journalism

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?”

01 original post

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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Looking for clicks, hunting for ticks

web-tacugama-chimps-groom

Oh, just catching up on the news. (Pic from tacugama.com)

The other day I sat watching a small troop of baboons, and it got me thinking about journalists and editors who write clickbait headlines.

The apes were resting in the shade after a long morning of babooning. A couple of pre-teens threw themselves around in a tree, a Circe de Soleil version of tag, but nobody paid them any attention. It was time to relax. And that meant it was time to groom.

At first, their touch seemed casual and mechanical. Fingers poked around in fur, fishing out critters and seeds that were popped into mouths with unthinking haste. But as it went on and on, as repetitive and lightly engaged as a meditation, it revealed its true purpose. This wasn’t a group of apes pulling ticks off each other. This was a clan, affirming its togetherness. Long after they’d picked one another clean, they continued to touch and stroke, to tease out tangles, to part fur, earnestly and carefully, that they had already combed. They soothed and reassured.

There is a delightful theory, most famously presented by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, that suggests human language evolved from these sorts of grooming sessions. Even more pleasingly, the theory suggests that we still get together to stroke each other’s fur.

I’m not allowed to go up to a colleague and start scratching around in their hair. I’m definitely not allowed to root around in their ears and nostrils and eat whatever I find. But I am allowed to do something else with members of my clan that strengthens our bond, that affirms my place in the group and that reminds us all of those we can trust and those we can’t. I am allowed to gossip.

Gossip, Dunbar suggests, is simply what happens when apes learn to speak. And it is inextricably bound up with who we are. Gossip has been damned by religious texts; condemned as “womanly” by patriarchal systems; dismissed as stupid by intellectual snobs; but still it thrives. And that’s because it feeds and delights a part of us that is older than the oldest religious text or puritanical government: our sociable and curious monkey soul.

Which brings me back to clickbait.

Recently, I’ve become unable to read the news.

I want to. Well, I feel compelled to, which is the 21st-century version of wanting something. I even make it through the headline and some of the first paragraph. But then I stop because it suddenly feels like I might have to hurry to the toilet and regurgitate a long column of pulpy, print-smeared newspaper.

“I can’t stand it any more”

Concerned that I was being unreasonably fragile, I ran an informal poll on social media, asking my fellow sufferers on Facebook and Twitter for their emotional response to the news these days. The response was overwhelming. Given the options “I can’t get enough”, “It’s satisfying”, “I can’t take it or leave it”, and “I can’t stand it any more”, almost 60% replied that they, like me, couldn’t stand it any more. When I asked that gloomy demographic if they consumed the news anyway, almost 70% answered, “Yes, I can’t stop.”

I know this poll was unscientific and prone to all sorts of biases. The few hundred people who replied were also a self-selecting group: I ran it on a Sunday night, the natural habitat of grumpy internet addicts who know they should be reading a book or going to bed but are instead sitting on Facebook and Twitter. But I don’t think I’m wrong to suggest that more and more people – perhaps most – are feeling soul-sick when confronted with the day’s headlines.

Clickbait is lazy and insulting. It has convinced many people that media are being hollowed out by shills. But if most people are being flooded with bad feelings when they engage with news, I can understand why you’d stop appealing to their critical faculties and go straight for their monkey soul. If people can’t stomach facts any more, or are losing faith in them, why not offer them fact that looks like gossip – an invitation to groom?

I’m not suggesting that we abolish journalism and turn the great newspapers into pictures of listicles on Instagram. But our relationship with facts and the media that present them is creaking, and editors who believe in facts must adapt.

Baboons might be a good place to start, reminding us that grooming isn’t about finding ticks, just as gossip isn’t about sharing information. We don’t compulsively follow the news because we want to know what’s happening in the US or Syria. We follow it because we need to touch and be touched by other apes.

If Dunbar is right, our words evolved from gentle, patient fingers in fur. But if they evolve so far that they forget their origins – if they lose their power to bond people together – then what use are they?

