|(PHOTO: Arabian Business)|
But that was before the nuclear bomb, before the Cold War and the era of global public opinion, before the rise of transnational conglomerates and their desire to control markets in far-flung regions. Before globalism and the Internet mass surveillance and the ability to compartmentalize reality itself. These days, there just aren’t enough hours in the day for MiniTrue to be operated by governments alone.
Propagandizing has become a thoroughly for-profit enterprise, as PR firms work to launder the truth minute by minute, second, by second. One of the worst offenders you’ve never heard of is – or should I say was, as the company is now defunct – Bell Pottinger, a British firm with a long history of serving, oligarchs, autocrats, and flat-out dictators all over the world.
The campaign that led to their demise, according to Ed Caesar of The New Yorker, involved helping a wealthy family of Indian business owners collude with the South African government to deliberately inflame racial tensions across the country, using the chaos to cast themselves as racial underdogs in order to lend cover to expanding their business operations. Here’s but a sample of their high-powered shenanigans:
After the account was renewed, Bell Pottinger continued to draft talking points on economic emancipation, including one noting that “inequality in South Africa is greater today than at the end of apartheid.” It also commissioned advertisements claiming that South African banks had threatened the livelihoods of Oakbay employees. On April 18th, the Bell Pottinger team asked an Israeli digital-reputation service, Veribo, to help suppress negative Google results about the Guptas. (The company, which has changed its name to Percepto, has said, “We now regret our involvement.”)
Bell Pottinger’s efforts on behalf of the Guptas became increasingly ugly. I recently reviewed sections of a 2017 report about the Gupta affair, which Henderson commissioned from the law firm Herbert Smith Freehills. (The full text has not been released to the public.) According to the report, in the summer of 2016 a publicist on the Oakbay account set up a Web site, voetsekblog.co.za, with a related Facebook page and Twitter feed. In Afrikaans, voetsek means “go away.” The Web site’s content, which was mostly aggregated from other sources, highlighted racial and economic disparities in South Africa. Its home page read “You know what they say, don’t get mad get even so it’s time to cause some havoc. For too long black South Africans have been left out of the economy . . . our economy.”
The Twitter account, @Voetsek_SA, posted similar messages and many cartoons. Some of the drawings were produced by the Guptas’ newspaper network; others were commissioned by Bell Pottinger. Many of them were offensive. One image that appeared on @Voetsek_SA shows a table of fat, rich-looking white people—one of whom resembles Johann Rupert—gorging on food while emaciated black people eat crumbs off the floor. An army of bots linked to the Guptas promoted the cartoons on Twitter.
The Web site, the Facebook page, and the Twitter feed have since been scrubbed from the Internet. Branko Brkic, the editor of the South African newspaper the Daily Maverick, whose reporters covered the Bell Pottinger story, told me that the firm’s deployment of the Guptas’ cynical strategy was “beyond the pale.” He said, “Bell Pottinger literally stole the page from Goebbels and applied it to twenty-first-century South Africa. That’s just plain evil. They were going well beyond their brief. It’s almost as if they felt pleasure doing it.”
A record of the whole sordid affair can be found here. Happy reading, or something.
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