Beware of allowing your foes to determine who your foes truly are

Picture: BRICS Emerging Markets and Developing Countries Dialogue at the Xiamen International Conference Centre, in the People's Republic of China.

Fake news is not new nor is it exclusive to elections. It could easily be found in other realms and the sphere of international relations is not left untouched. We could very well argue that fake news is a child of a political culture located in a ‘post truth’ society. 

A political culture based on a ‘post-truth’ society appeals to emotions rather than to the truth. In other words, public figures, in politics, business, civil society and even labour will appeal to the emotions of those listening rather than appealing to fact. No longer is there an emphasis on detail, on scientific reason nor on theory but rather what is important is how a situation “makes one feel”.

In his seminal 1992 essay, in ‘The Nation’, on the concept of post-truth, the Serbian-American playwright Steve Tesich points out in particular the Iran-Contra scandal as an example of the public being duped. In that scandal the Reagan administration sold arms to Iran despite the arms embargo on that country by the United States. The sale of the arms was in exchange for, among others, supporting and funding the Contras in Nicaragua as well as freeing hostages that were held in Lebanon. Reagan later had to go on television and deny that his administration was selling arms in exchange for freeing hostages and supporting the overthrow of the government in Nicaragua. 

The release of information, by the Reagan administration, which could easily amount to being fake news and which sought primarily to protect the president and senior officials served as an illustration of this post-truth politics that existed, suggested Tesich. In other words, the emotions of the electorate are played on with little regard to the facts.

In a story that has been gripping the international community in the last few weeks but that has not necessarily been covered by our media, fake news and the post-truth political society has once again reared its head.

In a most ghastly attack, on the streets of the city of Salisbury in the United Kingdom, Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were on their way to a mall on 4 March. A former Russian double agent, Skripal and his daughter were found slumped on a bench in an outdoor mall in the city. It is believed that the pair had come into contact with military-grade nerve poison on their front door.  

Ten days later, in a statement to the British parliament, Theresa May, the British prime minister, stated that what the British government was certain of, was that the nerve agent, Novichok, used in the attack, was produced in Russia. What they were uncertain of was whether the Russian government had instructed the attack on the former spy or whether the chemical weapon had fallen into the hands of the wrong people in Russia, who then carried out the attack.

Despite her uncertainty, not knowing who was responsible for the attack, the May government nonetheless took action against the Russian government. Among the number of measures set in place was the expulsion of twenty-three Russian diplomats, identified as ‘intelligence officers’ or spies. 

An attack had taken place on the streets of the United Kingdom, emotions were up and May had to be seen to act despite not knowing who was responsible; not knowing the facts. Post-truth politics.

Subsequent to the expulsion of these twenty-three Russian diplomats, the UK’s allies also expelled Russian diplomats that to date over a hundred Russian diplomats have been expelled from various countries including the United States, France and Germany. Again, despite them not knowing who was responsible for the attack. 

In response, the Russian government, through the international Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) proposed for a joint investigation into the incident. The British however responded, one dare say emotionally so, by suggesting that the proposal was “perverse”. 

In the last few days however, Prime Minister May’s only fact has also been disputed. While she was uncertain of who was responsible for the attack, she was certain that the nerve agent, Novichok, was produced by the Russians.

In an attempt to spread this falsehood, the British Foreign Office tweeted: “Analysis by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down made clear that this was a military-grade Novichok nerve agent produced in Russia.”

Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary, had also insisted that the “people of the Porton Down, the laboratory” were “absolutely categorical” as to where the nerve agent was manufactured. Speaking to the German broadcaster ‘Deutsche Welle’, Johnson insisted that “there is no doubt…we have very little alternative but to take the action we have taken…”

However, Her Majesty’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office had to delete the tweet because the scientists at Porton Down laboratory had come out and insisted that they had stated no such thing. Gary Aitkenhead, head of the lab, indicated that while they were certain that only a “state actor” could produce and access such a chemical weapon, they could not for sure say where it was made.  

As a result, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vassily Nebenzia, was rather correct when he termed the allegations against Russia as a “fake story.” The UK government now have no clue who manufactured the poison and who carried out the attack yet they continue to blame and take action against the Russian government.

The reality of course is that while the UK government is prepared to isolate the government of President Valdimir Putin they are only happy to continue to facilitate, what Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom and of the Labour Party, termed as: “the tidal wave of ill-gotten cash that Russian oligarchs – both allied with and opposed to the Russian government – have laundered through London over the past two decades.” This he says, and rightfully so, compromises May’s efforts in portraying a principled approach to Russia. 

Corbyn, on the other hand, is all too familiar with the effects of a post-truth political culture and fake news. He saw it happening in the instances of the UK going to war in Afghanistan, Iraq and then Libya. In all three those cases, he opposed the UK action based, among others, on the lack of facts. 

Fortunately, South Africa’s response to this saga and its attitude towards Russia has remained resolute. While the government of President Ramaphosa has not responded directly to the spy saga, it released a statement on 20 March 2018 congratulating President Putin on his reelection. What is most revealing this that the statement and well wishes are based on fact and not so much sentiment. 

“South Africa and the Russian Federation”, said the statement, “enjoy close ties dating back to the days of the struggle against apartheid. Direct contacts between the former USSR and the ANC were established on a regular basis during 1963.”

Furthermore, the statement stated that President Ramaphosa was looking forward to strengthening the political, economic and trade ties that already existed between the two countries and that the two countries shared common views and perspectives on several regional and multilateral issues.

Analysts have likened the diplomatic fall-out between Russia and western countries as a ‘new cold war’. South Africa though seems to have taken a pragmatic approach to the fall-out; though a pragmatism based on facts and scientific reasoning. Fortunately our government seems to know that in any war, the first weapon is always propaganda and the first fatality is always the truth.

Jessie Duarte is the Deputy Secretary General of the ANC and Meokgo Matuba is the Secretary General of the ANC Women’s League