A fake blog post by a fake author has caused very real problems for the Huffington Post in South Africa.
The site’s editor-in-chief, Verashni Pillay, resigned on Saturday (April 22) after a week of mounting outrage caused by a blog post titled “Could it be time to deny white men the franchise?” (archived webpage). The post was taken down a few days after it was published.
The post proposed that white men should not be allowed to vote for at least a generation. It was a clickbaiting and superficial analysis of white males as the cause of colonialism, slavery, apartheid, various wars and genocides, not to mention the Brexit vote, and the decision to elect Donald Trump as US president. “It is time to wrestle control of the world back from white males, and the first step will be a temporary restriction of the franchise to them,” the author argued.
But the post’s flawed analysis and erroneous facts—such as that white South Africans own 90% of South Africa’s land—raised the suspicions of local journalists, who over the course of a few days managed to uncover that its purported author, Shelley Garland, a grad student majoring in philosophy, did not exist, and that the piece had in fact been penned by a white man called Marius Roodt. This discovery ultimately cost Pillay, a young, rising star, her job. But it’s also sparked a conversation about free speech and white male privilege.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Roodt said he wrote the post to expose how poor fact-checking was in South African newsrooms and apologized for the damage he’d caused.”I didn’t mean for it to go where it did, there was no intention to go after Verashni,” he told Huffington Post editor-at-large Ferial Haffajee and deputy editor Pieter du Toit.
Pillay’s downfall may have been her strident defense of the post (also since taken down) after it went viral, arguing that “Garland’s underlying analysis about the uneven distribution of wealth and power in the world is pretty standard for feminist theory.” By that stage, the post had attracted attention of websites all over the world, including conservative news website Breitbart and Fox News.
It also attracted the ire of some South Africans, who submitted multiple complaints about it to the country’s press ombudsman, an independent regulator appointed by local press to adjudicate complaints against the media. The ombudsman found on April 22 that the blog constituted hate speech and lambasted Pillay’s defense of the blog.
Within hours of the ruling, the Huffington Post apologized and Pillay resigned. But many took issue with the ombudsman’s narrow reading of South Africa’s free speech laws, arguing that it would suppress debate of unpopular issues. And the departure of one of South Africa’s few non-white media leaders over a post criticizing white male privilege, albeit a fake one, riled people. Many questioned whether Pillay, one of the few non-white women in a senior position in the news media, would have been fired if she were a white man.
Pillay had risen quickly up the ranks of South African media. She was only 32 when she was appointed the inaugural editor-in-chief of the South African edition of Huffington Post last year, overseeing its launch.
By then, she’d already been editor of the Mail and Guardian newspaper, and also had a misstep while there: publishing and defending a story about opposition leader Mmusi Maimane which turned out to be false, and which later apologized for. Despite this, she was wooed to the Huffington Post where she oversaw its launch last year.
Pillay’s mistake might have been avoidable, one that could easily have been made in another newsroom and one which many South African journalists saw as a hard lesson. But it also exposed how issues of race and privilege continue to plague South African audiences and journalists, and may have done irreversible damage to an international brand working hard to establish itself in the country as a credible news source.