Battleground social media: How disinformation, propaganda and manipulation shape our online discourse

From Putin, Trump and Zuma directly to your screen – or via a myriad of intermediaries – the goal is the same: influence. In this multi-part series we explore how disinformation and propaganda flood our timelines and unmask some of the players involved.

To live in the 21st century is to be manipulated.

From local mayors to Russian intelligence agencies to energy lobbyists and presidents, those seeking to boost their political power and influence increasingly turn to the dark arts of propaganda and disinformation to distort our world-view and further their agendas.

But these actors often rely on subterfuge, meaning that investigating the original source of disinformation is a bit like searching for a black hole: it cannot be seen, only inferred by watching how its gravitational pull re-arranges the universe.

Similarly, without a smoking gun – like the Bell Pottinger emails from the #GuptaLeaks – we can rarely see who directs disinformation and propaganda; we can only infer who may be responsible based on whose interests it serves and the faint trails it leaves in the political ether.

In South Africa, there is growing evidence that our social media space is manipulated by a wide range of actors: from the international white right to the fan club of former president Jacob Zuma.

For example, in recent years we have seen the rise of anonymous Twitter accounts, vocal activists and obscure non-profits that have taken to the streets, the courts and the pages of social media under the banner of “radical economic transformation”.

A mix of true believers, manipulators and opportunists, these groups raise genuine grievances about South Africa’s racially-skewed economy but also help to spread dangerous disinformation aimed at energising their base and targeting their perceived enemies.

Is there a hidden gravitational force pulling their strings? Is there a common goal that unites the defenders of former president Zuma with those championing economic reform and the energy lobby that is pushing for a Russian nuclear deal while also fighting to protect coal? Are there puppet-masters pulling the strings?

Armed with new evidence, including hundreds of messages from WhatsApp groups, we went looking for answers. This is what we found.

Chapter 1

The first missile hit at 1pm precisely.

“#HandsOffNUMSA. The Racist AmaBhungane is going after NUMSA because NUMSA has been vocal in its opposition against Independent Power Producers and has been winning Cases in Favor of Workers and Against Capitalists.”

The person holding the grenade launcher was Shampene Mphaloane, a young, dedicated proponent of radical economic transformation (RET). But at the time, we only knew him by the Twitter handle Superblack (@hostilenativ).

During the rest of the day – 20 September 2018 – he would send another 20 #HandsOffNumsa tweets, calling us “Stratcom”, “Racist Agenda setters” and “vile White Monopoly Capital bulldogs”.

Online abuse has become routine for amaBhungane since the first pro-Gupta trolls started targeting us on Twitter in 2016. What was unusual this time was that we were getting abuse before we had published our investigation.

Superblack (@hostilenativ): “AmaBhungane is drafting a Story to tarnish the reputation of NUMSA due to NUMSA’s opposition towards the IPPs and Privatization of Eskom. #HandsOffNUMSA”

Three days before, on 17 September, we had sent detailed questions to both Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim and the chairman of the Numsa Investment Company, Khandani Msibi. By 20 September, Superblack (@hostilenativ) not only knew about our questions, but knew who had sent them.

Superblack (@hostilenativ): “This is the Stratcom Agent behind the Propaganda Campaign against NUMSA and its General Secretary Irvin Jim. He always surfaces wherever the Interests of White Capital are at Stake. His name is Micah Reddy. He is also on the Soros Funded R2KCampaign #HandsOffNUMSA”

To which former ANC MP Tony Yengeni responded both menacingly and nonsensically: “Ive saved his face for the rainy day..”

***

The first thing Mphaloane wanted to know when we tracked him down was how we managed to link him to the Superblack (@hostilenativ) account.

We explained, then confronted him about the #HandsOffNumsa campaign.

“I didn’t necessarily run the campaign… I provided my opinion to the article,” he told us.

“[T]he investigative journalist at the time … sent a couple of questions to … a lot of people who were mentioned in the article, and they started to circulate the questions to quite a number of people, myself included. So, I started to comment around the article that was going to be published.”

Union sources confirmed that amaBhungane’s questions were circulated on WhatsApp. But evidence suggests Mphaloane was not just casually expressing his opinion.

Of the 41 tweets posted that day using #HandsOffNumsa, half came from Mphaloane’s Superblack (@hostilenativ) account.

