HuffPost hoax: Why I did it

Marius Roodt says his goal was to show the flaws in the media?s operations, processes and biases

Why I wrote the Huff Po blog

In March 2017, I set out to show flaws in the media’s operations, processes and biases. At the outset, let me say that while media bias is undesirable, it is also unavoidable. Almost all media are biased. In a free and open society and robust democracy that is not entirely inappropriate. But a lack of editorial discernment, lack of judgement, information fabrication and passing off opinion as truth and fact as fiction, are.

While an open bias is acceptable, it is frequently the case that many media outlets and editors are, in fact, either not transparent about their biases or don’t have a clear one and conveniently invoke one when necessary, or to use it as an excuse to justify a view, rather than clearly explain and elaborate on a point of view. This is a signal weakness in our media, and leads to inconsistency and flip-flopping, which facilitates narratives that conveniently suit certain, often nefarious ends.

Debates about state capture, radical economic transformation and race — especially data on race and wealth and race and inequality — are especially susceptible to misinformation and data manipulation at best, and outright falsehood at worst.

The hoax article — entitled “Could it be time to deny white men the vote?” written under the pseudonym Shelley Garland— that I managed to have published by HuffPost is both illustrative and instructive in this regard. It shows how easy — at least in the case of the HuffPost — it is to get away with propounding a view that bolsters the prevailing echo chamber, replete with false statistics and fabricated data — and reinforces a particular ideological world view.

I succeeded in that objective and was far more successful than I thought possible. I do not regret writing the article and in so doing bringing to the fore the issues and (mal)practices that exist in South African newsrooms and South African journalism. I do, however, regret some of the consequences.

Let me be clear: I did not explicitly and specifically target the HuffPost. When I originally conceived the idea and drafted what was an awfully written and badly argued piece, I also sent it to the Daily Maverick, the Daily Vox and The Guardian in the UK. None of these publications accepted it. This was not aimed at the HuffPost or its editor-in-chief, Verashni Pillay, nor any other member of staff at the HuffPost.

This "guerrilla action" (as the HuffPost called it) was perpetrated by myself, acting alone. My aim, which I succeeded in, was to show general flaws in some aspects of South African journalism (particularly editorial judgement and standards), in terms of fact-checking and in echoing views and following ideological narratives at the expense of good, accurate journalism and reportage. The aim of the piece was also to show up the manner in which inconsistencies in bias and world views lead to both myopia and a culture of convenience, rather than principle.

These are the facts. When I argued that perhaps it was time to deny white men the vote and therefore influence, the editor of the HuffPost wrote a piece in support of my mischievous view, citing it as pretty standard in "feminist" and, presumably, "critical race" theory. When it emerged that the piece was a hoax, the focus shifted away from the point I had proved to the fact that the HuffPost had been tricked into running an offensive piece, submitted by someone who did not exist. However, why was the piece removed if they supported the view, especially in the light of the claim that the piece’s assertions were pretty standard?

What happened at the HuffPost may also be a reflection of the weaknesses of the journalistic model used at that outlet, which relies heavily on unpaid contributors. Higher standards should be applied to content from unpaid contributors, or contributors need to be paid and more discernment shown to what is submitted.

The press ombud’s finding have not helped matters. More knowledgeable people than me believe the finding is deeply flawed, especially with regard to the finding that the views and content of the pseudonymous blog are hate speech. Let us be clear: white people in SA should, to a certain degree, be contrite (and I certainly include myself in this). However, our contrition should centre on what we can do to contribute to the development of this country, and help the advancement of all South Africans.

It is possible that any debate about white contrition, such as the view I put forward (of reducing the voice and influence of whites, especially men), may get dangerously heated, but I did not advocate violence or hatred. Of course, the blog’s proposal was inconsistent with the Constitution, but it was not hate speech.

Unfortunately, the findings have given detractors more unsavoury grist for the mill, with many suggesting it is itself a manifestation of bias in favour of white men. This is unfortunate, but the finding should not detract from the important issues raised. This incident has shown that editorial practices are often sacrificed in the relentless search for clicks. I hope this incident leads to stronger journalism and fact checking — although I do not think this is necessarily an issue restricted to journalism alone.

I perpetrated the satire because I care deeply about South African journalism. I studied journalism at undergraduate level and one of my first jobs after university was as a journalist. The profession is immensely important in SA. However, good journalism is impossible outside of democratic contexts, and strong, independent journalism is one of the most important pillars in any democratic society.

In addition, my satire showed the low quality of public debate in SA. Our media have the duty and are in the position to improve the quality of debate, and this can be done through ensuring that what is published (whether user-generated content or in-house) is of a high standard and helps raise the level of South African debate.

Overall, there are things in this saga that I regret. I sincerely regret that Verashni Pillay resigned, and I do regret that this incident may have reflected negatively on my former employer. However, think tanks and research institutions should be at the forefront of creatively pushing new ideas, or fixing things that may be broken, or contributing to the pushing of the frontiers of knowledge. In that, I saw my action as an attempt to show a flaw (and possibly helping in finding a solution to it) in South African journalism, and in opening up a debate about the place of whites in SA.

One way of opening up this debate is to show that no civilised debate can be held in this regard if white South Africans are constantly portrayed as oppressors or colonisers, or are, among other things, accused of "taking up too much space" (notwithstanding the sins of some of our ancestors). Indeed, perhaps the reason the blog post was run was because it agreed with the populist (and increasingly popular) view that whites are somehow primarily responsible for the woes of this country and the world.

At the same time, any reasonable debate is not possible if white people continue to resist reasonable analysis of our history (and certain privileges that we have) and display oversensitivity when challenged with regard to some necessary debates.

On a more personal note, I was criticised by some on social media for still eating my lunch when confronted by the HuffPost, when they arrived at my office for an "impromptu" meeting. Some have called it an ambush, but I couldn’t possibly comment. The fact is that they came to my office while I was eating lunch. The saliva in my mouth disappeared more quickly than references to the National Development Plan by the President. Eating a sandwich with a mouth dryer than Cape Town’s reservoirs is not easy, let me assure you, and being cornered by a camera crew is not an experience I would recommend, nor want to relive.

Finally, I do not regret showing up the repetitive echo chambers that exist in South African public debate. I do not regret showing up flaws in the media’s processes and practices. I do regret the flippant approach to values and principles in this country, since what my blog post showed was that what is valued in South African debate is often not a commitment to values and principles, but rather a commitment to muddled thinking, approval of the conclusions that come out of the ideological echo chamber, and a need to manufacture debate.

If we can have a productive discussion about this, then I do not regret my actions.