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Published in The Times

We’ve got a fake news problem

fake news

Screengrab from ‘Eyenews.co.za’

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.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

After the fact

Zuma condition

It’s been a hell of a year.

Not only has iconoclastic artist Ayanda Mabulu been shot to death for painting rude pictures and Malia Obama enrolled at a Limpopo university, but Julius Malema has vowed to kill gay people and Jacob Zuma has revealed that he has a powerful sexual appetite for young women caused by a medical condition.

None of it was true, of course, but that didn’t seem to matter to the thousands of South Africans who shared those stories online.

Journalists are warning that we have entered the “post-fact” era, and, tired of being left behind global trends, South Africans seem determined to be in the vanguard of the new wave of completely fabricated news.

I must admit that I’m slightly hesitant to announce the end of the factual era, mainly because I’m not sure it ever started. I like an empirical measurement now and then, and it’s pretty important that we know when to plant crops and how to ward off gangrene. But you’ve got to admit that the history of our species is one long, glorious fiction, punctuated with a few alarming discoveries.

Once you’ve made it past the fact of your birth, and figured out how to co-exist with the fact of being a social animal, you’re likely to encounter only one more fact: death. The rest is an almost miraculous negotiated fantasy.

For example, let’s consider an idealised newspaper, printed early one Sunday morning in the golden era of “factual”, pre-internet, pre-Trump reporting.

Casting your eyes over a mass of tiny black marks on a white page – each of which has been agreed to represent a certain sound, which itself has been agreed to convey a certain agreed-upon meaning, you encounter reports about national news.

This “nation”, is, of course, an invention — a large group of people corralled inside an imaginary line called “the border” — while “news” is carefully curated fiction, selected for its power to keep certain fictions spinning along.

Turning the page, you reach the financial section, discussing an invented store of value, a trading tool called “money”.

Finally, sport: an odd pastime in which arbitrary physical jerks are reinterpreted as hopeful or exciting or consoling fictions.

Once you’ve digested this set of “facts”, you go back to your day: living in denial about how much imaginary value-store you have left in the non-existent vault you call a “bank account”; believing that your invented deity is more powerful than other invented deities; being suspicious of people from outside the imaginary border because their agreed-upon daydreams are different to yours and they might force you to replace yours with theirs…

fertile soil for barbarism

Of course, this approach is fertile soil for barbarism. If human rights are invented fantasies (and they are), then who is to say that they are more important than a despot’s desire to slaughter his enemies? If politics are a fiction (and they are) why should Donald Trump’s version of reality be any less acceptable than that of Bernie Sanders?

Well, I’m not a philosopher so I don’t have a concise or logically sound answer to those questions, but I do suspect that if we’re going to get anywhere in this collective dream of ours, we need to try to pin down a few basic assumptions.

One of these might be that some events are more harmful to us than others. For example, I have a sense that genocide is generally worse for everyone than peace, and that insular, bigoted, reactionary politics are generally more harmful to the forward-movement of a country than a more liberal approach.

In short, some fantasies need to be given more weight than others, and some “facts” need to be held dearer than others.

Proper journalists — trained to get as close to our agreed-upon truth as possible, with a sharp eye for manipulative waffle — are the keepers of that faith. And at the moment they’re in trouble. And yet, wasn’t that inevitable?

Our shared beliefs might be almost universal but they’re also shockingly fragile. An international border is a complex legal, political and military construct, but all it takes to obliterate it is a single step.

Likewise, ideas of fair play, tolerance and human solidarity are entirely helpless against some charismatic git shouting, “It ain’t so!” At the moment we all agree that the sun rises in the east, but east and west are fictions. If enough people repeated it on Facebook, trust me: the sun would start rising in the west.

So what’s the solution? I’m not entirely sure, but for me a useful start is to figure out which fictions are the least harmful to me and to the people I live alongside.

And perhaps it’s also worth remembering that marks on a page are just marks on a page. What they represent, well, you’d be surprised by how much of that is up to you.

