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By Brendan Seery

Deputy Editor

#GuptaLeaks makes me wonder who’s behind it

The Guptas are bad, therefore everything must be true? We should be more sceptical.

In a smokey bar in Empangeni in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, it sounded like a great scoop: the chain-smoking man slugging the Castle Lager said rhino poachers in provincial game reserves were using M99 tranquiliser darts.

He was a former spook – that much I knew. Who used to employ him was deliberately left vague by him: could have been the then National Intelligence Service, the military or even foreign affairs.

With that provenance, though, I knew I had to be cautious and could not accept everything he said at face value. So, I began the painstaking process of proper investigative journalism.

Over a couple of weeks, I went about checking out the information. It tallied with what some of my own security and wildlife sources had heard. The final check was with the anti-poaching people at the then provincial parks board.

That nailed it for me: they were investigating and believed the story was genuine. So I wrote it for the paper I was then working for.

Great piece, front page lead … Two years later, in another pub (that’s where journalists do a lot of their “socialising” or, as we prefer to call it, “meeting sources”) another man from an intelligence background laughed in my face. “You got suckered, Boet …”

The entire leak – 20 years ago now – was a lie and I had been duped into putting out “fake news”.

I still do not know what the exact motive was … because in recent years, there have been confirmed reports of dodgy vets selling M99 to the criminal underworld with the aim of taking out valuable animals.

The reason for the M99 is not humane – poachers don’t care whether an animal suffers – but because a tranquiliser dart makes much less noise than a hunting rifle. At that time, though, rhino poaching was a minor issue.

That was one example of classic “disinformation” carried out by an expert. The source knew I would want to corroborate what he was saying, so he planted the story in a number of different places where he expected me to look.

The other classic modus operandi of good disinformation peddlers is that any story they spin will have the taste of authenticity, because the rule is that disinformation is 80% truth and 20% lies, woven together.

These days, the internet and disinformation are a match made in heaven for spooks and those with nefarious agendas. News organisations in the digital space are always pushed to get numbers and “clickbait” stories are often not checked thoroughly, or at all.

And, disinformation doesn’t even have to be disseminated through the news media – there are plenty of people willing to make your lies go viral.

So, I am keeping a wary eye on the whole Gupta e-mail saga. The size of the trove and the tone of some of its content persuades me that most of it is genuine.

But let’s not forget that 20%-80% rule, either. A number of news organisations have already started using the material, without verifying it or cross-checking it. The Guptas are bad, therefore everything must be true.

That’s a very dangerous attitude to have, because it blinds you to the motives of those behind the leaks … and that information may be just as important – for our future – as the e-mail content itself.

Seery is The Citizen’s acting deputy editor

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