Bell Pottinger 2.0: Targeting Survé & Sekunjalo

By Sihle Makhowana, Sizwe Dlamini Time of article published May 10, 2021

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INDEPENDENT Media, using the latest technology with artificial intelligence, has uncovered disturbing social media activity that directly and indirectly targets Sekunjalo, its chairperson Dr Iqbal Survé, and related companies.

This after a smear campaign organised through social media to discredit and compromise businesses linked to Survé has been at work since 2019, as our investigations unit discovered.

The report showed a targeted campaign resulting in a significant spike in the amount of negative content related to Survé circulating on the social network during the past two years.

Independent found through the sampling of the content and users engaging with the content showed that a network of semi or fully automated accounts (bots) are at play to generate and amplify the negative content with a goal to damage the reputation and public perception of Survé and his investments including Sekunjalo.

Independent examined datasets of 71 847 tweets that span across a time period of 18 months (September 2019 – March 2021) and made by 16 372 so-called users.

The report shows three clusters of accounts originating from @dailymaverick and journalists – @ferialhaffajee, @MarianneThamm, @PLMyburgh. Further data analysis showed that accounts associated with @News24 and @amaBhungane and @dailymaverick were all retweeted in a synchronous way with the support of bots.

The report found it most probable that the accounts in this group are natural followers or readers subscribed to these few influencers.

The second group of accounts shows suspicious bots linked to accounts such as @OneNation70290 or @runawayrene, as can be seen in the analysis schematic, and they do not disclose any particulars about their owners.

The third group shows the highest concentration of accounts whose identity is unclear. Many accounts in this group have a massive following and follow each other.

The rise of social media has been one of the major developments in our life as it has drastically advanced communication and helped organise fast and seamless ways of communicating and sharing content.

Whether it is Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, the fact remains that social media, when used effectively with the associated artificial intelligence, can reach millions of users in a matter of minutes. Social media platforms have fast become a critical tool of information and communication, despite all the good, it has a serious impact on defining and determining narratives.

Though, despite its positives, very often it has been weaponised by some entities interested in discrediting and tarnishing businesses to serve their own interests, dismissing the potential jobs bloodbath as collateral damage.

The spurious allegations levelled against Survé have had a detrimental effect on the image of his businesses. This has also led to Absa terminating its relationship with Premier Fishing and Brands and FNB terminating its relationship with AYO Technology Solutions.

No valid reasons are given for the move to close the transactional facilities of two JSE-listed entities, which employ thousands of South Africans, except for reputational damage based on negative media reports.

Indy’s ongoing analysis of the data shows the devious and shocking coordination between the detractors of Survé and Sekunjalo working with accounts emanating from the office of the President as well as sophisticated bot machinery located in Gauteng and the Western Cape.

The report showed that each of the most retweeted accounts had its own subnetwork of accounts that mainly retweet their root, usually at a significantly shorter amount of time than the average user – less than 10 minutes after the original post and in some cases even less than one minute.

The most suspicious connections between accounts where retweeting account have high bot score and retweets are usually done very fast. The report found that every influencer account that made negative posts about Survé (@IqbalSurve) had its own network of suspicious accounts with a high bot score that retweet with a very short delay after original content is posted.

Experts on the subject advise users to take heed of the following:

  • Social media is being used to bridge the confidence gap and intensifies the momentum of rumours.
  • Speed and decentralisation make it hard to monitor weaponised information on social media.
  • Stop treating Twitter as though it were the public sphere, rather than a space where a vocal minority participates.

Rappler chief executive Maria Ressa, in discussion with Al Jazeera’s Ghada Oueiss at IPI World Congress 2020 about social media being weaponised to discredit journalists online said: “These kinds of smear campaigns aim to accomplish three things. First, they want to scare you and tear down your credibility. Secondly, they want to make you a cautionary tale for others. And finally, they want to use this misinformation and hate to influence and a certain segment of the population politically.”

In the current context of misinformation, the ultimate danger is not unjustifiable regulation of journalism as that would exacerbate the existing media freedom threat witnessed in South Africa. However, with everything considered it is more than likely that the public will become skeptical of all news content, including that published by mainstream media.

It is with this backdrop that people are highly likely to take as credible any content that is endorsed by their social networks, which then creates a perception that is parallel to reality. The general purpose of disinformation is not necessarily to convince the public to believe that its content is true, but rather to establish a narrative that impacts what people think is important, and to muddy the informational waters.

Thus a businessperson and his businesses’ credibility can be highly impacted by uncertainty resulting from disinformation. The quest to clear one’s name and to set the record straight becomes as real as the spread of disinformation.

In this case we are witnessing the systematic unfolding of a campaign driven by some powerful entities who are hell-bent on either controlling Independent Media – just like they do our detractors – or shutting it down. And how else to do it other than to take down the entity that invested in the media house?

Investigations Unit - [email protected]

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