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First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

We’ve been framed

frameIn the middle of Cape Town’s Waterfront there stands a large yellow frame. Viewed from directly in front, it encapsulates a famous scene: the city, loomed over by a perfectly flat Table Mountain.

To be photographed inside the frame is to capture the quintessential Cape Town image. There’s even a white X painted on the ground nearby to show photographers where to stand. Because of course you have to line it up perfectly: to shift the view by a few degrees – to put the frame around not-quite-Table-Mountain – would somehow feel like a less true image of the Cape Town experience.

It seems like a gimmick but its popularity with visitors is proof of the power we give to frames. When something – an image, an idea, a news report – is inside an official-feeling framework, it feels more authoritative than something outside the frame.

It’s a deep-rooted prejudice that despots have exploited, airbrushing rivals out of photographs to obliterate them from history, so it’s no wonder that we’re so concerned with making the frame bigger. We realise that too many people and histories have been excluded from too many frames, and it feels progressive to give them their own. But perhaps caution is advised; because just as we have a tendency to disregard anything outside the frame, we might also have a tendency to believe anything inside it.

When I was editing the satire website Hayibo.com, I learned that one particular frame, the news story, wields astonishing power: present us with a headline, some apparently factual statements and a quote, and we seem unable to resist. Hayibo’s stories were never intended to trick people. They were often ludicrous, laced with silly names and outlandish scenarios, and yet far too many people who should have known better took our stories as gospel.

For example, our “report” during the London riots that the African Union would be sending troops and food packages to Britain popped up on UK financial blogs, with a few commodities traders wondering whether a sudden glut of African crops would affect UK indexes.

Worse, when we “revealed” in 2010 that the controversial painting ‘The Spear’ had been bought by German art collector Gunther Knutsach (because, in his own words, “I just like big black penises”), a local journalist – someone trained to tell fact from falsehood – e-mailed me asking for Mr Knutsach’s details. Nut-sack? Geddit? No?

We are really up Gullibility Creek without a paddle, and our slavish respect for the Frame is to blame

Most worrying of all, though, was what happened after we wrote a story about Somali pirates. The piece was pure silliness, explaining how most Somali pirates started their careers by downloading music illegally to make mix-tapes for their girlfriends. If that wasn’t obvious enough, we quoted a buccaneer called Pugwash. But some time later The Times revealed that the story had been cited as fact in an official report by an attorney who specialised in intellectual property and anti-counterfeiting.

If highly trained lawyers don’t hear alarm bells when reading quotes about mix-tapes by a Somali pirate called Pugwash, then we are really up Gullibility Creek without a paddle, and I suspect that our slavish respect for the Frame is to blame.

I’ve heard a few media gurus claim that more access to more media content has resulted in a general rise in media literacy and critical thinking. I’m not convinced: I suspect that there’s just more content for people to digest uncritically. I think we’re still as vulnerable to the quasi-authority of the Frame as we ever were. Which is odd, because even when it is being positioned in front of reality by responsible editors, it still shows us a bizarrely warped image.

I suspect that if you read every respected South African news source for a month, a picture would emerge of a country populated entirely by politicians, sports stars, Eskom spokespeople, victims of crime, protesters, about 20 people of dubious creative ability whom the media doggedly insists are celebrities, and two economists.

You would discover a country whose citizens are more agitated by the English Premier League than by the rape pandemic, and where load-shedding causes more outrage than 40 murders a day. In this South Africa, corruption happens in government about once a week and in the corporate world about twice a year. Poverty is getting worse, except when it’s getting better and staying the same. And climate change doesn’t exist at all, unless your favourite weekly has a syndication deal with The Guardian, in which case it does exist and we’re all going to drown, especially Jeremy Clarkson.

The media are essential. It was journalists who told us about Nkandla and who demanded that parliament turn off the signal jammer. Countries where the media are heavily restricted are invariably among the most corrupt. But responsible journalism also needs responsible readers, who are conscious that everything is a picture inside a frame, and who will ask, now and then, to be shown what lies just beyond the edges of the picture.

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First published in The Times and TimesLive