On Tuesday the popular Twitter account @advbarryroux tweeted what at first glance appears to be a racist Facebook post made by a DA member.
According to the tweet, Facebook user “Gabrielle van Durren” posted the blatantly racist rant alongside a DA logo, making it appear as if a DA supporter has been caught red-handed making racist comments on social media.
But this is exactly what a “false flag” misinformation campaign is designed to make one think.
A “false flag” campaign tries to give the appearance that a particular person or group of people is responsible for conduct perpetrated by others.
This is similar to the August 2017 MiWay email debacle in which a disgruntled black customer edited an email to present the insurer as a racist organisation.
The customer later apologised, but only after the Indian assessor whose email he edited was threatened with rape and infection with HIV.
In this case, the post by “Van Durren” was an attempt to have the DA take responsibility for racist posts made by one of the party’s “members”.
A search on Facebook shows that this post wasn’t “Van Durren’s” only, or first, attempt to link the DA with racism. On July 18, 2016, the “Van Durren” account published another racist post alongside the DA logo.
But the biggest indication that this was a false flag campaign aimed at the DA is the timing.
The screenshot of “Van Durren’s” post shared by the Adv Barry Roux parody account merely stated that the post was made on August 2.
Although the account has since been deleted, several mentions of “Van Durren”, and screenshots of “her” posts, can be found dating back to 2016.
The true date of the post, it seems, was August 2, 2016.
This was the day before the 2016 municipal elections.
A reverse image search of the profile picture used by the “Van Durren” account reveals that it was taken off a website that used stock photos to showcase different hairstyles.
Another fake racist account was also created during the same period.
An account calling itself “Tanya Smit” made several racist tweets early in 2016. Again, the DA logo was displayed alongside racist tweets meant to give the impression that this is the view of the DA.
The “Tanya Smit” account was deleted after the Good Things Guy website exposed that account’s links with a person called Siphe Mzaidume. Mzaidume was in turn previously identified by a 2014 Daily Maverick investigation as being a con artist and hoaxer.
He had used several fake Facebook profiles to give the impression he was an international cricketer.
DA spokesperson Solly Malatsi told News24 that none of the claims made by these accounts were official DA policy.
“It’s absolute fake news that we would reduce nor stop basic free services. Our position is that yes, we would increase social grants to provide relief to the poor.”
No holy cows
This phenomenon spans the political divide.
On October 23, 2018, Twitter user Gielie Visser (@Gielie52076432) tweeted that the ANC was sponsoring “cellfone”(sic) jammers and assault weapons for farm attacks.
As it turns out, the photos were taken from a recent arrest of a cash-in-transit suspect from Mahikeng.
Reverse image searches of the photos used by Gielie Visser revealed that the same pictures, featuring a cellphone jammer, automatic weapons and a man dressed in ANC-branded clothing, were linked to two other incidents, neither of which relate to farm attacks.
The photographs were identified from several Facebook and Twitter posts and linked to either the Mahikeng cash-in-transit heists arrest or the alleged arrest of suspects accused of murdering two security guards.
With the 2019 national and provincial elections looming, Twitter has yet again shown itself to be vulnerable to the spread of misinformation.
Late last month, data analytics blog Superlinear published a vast investigation into the prevalence of external political interference on Twitter.
“We know that the interference that we’ve already experienced via the roughly 800 Guptabots has changed our national debates so we South Africans need to be extremely vigilant in the upcoming 2019 general elections. Local actors have years of experience in manipulating our social media discussions already and there is no reason to believe that they will slow down anytime soon. If anything, their attempts will just increase in volume and sophistication, perhaps as more players get in on the action,” reads the blog.