Durban’s reputation has been tainted in an international online climate change competition: a blogger has discovered that fake social media profiles have been created to boost the city’s chances of winning.
Carver Media, the agency employed by the eThekwini municipality to carry out the campaign for the 2014 World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Earth Hour City Challenge, at a cost of R500 000 for 10 days, is accused of being behind the alleged manipulation.
But company owner Praneetha Anirath said the strategy was to get as many people to vote for Durban in the WWF’s We Love Cities initiative, which was why a “viral competition” had been launched to encourage tweeters, bloggers and Facebookers to vote, tweet and send Instagrams to the hashtag #weloveDurban .
“We have to stress we have no control over what people do in their enthusiasm and commitment to achieve this,” she said on Monday.
The aim of the competition was to tweet about how the city could be more sustainable.
The winner would be chosen by an independent panel with votes allocated for every tweet using the hashtag #weloveDurban.
Anirath said competitors and “third forces” were behind a “smear campaign” to discredit Durban’s efforts.
“This surmounts (sic) to ‘cyberbullying’, which is taken seriously by our South African law. With regards to this matter, we will definitely be pursuing legal action.
“As far as accusations of the I Love Durban community being fake, anyone is more than welcome to look at our engagement and insights on the page. We are very real and our reach proves it.”
But uMhlanga tech blogger Marc Forrest said he had discovered the fake Twitter accounts using the hashtag #weloveDurban and had taken screen shots of the accounts. He used these screen shots in a blog post on Monday, but the accounts were deleted after his post was published.
As word spread in the online community, Twitter users began researching the people behind the constant stream of #welovedurban posts. The Mercury found two suspect Twitter accounts belonging to a Brittaney Jones and Alanna Sharon.
Both accounts used the hashtag #welovedurban in almost all their tweets over the past few weeks.
They tweeted mostly about places in Durban, but not how the city could improve itself to become more sustainable.
A Google image search of their profile pictures revealed “Jones’s” picture was in fact that of Tara Varoni, a doctor living in Wisconsin in the US, while “Sharon’s” was that of Frieda Rose, a popular Tumblr user (Tumblr is a blogging site). At 9 on Monday night “Jones’s” picture was taken down.
Mark Smith, a digital marketer who also blogged on this on Monday, said: “With a trained eye, you can see that the whole campaign is engineered. You can also see if accounts are fake because there is no interaction nor any sign of human tendencies.”
The viral barage of #welovedurban tweets appeared to have been set up using Twitter Adder, a social media service that allows for automated tweets.
On Monday night, Barbara Evaeus, from the WWF, said what was happening went against the whole idea of positive engagement, which was what the competition was about. She said the WWF was aware of the fraudulent profiles and was working on disqualifying votes they generated.
“People must be aware though that there are two different awareness campaigns being conducted. One is the very serious approach where a winner will be selected by a jury of independent experts, while the other is the people’s voice.
“And we do have people who are currently rooting out the fake profiles and they will be disqualified,” Evaeus said.
eThekwini municipality had also noted the allegations and was conducting a monitoring assessment.
Spokesman Thabo Mofokeng said an external agency would be contacted to verify the findings. If the allegations were valid, action would then be taken against the company.
“But if the allegations are found to be false or misleading and have damaged the reputation of the eThekwini municipality, then legal advice will be sought,” he said.
“It is unfortunate that the campaign which seeks to promote Durban as a lovable, caring and sustainable city has attracted negative publicity. We call on all Durban residents to rally behind the campaign and vote for Durban.”
On Monday, Forrest stood firm, saying what had happened was “unethical and disgusting” and the campaign took advantage of “naive and inexperienced social media users”.
On its website Carver Media is described as a company with more than 15 years of experience in e-marketing, social media and community management. “Our company is based on strong principles and values and was founded at the birth of the internet era,” it says.