πŸ”’ BN Confidential: Shades of Bell Pottinger’s WMC tactics in explosive Facebook disclosures

By Alec Hogg

Shortly after I arrived at Absa Bank in the mid-1990s, the Tollgate controversy landed on my desk.

One of the units Absa had acquired a few years earlier, Trust Bank, had lent fortunes to the JSE-listed mini-conglomerate which owned Golden Arrows busses amongst other things. It subsequently went bust after the bank saw no chance of its loans being repaid and recalled them.

The two latecomers to Tollgate, who had acquired control of the business, were furious that the bank had called up its security. They appear to have been the victims of misrepresentation by the former owners. In an attempt to claw back their losses, launched a media campaign blaming the bank for their woes. So from the bank’s side, it became my responsibility.

Tollgate’s fall was a complex matter and required all the investigative skills I’d acquired in what was then a decade and a half of financial journalism. But as with all worthwhile experiences, it taught me a life lesson: the power of hindsight.

After working backwards through years of press clippings, the fraudsters’ modus operandi was soon exposed. Their patsies had come into a lot of money rather easily from their entrepreneurial endeavours abroad and hadn’t done their homework before buying control of ill-fated Tollgate. But rather than risk a showdown with the shadowy fraudsters (who had even plundered the company’s pension fund) they found a softer, more public target.

Acquiring the clear understanding that only hindsight provides gave us the legal and moral ground from which to vigorously defend a fake news onslaught that was intense for the time, although pretty tame compared with what goes on nowadays.

The verified Twitter Inc. page of Cambridge Analytica, displaying their logo and company name, sit on an Apple Inc. iPhone against a backdrop of the Facebook Inc. sign shown on a computer screen in this arranged photograph. Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Which brings me to the focus of this missive, today’s announcement from social media network Facebook that it is closing down 32 pages created by “bad actors”. These pages had attracted 290,000 accounts – not quite the scale of Cambridge Analytica, but still significant.

I was among many observers disappointed at the relatively free ride Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg enjoyed when he appeared before US Congress on the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

The questioning came across as weak and/or ignorant, making the entire exercise look stage managed.

Perhaps it was. With hindsight, the latest developments suggests a deal was struck between Facebook and the US State ahead of Zuckerberg’s appearance on Capitol Hill: co-operate in future and we won’t embarrass you. The deal appears to be bearing fruit.

Facebook has abandoned all pretences of being non-partisan, delivering a forceful statement accusing those who created the now shut-down pages as involved in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”.

Interestingly, some of the pages were created in March last year, but Facebook says it only discovered the first of these pages two weeks ago. which seems an awful long time for them to have gone unnoticed.

But here’s the obvious clue. The company says it has “shared the information with US law enforcement agencies, Congress, other tech companies and the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRL)”. Facebook is a proud partner toΒ DFRL, a “research organisation” led by two geeks who specialise in uncovering Russian disinformation and a former senior advisor in the Obama Administration. Hmm.

Facebook also says today the evidence reflects a modus operandi identical to Russian activities around the 2016 election which are the subject of Robert Mueller’s investigation that has caused so much trouble for president Donald Trump. But it stops short of naming the Russians as “whoever set up the accounts went to greater lengths than the Russian-based Internet Research Agency.” In other words, it walks and talks like the Russians, but they hid their tracks so well we can’t prove it.

For South Africans, what Facebook uncovered is eerily reminiscent of the Gupta campaign against “White Monopoly Capital” which stirred up so much dormant friction between racial groups.

In a near repeat of the Bell Pottinger campaign, the biggest of the accounts to be shut down was one called Aztlan Warriors, pages that glorified long dead leaders of indigenous people of North America, stirring them into action on behalf of the suffering of their forefathers through “500 years of colonialism.”

Given the deep Russian involvement in South Africa during the Zuma Administration, it looks like the learnings weren’t all one way. It was Russian agents which discovered Zuma’s alleged poisoning by one of his wives, Ma Ntuli. Could it be Putin’s lot appropriated some dark media arts to employ in a far bigger democracy?

Bell Pottinger might be dead. But the stink from its corpse still lingers.