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No, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t announce these sweeping changes to end the energy crisis – video faked

IN SHORT: If you look closely at a video circulating on South Africa social media in March 2023, you might think there’s something uncanny about how president Cyril Ramaphosa appears and talks. And you’d be right – this is a faked video, with a made-up government plan. 

A video posted on Twitter in late March 2023 appears to show South African president Cyril Ramaphosa addressing the country, outlining a government plan to address the ongoing energy crisis

In the video, which looks like a news segment, Ramaphosa says this will be done by demolishing the Voortrekker Monument and the Loftus Versfeld rugby stadium, both in the country’s administrative capital city of Pretoria in the central province of Gauteng, to make way for new “large-scale diesel generators”. 

Ramaphosa also says that “solar-powered taxi ranks” will be introduced, which would exempt taxi business owners from paying taxes. He says these measures will “build a prosperous future for some South Africans”. 

The video has been viewed here over 45,000 times, here over 24,000 times, and elsewhere on Twitter, like here, here, here, here, here, here, and here

The video was also posted to Facebook a day later by Comedy Central Africa, an account with 1.4 million followers. But here it was marked clearly as an April Fool’s joke. “Don’t be fooled beyond 1 April”, the caption read. 

The earlier posts were not always received in jest, but the video was faked. We break down the clues.

Ramaphosa electricity monument claim

Telltale signs of a manipulated or generated video

The tweets used the hashtag #FamilyMeeting, which was a popular hashtag and term during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was used to describe similar addresses, broadcast live on TV, where Ramaphosa would update the country about pandemic regulations. 

Unlike in these previous speeches, the president appeared oddly static in the newer video, with his face and body barely moving as he spoke. His voice and accent would likely sound strange to most South Africans too, reminding us of the Uncanny Valley effect people experience with very realistic robots.

Jean le Roux, who researches disinformation at the Digital Forensic Research Lab, said on Twitter that the voice had likely been created with “one of the AI voice skinning tools available on TikTok”, which would have difficulty with a South African accent. 

A whole host of artificial intelligence (AI) tools are becoming more accessible and affordable, and therefore easily exploited by people spreading disinformation. 

Background images in video copied from websites

There are other signs that the video is fake. Ramaphosa appears in a small frame in one corner of the screen, while the background displays other images. This is often done in news coverage, where the background shows footage filmed by the news outlets, relevant to the news story.

But here, reverse image searches quickly showed that the background behind the president was simply a series of static images that appeared to have been copied from other websites. For example, the photo of the power station looks to be from a Bloomberg news article here, the one of the Voortrekker Monument from a stock photo site here, while this photo is from an article about wind turbines in the United Kingdom. 

Another telltale sign that the video isn’t legit is that there is no mention of the president making this address or of the plan he discusses on any official sources. Nothing was posted on any official South African government website or social media account, and no major news outlets reported on the story. You would expect substantial news coverage for an announcement that major landmarks were being demolished. The broadcasts of Ramaphosa’s previous “family meetings” were widely reported on in the South African media.

AI tools are becoming more sophisticated, making it more difficult to tell the difference between generated or manipulated videos and the real thing. This means that checking background information, like whether official channels or news outlets are reporting the story to the public, is increasingly important. 

Coordinated campaign?

The motives for creating and sharing the video are unclear. It may have been part of a paid campaign – many of those who shared the video are influencers who appear to be paid to promote social media content, at least according to their Twitter bios. (For more analysis of this theory, see this thread by Le Roux.) 

But the video certainly appears to be intended to provoke a response from South Africans. Both the Voortrekker Monument and Loftus Versfeld rugby stadium, mentioned as places to be destroyed to make way for the power stations, could be seen as important to the heritage of white Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, or “Afrikaners”. 

Rugby, despite the sport’s origins in England, has long been associated with Afrikaner identity in South Africa. The Voortrekker Monument was built between 1938 and 1949 to commemorate the centenary of the Great Trek. This mid-19th century movement of people saw descendants of Dutch settlers moving from the Cape Province to the interior of what is now South Africa, in order to escape British colonial rule. Many Afrikaners trace their family trees back to these “voortrekkers”. 

So falsely claiming that these two structures are going to be pulled down by Ramaphosa’s government could be an attempt to anger white Afrikaans speakers. Evoking emotion like this is often another telltale sign of false news stories, designed to gain popularity by creating a sense of outrage. 

As always, think before you share, particularly if a story on social media has made you feel a strong emotion.

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