So who is Mphaloane and why did he rush to Numsa’s defence?

***

The first time we heard Mphaloane’s name was when the newly-formed SA Natives Forum approached the Western Cape high court in February 2018, seeking to permanently stay the corruption charges against former president Zuma.

SA Natives Forum was registered eight days after Zuma resigned, and it waited just one day more before filing a 420-page application arguing that all criminal charges against Zuma should be dropped.

Mphaloane was both a director of SA Natives Forum and its spokesperson.

“We are an independent, non-partisan, social justice foundation and think tank. And that implies we are not related to any political party and we are independent,” he told the SABC’s Bongani Bingwa during an interview a month later.

“We’re not in touch with the former president at all,” he added.

On the question of who was funding the pro-Zuma case, Mphaloane was coy: “In so far as who’s funding us, we will release an audited financial statement at the end of the financial year…”

That never happened and Mphaloane now says that their lawyer, Lucky Thekisho, agreed to work on contingency: “Their argument was, if we win this, then we can try and get a cost order.”

Although Mphaloane studied chemical engineering, his CV describes his work at SA Natives Forum as “developing and managing a social media outlet … as well as providing advocacy and managing campaigns that are of national interest”.

By July 2018, he was looking for new opportunities. “My background is engineering but now I’m looking for anything so I can fund the struggle,” his Superblack alter ego tweeted.

***

Shortly after Superblack’s #HandsOffNumsa Twitter offensive, Mphaloane changed his LinkedIn profile to reflect his new job: claims specialist for 3Sixty, the life insurance company owned by the Numsa Investment Company and chaired, like its parent company, by Msibi.

Two weeks later, in mid-October 2018, amaBhungane published the results of its investigation – Numsa cornered by capital? – alleging that Msibi used his position at the Numsa Investment Company and its financial resources to gain political influence in Numsa, pushing both the union and Jim, its general secretary, closer towards the Zuma faction.

Once again, Mphaloane hit back:

Superblack (@hostilenativ): “Forces of Imperialism are not happy that NUMSA has a thriving Investment Arm that can fund NUMSA’s litigation against IPPs so this is how lauch their attack. Mass media propaganda. #HandsOffNUMSA”

What followers of Superblack were not told was that he was being paid a salary by the company he was defending.

We put it to Mphaloane that it looked like he was using an anonymous account to attack his employer’s perceived enemies. “Where am I attacking? There’s a difference between attacking and responding to an article… I just have my own opinion which I’m expressing.”

We put this apparent coincidence to Msibi too: “I know Shampene but I didn’t know [Superblack] was his account,” he claimed before doubling down: “AmaBhungane did write a story about me … you had a campaign against me.”

Is it plausible that Msibi was unaware that he had such a prominent RET champion working under his roof?

Access the documents we used for this investigation, by clicking on the Evidence docket.

Two sources from the Numsa Investment Company told us that Mphaloane and Msibi had a close relationship – although both denied it. One incident both sources recalled was when Mphaloane’s work laptop was stolen, and Msibi personally intervened to ensure he received a replacement.

But in a group with 1 200 employees, that kind of personal attention stood out.

Msibi did not deny this but explained: “Shampene … didn’t have a laptop because his was stolen and some senior person resigned and his was available. I was not going to get a new laptop bought when there was a laptop lying around of a senior person. Why can’t he use it?”

***

“A lot of things are just coincidental,” Msibi told us. “Shampene, if he is [Superblack], I don’t think he has that many followers to actually be having any impact online.”

In fact, Superblack (@hostilenativ) has more than 32 000 followers, making Mphaloane an influential voice on Twitter and an amplifier for his politically outspoken boss, whom he regularly retweets.

Before and after: Superblack (@hostilenativ) was one of the most popular accounts on RET Twitter. It was deactivated last week after amaBhungane started asking questions.

“[I]nitially when I started this account, I just wanted to give my own view into things… But it was not my intention to remain anonymous, I was not trying to hide something,” Mphaloane told us.

But a few days after our phonecall, the Superblack (@hostilenativ) account was deactivated.

The evidence suggests that Mphaloane used his Twitter alter-ego to target Numsa and Msibi’s perceived enemies.

The question is, would he do the same for the pro-Zuma lobby?

What we would discover is that a WhatsApp group had been set up with this in mind.

Read soon: Chapter 2: The gathering Twitter storm.