stirrer blaming his scurvy on the spells of Jewish shape-shifters.

And then? Next year, we put theory into practice.

We vote.

No more, no less.

Forget Facebook. Ultimately, a piece of paper posted into a cardboard box is the most powerful technology we have.

If we’re learning, the results will show it. If we’re not, well, I’ll see you all online.


First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail