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South Africa’s propaganda war: the information campaign to influence the United States of America, 1972-1978

Title: South Africa’s propaganda war: the information campaign to influence the United States of America, 1972-1978

Authors: J.K. Haasbroek, J-A. Stemmet and M. Oelofse[*]

Ensovoort, volume 41 (2020), number 9: 3

Abstract

In an effort to counter anti-apartheid forces, the Department of Information, with the approval of Prime Minister Balthazar Johannes (B.J.) Vorster, initiated a global unconventional propaganda offensive, at astronomical cost.  The Department of Information considered the United States of America (USA) a significant target, and therefore implemented a series of projects to increase Western support for Pretoria. This article endeavours to review the overall goals and effectiveness of campaigns conducted in America from 1972 to 1978. Hence, it will focus on campaigns undertaken by the Department of Information that influenced the ‘hearts and minds’ of American decision makers and opinion formers, as well as the public regarding South Africa’s ‘realities’.

Keywords: South Africa, Apartheid, Department of Informatio, Propaganda; Media, Diplomacy, Public relations, B.J. Vorster, United States of America (USA), Cold War

Opsomming

Met die goedkeuring van eerste minister Balthazar Johannes (B.J.) Vorster, het die Departement van Inligting ʼn globale onkonvensionele propagandaveldtog, teen astronomiese koste, geloods in ʼn poging om anti-apartheidsmagte teen te staan. Die Departement van Inligting het die Verenigde State van Amerika (VSA) as ʼn belangrike teiken beskou en verskeie projekte is geïmplementeer om ondersteuning vanuit die Weste vir Pretoria te bevorder. Hierdie artikel poog om die algehele doelwitte van die veldtogte in Amerika (1972-1978) in oënskou te bring en die effektiwiteit daarvan. Daarom fokus dit op die Departement van Inligting se veldtogte wat probeer het om die ‘hart en menings’ van Amerikaanse besluitnemers en meningsvormers, asook die publiek, rakende Suid-Afrika se ‘realiteite’, te beïnvloed.

Sleutelwoorde: Suid-Afrika, Apartheid, Departement van Inligting, Propaganda, Media, Diplomasie, Openbare betrekkinge, B.J. Vorster, Verenigde State van Amerika (VSA), Koue Oorlog

Introduction

The United States of America’s ideology and culture emphasise personal liberty and equality. These principles are embedded in American foreign and domestic policies. Apartheid South Africa’s segregation and oppressive laws against so-called non-whites, during the Cold War period, denied the Republic economic and alliance securities within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The USA itself was struggling with complex race relations and had to cater for African-Americans fighting for civil rights. Pressure from the United Nations (UN) and newly-independent countries prevented a close-knit alliance between South Africa and the USA. Openly supporting a racist regime, particularly in view of the emergence of newly-independent countries in Africa and Asia, would jeopardise and invite criticism for the USA’s foreign policy, resulting in the decline of international influence.[2]

Despite this, the emergence of the Cold War triggered a unique and complicated relationship between apartheid South Africa and Western anti-communist allies. Although apartheid was condemned by the West, South Africa remained a crucial strategic and economic associate, and proved to be the most ‘stable’ country in Africa in so far as Western priorities were at stake. The African National Congress’ (ANC) association with Moscow resulted in Washington’s preference for the white minority to remain in control. International affairs were also crucial for the South African Government, especially as its global image was deteriorating. Positive interaction on foreign stages was essential for not only economic reasons but also security from the Western powers was imperative to fend off the perceived communist threat. Particularly as the end of colonialism was leaving the white minority isolated in a black continent.[3] The problem faced by South Africa was: how to sway public opinion in the USA, in its favour — with the stench of apartheid following it? Traditional methods of influence would not suffice. Pretoria would need to target America by unconventional means.

The article focusses specifically on how Pretoria targeted the United States.  The apartheid state and its relations, including propaganda and lobbying endeavors, regarding the United States was fluid as the system became increasingly more infamous. An extensive analysis thereof falls outside the ambit of a short article. This article presents a unique aspect of South African history that remains, to a large extent, unrevealed. It serves to digest an otherwise convoluted piece of history. It speaks directly to the angst of an undemocratic system: how to change outside views without relinquishing internal matrices of power.

In 1968, Vorster appointed the Minister of Bantu Administration (later renamed Plural Relations), Cornelius (Connie) Petrus Mulder as Minister of Information.[4] Three years after his appointment, Mulder sallied forth on an excursion to witness international opinion concerning South Africa. Displeased with the unfavourable attitude of international newspapers, political debates, and calls for sanctions against South Africa, he was eager to recruit a crew to combat these views. The book entitled The Paper Curtain by Dr Eschel Mostert Rhoodie fascinated Mulder. In the book, Rhoodie argued that South Africa was not involved in a direct war, but rather in a ‘Battle of Words’. Attacks by the international media, Western churches, and third-world countries in an effort to isolate and boycott Pretoria, prevented South Africa from reaching its maximum potential in trade, technological advances and, ultimately, its ‘rightful’ place on the continent. Rhoodie suggested that, instead of responding to opponents’ attacks, South Africa should retaliate with a counter-propaganda offensive.[5]

The need for a propaganda war

Disputes over South Africa’s human-rights violations started in 1946. Pretoria’s treatment of Indians resulted in a complaint to the UN in its first General Assembly. The Defiance Campaign in 1952 prompted thirteen Arab and Asian countries to instigate a new resolution against apartheid. The USA succeeded in protecting Pretoria from UN scrutiny but by the late 1950s, the USA was obligated to approach South Africa more critically due to the civil-rights movements at home, and African countries gaining independence.[6]

South Africa received a great deal of unfavourable global attention following the Sharpeville Massacre that occurred on 21 March 1960. On 1 April 1960, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 134, which denounced apartheid policies and requested the termination of apartheid. For the first time, the General Assembly favoured action against South Africa. Even Pretoria’s strongest ally, the USA, approved the resolution. Even though the USA’s rhetoric changed in regard to apartheid, economic and strategic cooperation between Pretoria and the USA continued. The General Assembly considered South Africa a threat to international peace in 1962, and encouraged optional sanctions. In order to compensate for the requests by civil-rights movements and African and Asian countries, the John F. Kennedy Administration decided to impose an arms embargo against Pretoria. On 7 August 1963, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 181, prohibiting states from providing South Africa with military equipment. The USA’s embargo only applied to weaponry that was used to impose apartheid.[7]

Apart from international politics, another thorn in the side of the National Party (NP) was the Anti-Apartheid Movements (AAM) from the USA, United Kingdom (UK), Scandinavian countries, and Holland. The AAM worked with organisations, such as the exiled ANC, the UN, and sympathetic governments. The goal was to create a worldwide consciousness of apartheid and, through unified campaigns, crush South Africa’s economy by means of sanctions, boycotts, disinvestment and propaganda. On 2 December 1968, the General Assembly called for governments and associations to break off cultural, sporting, and educational exchanges with South Africa. For example, South Africa was banned from the 1963 Tokyo and 1968 Mexican Olympic Games.[8]

In 1969, South Africa gained an important ally in the White House. President Richard Nixon instated a policy towards South Africa that invited negotiation and collaboration as a means of transformation. While the Nixon Administration publicly condemned apartheid, in reality, it relaxed economic restrictions and political isolation. The phrase ‘the whites are here to stay’ from a leaked document in 1969 created the impression that the USA was in favour of the apartheid regime. This document drew strong criticism both domestically and internationally.[9]

However, AAM activities intensified in the 1970s. In 1972, the American Committee on Africa set up office in Washington DC, which enabled the committee to have institutional power in the capital. In the same year, the Interfaith Committee on Corporate Responsibility was established to target American businesses interacting with South Africa. Another threat to Pretoria was the rise in black representatives in the US Congress. Nine black congress members joined to form the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 to put pressure on Pretoria. The most prominent black man in Congress to put pressure on South Africa was Charles Diggs, who was selected as Chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. Diggs raised the issue of American investments in South Africa during various public hearings. Despite the actions of the Congressional Black Caucus, the US Senate remained reluctant to take any legislative action. Nonetheless, AAMs were a factor in the removal of South African representation from the UN in 1974.[10] Against this backdrop, Mulder, Rhoodie and Vorster convened on an approach to deter negative views and alter international politics through propaganda and persuasion.

Approach to a propaganda war

Although The Paper Curtain made an undeniable impression on Mulder, the question remains as to how the author intended to win the propaganda war. Rhoodie’s time as an Information Officer abroad in Australia, Holland, and the USA afforded him the expertise to wage an unorthodox propaganda war. Rhoodie accused the Department of Information of being ill-equipped to deal with the psychological and propaganda warfare of the Cold War. For instance, the Arab States funded R20 million for public relations campaigns in the USA. He noticed that the Department of Foreign Affairs stagnated and mainly clung to official diplomacy with governments and avoided other duties such as addressing the foreign media, churches, students, politicians, and AAMs. For the Department of Information to be effective, it had to create a clandestine capability for which it required millions. [11]

The strategy that Rhoodie had in mind for altering global attitudes towards South Africa was the utilisation of overt and covert propaganda. South Africa was struggling to use official and diplomatic communication channels. Therefore, Rhoodie’s objective was to reach opinion formers and decision makers across the world, induce their standpoint on South Africa, and establish a communication network through which South Africa could convey its messages and arguments. Rhoodie would hide the true nature of the source and information from the recipients, and the messages would be disseminated by targeted politicians, senators, businessmen, religious leaders, newspapers, labour unions, and anti-apartheid organisations. People were more likely to believe and trust a source that had no apparent direct involvement with South Africa. Rhoodie also advised befriending potential leaders early in their careers in order to secure allies who could later exert influence. The media is often unforgiving towards a country and it is a compelling task to escape the ‘brutal-highlight syndrome’. The best ways to ensure influence in the media included having friends within the media, buying goodwill or simply owning the media source.[12]

Rhoodie declared that all possible methods would be used to transfer massive volumes of positive information to those living abroad. Propaganda methods included distributing books, magazines, and pamphlets to important individuals; press conferences, seminars, official and ministerial speeches, talks and interviews specifically aimed at politicians and businessmen; advertisements through front organisations; purchasing foreign journalists; buying space to counter-argue in newspapers; lobbying and public relations initiatives; buying goodwill, bribing or encouraging or discouraging people from doing something; external censorship through pressure groups; and paying for visits from foreign VIPs to South Africa. Influential foreign visitors to South Africa would be transformed into an ‘informed corps’ that would persuade their governments not to abstain from supporting punitive actions against Pretoria.[13]

Mulder believed that the first line of defence was the propaganda line, and the second, the military line. Therefore, it was more cost-effective to obtain positive reporting than to buy tanks and aircraft. Mulder valued Rhoodie’s understanding of Cold War mechanics and appointed him as Secretary of Information at the age of 38 in September 1972.[14]

Early information efforts

In a short period of time, between 1972 and 1974, Rhoodie established a vast network throughout the globe. The Department of Information’s initial thrust into the USA was achieved by hiring the lobbying firms, Rotary and Lions International, as well as Collier, Shannon, Rill and Edwards. Rotary and Lions International were provided with funds and speakers, with lobbying efforts largely engaging America’s southern universities and small black businesses. For example, Ronald Farrar, the head of the Journalism Department at the University of Mississippi, was sent on a tour to South Africa. Farrar wrote pro-South African letters which he sent back home, stating, among others, that black people had not been restricted by pass laws.[15]

In January 1974, Rhoodie contracted the renowned Washington lobbying organisation Collier, Shannon, Rill and Edwards. The organisation selected the American lawyer and lobbyist, Donald E. deKieffer, to represent the South African Government in the USA. He had strong ties with the American Republican Party. According to the organisation’s registration statement to the Justice Department, the mandate received by the firm from the Department of Information stipulates contacting publicists, media representation and educational groups concerning the “reassessment” of current American foreign policy towards the Republic of South Africa.[16] Politically and economically, the “Registrant intends to contact appropriate government officials in the USA concerning American policies with regard to energy, mutual security, and investment within the Republic of South Africa.[17]

DeKieffer regularly sent publications, telegrams, and press releases to the US State Department, Defence Department, Treasury and Interior Departments, and the Commerce Department. For example, in 1974, DeKieffer distributed booklets to offices of Congress concerning the importance and security of the Cape sea route. DeKieffer also targeted the US Congress. He used his ‘personal’ capital to contribute financially to the campaigns of US legislatures and senators. He also arranged social excursions for members of congress, and fact-finding visits to South Africa for Congress representatives. Official members visiting South Africa rose from 11 in 1973 to 56 in 1974.[18]

Additionally, DeKieffer assisted in arranging top-level visits to American executives by South African government officials. Contact with top-level American government representatives offered South Africa more diplomatic opportunities. On 12 January 1974, Mulder left for America where he conveyed the importance of Pretoria’s minerals and military cooperation and, in exchange, bargained for the abolishment of the arms embargo. Mulder met with various senators and congressmen, such as Governor Ronald Reagan; the black Mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley; Republican Senate Leader, Hugh Scott; Democratic House Leader, Tip O’Neil; Congressman Andrew Young; and Thomas Morgan. He also re-opened correspondence with the New York Times and managed to establish a New York Times bureau in South Africa. On 22 January, Mulder discussed issues with Vice-president Gerald Ford surrounding the ties between South Africa and the USA. Ford arranged for Mulder to meet with a Navy Vice Admiral, Raymond Peet, at the Pentagon. In August 1974, Ford took office as President of the USA and maintained good relations with South Africa.[19]

In one case, DeKieffer managed to cause a stir after the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs denied Admiral Hugo Biermann a visa to visit the USA in May 1974. As part of the arms embargo policy, military personnel were prevented from making official contact. DeKieffer showed his remarkable lobbying skills by attracting congressional support for Biermann’s visa application. Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, personally granted Biermann a visa. Thereafter, Biermann visited US Admiral Thomas Moorer and the secretary of the navy designate, William Middendorf.[20]

In a short span of time — from 1972 to early 1974 — and with a conservative preliminary budget,[21] the Department of Information was able to influence top-level decision makers and newspaper owners in the USA. On 6 February 1974, Rhoodie was called upon to deliver a presentation to Vorster and the Minister of Finance, Nico Diederichs, on the clandestine propaganda campaign. He explained that South Africa’s most imminent threat was not the Soviet Union, but rather Western democracy through their newspapers, politicians, and business communities. Both Vorster and Diederichs supported Rhoodie’s initiative to start a propaganda offensive.[22]

The grand information campaign

From 1974 onwards, the Department of Information increased the scale and scope of its propaganda offensive in the USA. Millions of rands were invested into propaganda operations aimed specifically at US Congressmen and the media. The Department of Information enlisted John McGoff, a conservative businessman from Michigan. McGoff was the founder of the Panax Corporation that possessed several radio stations and forty small daily and weekly newspapers scattered throughout the American Midwest. He also had ties with Republican officials and was a personal friend of Vice-president Ford. Already in 1968, McGoff was invited to South Africa as part of the foreign visit strategy. During McGoff’s visits to South Africa, he befriended Mulder and Rhoodie, and returned to the USA with a positive attitude towards South Africa. Previous executives claim that McGoff occasionally ordered them to distribute stories regarding South Africa. By 1974, McGoff increased the amount of content to be published regarding the importance of South Africa.[23]

In 1974, McGoff proposed a mutually-beneficial business offer to the Department of Information. The Washington Star experienced financial difficulties and planned on selling off its shares. McGoff needed the financial backing of the South African Government to purchase The Washington Star. The South African Government would benefit by acquiring a new tool in their arsenal to distribute pro-South African propaganda and, hopefully, alter the perception of US Congressmen in the capital of the USA. The Washington Star would also be able to counteract inimical views represented by The Washington Post and the New York Times. McGoff required $10 million from the Department of Information and was willing to contribute even more of his own capital to acquire The Washington Star.[24]

However, the acquisition of The Washington Star never materialised. Sources vary in terms of explaining why the bid failed. According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, McGoff used the $10 million to seize more shares in the Panex Corporation. In a timespan of five years, starting in 1973, McGoff’s shares in Panax increased from 43 126 to 460 000. Karen Rotmeyer asserts that McGoff was unable to raise sufficient funds to purchase the newspaper. The representative of The Washington Star’s titleholders, Godfrey Kauffmann, recalls that after looking over Panax’s balance sheet, he discovered that the company did not have the financial capacity to buy the newspaper. Kaufmann added that McGoff never submitted a solid proposal. McGoff’s presence in the bid for The Washington Star concerned its executives, who believed that it had some connection to his newly-found South African relationship.[25]

In late 1974, McGoff instead bought the Californian newspaper Sacramento Union for more than $5 million. While bidding for The Washington Star, McGoff requested to use a portion of the $10 million and the interest generated by the money to purchase the Sacramento Union. Initially, Rhoodie agreed to the conditions after McGoff had convinced him that it was a leading newspaper in California, which was home to Governor Reagan. In 1976, Rhoodie became aware of the fact that McGoff had used the original capital to buy the Californian newspaper and attempted to buy some other smaller newspapers such as the ephemeral New York Trib. Rhoodie did not have the authority to allow the transaction of the original funds for purchasing the Sacramento Union. The subsequent Erasmus Commission[26] concluded that a large amount of money had been placed in the hands of McGoff without proper regulation and the Department of Information was unsure as to whether South Africa had any entitlement to these properties.[27]

In 1975, the Department of Information channelled roughly $1 000 000 to McGoff in order to secure shares in the United Press International and Television Network (UPITN). Second to Visnews, UPITN was the largest international television agency with more than 100 clients around the globe, and a major provider of news content for the American television network, ABC, and various third-world countries. McGoff bought 50% of the shares from Paramount for Panax, while the other shareholders, with 25% shares each, were United Press International and Independent Television News (ITN), based in Britain. Rhoodie was pleased with the fact that South African propaganda could be viewed from different media outlets worldwide. With the intention of influencing editorial control over content concerning the presentation of South Africa, McGoff managed to acquire the UPITN Chairman position in London for his right-hand man, Vice-president Clarence Rhodes. In February 1976, Rhodes staged an interview with Vorster for international television. Rhoodie orchestrated the set-up of answers and questions for Vorster, clearly conveying the propagandist intentions of UPITN. Eight out of 300 documentaries produced by UPITN covered South Africa. The editor of ITN, Hugh Whitcomb, gave the assurance that McGoff did not possess the power to prescribe editorial policy and never tried. However, Rhoodie was aware that one-sided programmes may have injured the project and therefore endorsed the production of programmes that were critical to the NP.[28]

Chris Paterson and Vanessa Malila conducted a study to determine the coverage of the UPITN during and after McGoff’s shareholding in the company. The study found that during the McGoff era, most of the content had focussed on South Africa’s relations with countries not adjacent to its borders, such as the UK and the USA. After the McGoff period, stories began focussing on South Africa’s affiliation with bordering countries. Before and after, Caucasians, specifically politicians, were more likely to be aired than any other race. The researchers concluded that the editorial policies were intended to shift the limelight away from South Africa’s real news by focussing on its relationships with other countries.[29]

The Department of Information was extremely diligent in its attempts throughout the USA to modify the American public’s attitude towards the white South African government. Endeavours to distribute propaganda ranged from newspapers, books, and magazines to brochures, advertisements, personal contact, television, radio, and other methods of cleverly disguised propaganda. The main overseer of propaganda operations in the USA was the Information Service of South Africa’s (ISSA) office in New York. The ISSA circulated numerous South African publications in the USA, such as the South African Scope, South African Panorama, and the South African Digest, which numbered 35 000 in circulation. These magazines with pro-South African investment advertisements were sent to libraries, educational facilities, organisations, legislators, newspapers, executives, and bureaucrats. South African investment advertisements appeared in several prestigious newspapers and magazines, for example in the Wall Street Journal, reading: “South Africa. There’s something in it for you”, and in the New York Times: “If you buy or invest, South Africa makes all the difference in the world.” In the Business Week, a special advertisement of 32 pages with the title “Grow in South Africa”, emerged. The advertisement scheme was a joint venture of government departments, South African corporations, and bodies that benefited from USA commercial investments. Advertising was an appropriate means of stabilising the import of foreign capital and contributed to business relationships with American investors.[30]

In the 1970s, television became an important source of information and entertainment for most Americans. The department was well aware of television as an effective medium to expose American audiences to propaganda. Propaganda films were specially modified to appeal to American viewers. An estimated 32 million Americans viewed ten South African propaganda films on television in 1974. The ISSA also commercially distributed 1 160 copies of 53 television documentary films. The cinema film distributor, Association-Sterling films, showed ISSA films such as Floodlift to Lesotho in 1974, which was believed to be a success after two million people had viewed it. Films generally contained footage of indigenous African animals, traditional cultures, and smiling white and black children. Moving pictures also highlighted South Africa’s strategically important natural resources.[31]

Radio was utilised as a tool to reach audiences in rural areas. These marginalised rural regions were only subjected to one point of view. The Department of Information sent 6 000 copies of the radio programme South African Magazine to 125 American radio stations in 1974. Listeners of small radio stations were frequently exposed to radio tapes, unaware that they were actually listening to propaganda provided by the ISSA.[32]

Rhoodie believed that personal contact was a suitable method of influencing officials and citizens. Except for retaining offices and information staff in locations, such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Houston, information staff were instructed to initiate ‘contact tours.’ These tours included giving speeches, meeting people, and corresponding with local television, press, and radio. Visits to towns and cities increased from 1974 to 1975, totalling 118 cities visited by only six information officials. Contact tours were paramount for publishing constructive reports in the American press and served to recruit visitors for the South African foreign visit programme.[33]

Additionally, the Department of Information targeted the American education sector. Foreign universities were provided with books worth R50 000, annually. Since most universities abroad only had books that shared ‘unbalanced’ views, the department saw it fit to sponsor these institutions with books containing a more ‘unbiased’ interpretation. The material conveyed progress made in race relationships over the past seven years, but oddly, the material made little reference to the Soweto Uprising or civil unrest experienced in the country. The Department of Information also went as far as influencing school children. The ISSA recruited the services of Image Industries, a company that markets and disseminates educational material. The ISSA ordered Image Industries to produce glossy brochures and a multimedia kit equipped with a sound filmstrip, wall map, South African flag, and a teacher’s guide. These kits were sent to junior and high school pupils free of charge. The regime distributed tens of thousands of dollars for the manufacturing of 10 466 kits and the printing of 50 000 brochures.[34] John Laurence voiced his concern regarding this malpractice: “By this means children outside South Africa are indoctrinated with tacit and often quite false racial or even anti-black propaganda, carrying the objective imprint of the innocent publisher.”[35]

The South African Government’s principal method of influencing senators and legislators involved the use of lobbying groups.[36] Lobbying groups came in the forms of public relationship agencies, front organisations and corporations with an interest in South Africa. Galen Hull is cautious of the power that lobbying groups wield, “The strength of lobbyists in Washington, both domestic and foreign, is reflected in their ability to influence legislation that would bring tighter regulation of their activities.”[37] South Africa acquired lobbying allies through business interests or visits to South Africa. Major corporations, such as the Ford Motor Company and Gulf Oil, utilised their permanent lobbying groups in the American capital to further their own needs and those of Pretoria. Corporations avoided the US State Department and, instead, influenced the Commerce and Treasury Department to diminish trade and arms embargoes. In 1976, pro-South African lobbying groups were on the brink of eradicating import-export limits on Pretoria, but were stopped by Members of Congress who opposed the involvement of the USA in Angola and doubted financial commitment to apartheid. An example of a lobbying ally gained through visits to South Africa was the American Legion, an organisation of conservative USA veterans who have influence over American business and politics. In 1978, the American Legion declared that it would boost South Africa’s image nationwide through the mass media as well as its journal Legionnaire, and encourage investments.[38]

Public relations agencies appointed to advance South Arica’s case most notably included Collier, Shannon, Rill and Edwards, as well as Sydney S. Baron. Donald deKieffer continued to provide his services to the Department of Information. He also worked to influence Congress campaigns and update the Department of Information on reports that might have had an effect on Pretoria. In 1976, he also arranged fact-finding trips to South Africa for American delegates, such as John Dent, Philip Cane, and Richard Ichord. Furthermore, DeKieffer provided congressmen with fact sheets regarding critical issues surrounding South Africa. In a case concerning voting for a resolution of not acknowledging the homeland of Transkei in September 1976, both Representatives Philip Cane and John Dent voted in opposition to the resolution, using the fact sheet provided by DeKieffer to support their decision. In the end, the resolution was not approved because it failed to gain a two-thirds majority vote. By the end of 1977, DeKieffer contributed “his own capital” towards the campaigns of 15 senators who had been in favour of building a naval base in the Indian Ocean and who preferred African self-rule. DeKieffer’s services were used even during the Muldergate Scandal, costing the government a million rand per year up until March 1979.[39]

Conversely, the Department of Information’s most prominent public relations consultant was Sydney S. Baron. This company was the fourteenth biggest in the USA and New York’s topmost public relations company, with well-established connections in American politics. Sydney S. Baron was an expensive agency, handling significant corporations, such as The Aluminium Company of America and Japanese Electrical Industry. The contract signed with Sydney S. Baron avows that they would directly report to the Secretary of Information and act as a public relations officer for South Africa; evaluate South African and American political, economic, strategic, and social attitudes towards South Africa; nurture objective and balanced treatment of South Africa in the American media by accurately conveying the meaning of South African policies; promote economic opportunities in South Africa for American business and financial communities; and encourage a better understanding between the two nations, including ordinary citizens and government officials.[40]

The contract signed with Baron on 17 March 1976 could not have come at a better time. Only a few months later, the Soweto Uprising erupted, causing massive damage to South Africa’s international image. When faced with criticism, the owner, Sydney Baron, replied: “Every client can’t be Disneyworld.[41] From 1976 to 1977, the payment received by Baron increased to nearly half a million dollars per annum. The English press was rather critical of the increased payment, and the Daily News argued that “No amount of money will rehabilitate this country’s image if the Government persists in its disastrous handling of affairs as was demonstrated in the case of the Biko scandal.”[42] Eschel Rhoodie responded by affirming that “the annual amount South Africa spends on public relations firms in America to help advance its image, is completely justifiable since we are in a struggle to survive.”[43]

Baron assigned the African-American, Andrew Hatcher, Vice-president International of Baron, to work on South Africa’s contention. Hatcher was the Deputy Press Secretary in the White House during the Kennedy Administration. South Africa was delighted to acquire a black American to justify its cause by distorting the view that South Africans are racist, and a frontrunner of progress in race relations. Not only did Hatcher encourage black business investment in South Africa, but he also organised visits for African-American legislators and journalists to South Africa. Daily and weekly newspapers received feature stories from Hatcher, depicting Pretoria in a favourable light. On 23 June 1976, Hatcher and the white anti-apartheid activist and executive director of the American Committee on Africa, George Houser, debated on NBC TV’s Today Show. Hatcher argued that South Africa was, indeed, changing and that the government allowed non-white participation in state affairs. Hatcher also placed advertisements supporting the independence of Transkei from South Africa in the Ebony and Wall Street Journal magazines. Furthermore, Hatcher and DeKieffer worked together in public relations campaigns on television.[44]

As part of the agreement with the Department of Information, Baron organised two seminars for wealthy American businessmen to invest in South Africa. Sponsored by the government body, the South African Trade Organisation (SAFTO), the first seminar took place in June 1977, with 300 corporate executives gathered at the Hilton Hotel in Rye, New York. Mulder was present at the seminar to explain the benefits of investing in South Africa, and William Simon, Secretary of the USA Treasury, was paid thousands of dollars to be a guest speaker. The next seminar was held in Houston in 1978, where former President Ford was said to have been paid $10 000 to convince businessmen of the advantages of investing with Pretoria. McGoff was also a guest speaker at the discussion.[45]

Multiple times Rhoodie asserted that South Africa did not interfere with the political affairs of other countries; however, the Department of Information was trying to affect the discourse of American politics. Less documented cases of South African involvement in American politics were the financial contributions to unseat US senators who were antagonistic towards apartheid. Rhoodie claims that $120 000 were provided for the defeat of Senator John Tunney in 1976. In 1978, the Democrat and Chairman of the Senate’s Foreign Relations subcommittee on Africa, Senator Dick Clark, was targeted. Clark was keen on emphasising racial issues in South Africa. He was defeated by the conservative Republican, Roger Jepsen, with an alleged astronomical donation from the Department of Information for his election campaign. While Jepsen denied South African involvement in his campaign, Hatcher admitted involvement to British journalist, Anthony Sampson. He recalled that, while visiting Pretoria, he had promised Mulder that Clark’s defeat was imminent. Other evidence suggesting South African interference was the circulation of pamphlets accusing Clark of being lenient on communism, during the election campaign. Through Baron, the Department of Information sent a donation to Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in 1975. Rhoodie’s judgement of reaching leaders before they became president backfired when it turned out that Carter was opposed to the minority rule in South Africa. During the Carter Administration, the relationship between the United States of America and South Africa would deteriorate.[46]

Waning of the projects

Confident in his Department of Information, Mulder guaranteed that 1976 would be the most fruitful year. The Soweto Uprising on 16 June 1976 dealt a massive blow to the propaganda effort. Black people received instant solidarity from the international community. The global media quickly focused on the shootings, which reflected the true nature of discontent under the black majority. As a result, the Carter Administration was pushed for arms and trade embargoes by AAMs and black leaders. Although Carter voted at the UN for an arms embargo, Kissinger advised him not to implement a trade embargo against South Africa. Nevertheless, the Soweto Uprising resulted in limited disinvestment of foreign capital.[47]

The following year, South Africa was in the limelight once again for the murder of Steve Biko while in police custody. Resentment from the international media, who had adopted an extremely negative attitude towards South Africa as a result of the Biko affair, increased.[48] Rhoodie was convinced that the damage was irreversible and declared in the Department of Information’s Annual Report of 1977:

“When the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed on December 14 last that 1978 was going to be the International Anti-Apartheid Year, it brought to a climax the worst period of anti-South African publicity and hostility in the country’s history … It received the most in-depth coverage of any South African news story since the first heart transplant and was extremely damaging.”[49]

In 1977, circumstances were dreary for the Department of Information and it became apparent that it had a mole leaking sensitive information to the South African English press. In addition, the department was struggling to safeguard disorderly propaganda campaigns. South African reporters sensed something devious and began searching for the truth. On 19 February 1978, the Sunday Express published evidence from the Barrie investigative report concerning irregularities in the Department of Information. This provided the opposition press with ammunition to confront the government about being responsible for deceit, bribery, and maladministration. Throughout 1978, the press continued to release damning reports, and several inquiries were established to investigate any misconduct within the Department of Information. These investigations and revelations resulted in internal turmoil within the NP that would eventually escalate to the Muldergate Scandal. On 16 July 1978, Rhoodie was dismissed and the Department of Information was replaced by the Bureau of National and International Communication. Afterwards, the State Security Council decided to continue with 68 of the secret projects.[50]

Reflecting on the operations’ effectiveness

Before reaching a conclusion, it is important to review the overall effectiveness of the campaign from the perspective of authors, experts, and individuals who, in some way, formed part of the information war. John Laurence was impressed with the extensive operations of the Department of Information by infiltrating numerous nations and disseminating propaganda on a grand scale. He also takes into consideration the effect of a small population of whites in Africa on worldwide masses, by commenting on the department’s activities: “maybe without parallel in its size and scope in human history.”[51] Carl Nöffke, Director of Information at the South African Embassy in Washington DC in 1975, emphasised Rhoodie’s propaganda prowess: “[Eschel Rhoodie] was probably the most brilliant propagandist of the century — I think he was better than Goebbels.”[52] Geldenhuys describes Rhoodie as the “innovative architect of foreign policy” initiatives which downplayed the Department of Foreign Affairs and gave credit to Vorster’s statesman image. Political scientist, Deon Geldenhuys, describes the Department of Information’s successful diplomacy and propagandist style as follows: “Information’s often grandiose conception of international politics consisted of a strange compound of wishful thinking, naiveté, and hardheaded realpolitik.[53] Ron Nixon asserts that the Department of Information’s propaganda strategy was clearly damaging the counter-propaganda initiatives of AAM groups: “the anti-apartheid movement in America and Europe had limited success in keeping the South African situation at the political forefront of public attention … efforts to persuade the various presidential administrations to impose sanctions had largely fallen on deaf ears and the grassroot movements pushing for sanctions and divestment had stalled.”[54]

On the contrary, authors like James Sanders point out that the Soweto Riots had a severe impact on the operations of the Department of Information: “the Department of Information discovered that it was impossible to control its extraordinary level of operations and provide an effective voice for the beleaguered South African government.”[55] He also mentions that counting against the Department of Information was its inability to sell the acknowledgement of independent black states, such as the Transkei, to foreign presses and governments, which was a humiliating setback. Rhoodie admitted to having made some blunders that contributed to his downfall by “putting too much on his fork,” meaning that he had tried to operate secret propaganda projects all over the world and worked overtime in order to do so.[56] Journalists Mervyn Rees and Chris Day believe some campaigns to have been ill-conceived and poorly executed. Rees considered Rhoodie to be his own worst enemy because his lifestyle and abuses attracted unnecessary attention to himself and the clandestine programmes. Elaine Windrich asserts that the propaganda campaign may not have been that effective since dealing with South Africa might have been detrimental to the image of a business. For example, the law firm, Covington and Burling, ceased contact with South Africa after they were boycotted by law students.[57]

Conclusion

In order to determine the overall impact of the campaigns, the objectives of the Department of Information with regard to the USA need to be outlined first. An analysis of the projects reveals that the main objectives were to reach and secure influential individuals; to shift the limelight away from actual news; and to encourage investment and reinforce constructive notions about South Africa. Considering these objectives, Rhoodie’s ultimate approach was to strengthen the image of South Africa by identifying and targeting high-level decision makers and opinion formers.

The information shared confirms that Rhoodie successfully made contact with top-level and well-connected individuals and converted a portion of them to embrace a pro-South African stance. Undeniably, the most efficient methods of influencing figures, such as Farrar, President Ford, President Reagan, Kissinger, McGoff, Dent and Cane, were through lobbying, public relations firms and fact-finding trips. This aligned favourably with Rhoodie’s grand blueprint of casting a web of trustworthy top-level sources to disseminate South African propaganda from the top-down to grassroots level of American society. Other forms of multimedia merely served as overt and covert stratagems to reinforce or bolster antecedents or constructive images of South Africa. Three examples of documented cases that support the effectiveness of the campaigns were the vote for the Transkei in September 1976; Kissinger voiding arms embargoes in 1976; and the defeat of Clark in 1978.

Albeit, the Soweto Uprising and death of Biko caused irreparable damage to the projects. It may be concluded that the Department of Information cemented indispensable underground diplomatic channels that benefitted the survival of apartheid during the 1970s and supported the prolonged existence of apartheid during the 1980s.

However, the Information Scandal proved to an antagonistic global community that the minority regime could not be trusted. In the eyes of the world, the apartheid state was an inherently immoral den of liars, befitting the leadership of an immoral system of government. Muldergate finally convinced Vorster’s successor, P.W. Botha, that it was futile to try and convince a hostile outside world of the merit of the National Party ideology through gimmicks. The Botha Administration would try to control news about South Africa by means of censorship and would eventually try and annex the very flow of information.

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Endnotes

[*]   Mr Josh Haasbroek has an M.A. degree in History at the University of the Free State. His study focuses comprehensively on the history of the Information Scandal. Currently, he is residing and working in South Korea. Dr Jan-Ad Stemmet is a senior lecturer in the History Department at the University of the Free State. His research interests include aspects of South Africa’s turbulent politics, specifically of the 1980s. Dr Marietjie Oelofse is a senior lecturer in the History Department at the University of the Free State. Her research interests include oral history, as well as transitional justice, with a focus on truth commissions.

[2]   H. Giliomee and B. Mbenga, Nuwe Geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika (Tafelberg, Cape Town, 2007), pp 312-313; A. Thomson, U.S. foreign policy towards apartheid South Africa, 1984-1994: Conflict of interest (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2008), pp 5, 12-15; A. Guelke, “Southern Africa and the Super-Powers”, International Affairs, 56, 4, Autumn 1980, p 659.

[3]   Thomson, U.S. foreign policy towards apartheid South Africa, pp 6-23; P. Melvyn and O. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1 (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2010), pp 478-479; Guelke, “Southern Africa and the Super-Powers”, p 650; Giliomee and Mbenga, Nuwe Geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika, pp 312-313.

[4]   The Department of Information, previously known as State Information, originated from a supplementary subdivision in the Department of Foreign Affairs. L. de Villiers, Secret Information (Tafelberg, Cape Town, 1980), pp 17-18; D. Geldenhuys, The diplomacy of isolation: South African foreign policy making (Macmillan South Africa, Johannesburg, 1984), p 107.

[5]   E. Rhoodie, The real Information Scandal (Orbis SA, Pretoria, 1983), pp 40-41; R. Nixon, Selling apartheid: South Africa’s global propaganda war (Jacanda Media (PTY), Johannesburg, 2015), pp 57-59, 61; M. Rees and C. Day, The story of the Information Scandal (Macmillan South Africa, Johannesburg, 1980), p 29; De Villiers, Secret Information, pp 38, 45; J. Haasbroek Private Collection, Interview with P. Mulder, Bloemfontein, 2015.10.8.

[6]   Thomson, U.S. foreign policy towards apartheid South Africa, pp 24-27; M. Wilson and L. Thomson (eds), The Oxford History of South Africa, Volume 2 (Oxford University Press, Cape Town, 1971), pp 512-513.

[7]   Thomson, U.S. foreign policy towards apartheid South Africa, pp 28-29, 35-38; Wilson and Thomson (eds), The Oxford History of South Africa, pp 512-515; United Nations, “The United Nations: Partner in the struggle against apartheid”, <http://www.un.org/en/events/mandeladay/apartheid.shtml>, s.a. (Accessed 12 January 2016); C. Barnes, “International isolation and pressure for change in South Africa”, <http://www.cr.org/downloads/Accord%2019_8International%20isolation%20and%20pressure%20for%20change%20in%20South%20Africa_2008_ENG.pdf>, s.a. (Accessed 14 January 2016).

[8]   F. Pretorius (ed.), A history of South Africa: From the distant past to the present day (Pretoria Book House, Pretoria, 2014), p 386; South African History Online, “The British Anti-Apartheid Movement”, <http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/british-anti-apartheid-movement>, s.a. (Accessed 24 January 2016); South African History Online, “South Africa’s foreign relationships during apartheid, 1948”, <http://www.sahistory.org.za/20th-century-south-africa/south-africas-foreign-relations-during-apartheid-1948>, s.a. (Accessed 21 January 2016); Barnes, “International isolation and pressure for change in South Africa”, <http://www.cr.org/downloads/Accord%2019_8International%20isolation%20and%20pressure%20for%20change%20in%20South%20Africa_2008_ENG.pdf>, s.a. (Accessed 14 January 2016).

[9]   Nixon, Selling apartheid, pp 53-55; Thomson, U.S. foreign policy towards apartheid South Africa, pp 63-64; J. Church, “Access to information: The hallmark of democracy with reference to the Protection of Information Bill and the Historical Incidents”, Fundamina, 17, 2, 2011, pp 38-39.

[10]   Nixon, Selling apartheid, pp 58-60; Thomson, U.S. foreign policy towards apartheid South Africa, pp 65-66; J. Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979: A struggle for representation (Frank Class Publishers, London, 2000), pp 87-89.

[11]   Rhoodie, The real Information Scandal, pp 42-43, 52, 58; E. Rhoodie, The Paper Curtain (Voortrekkerpers, Johannesburg, 1969), pp 186, 188-190; Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979, p 55; De Villiers, Secret Information, p 36; The Cape Times, 1979.1.30, p 8.

[12]   Rees and Day, The story of the Information Scandal, pp 163-164, 171-172; Haasbroek Private Collection, Interview with P. Mulder, Bloemfontein, 2015.10.8; Rhoodie, The real Information Scandal, pp 58-59, 98.

[13]   Rhoodie, The real Information Scandal, pp 98-99; Rhoodie, The Paper Curtain, p 191; J.C. Laurence, Race propaganda and South Africa: The manipulation of Western opinion and policies by the forces of White supremacy (Victor Gollancz, London, 1979), pp 60-64.

[14]   Nixon, Selling apartheid, p. 6; Haasbroek Private Collection, Interview with P. Mulder, Bloemfontein, 2015.10.8.

[15]   Nixon, Selling apartheid, p 70; G. Hull, “South Africa’s propaganda war: A bibliographic essay”, South African Study Review, 22, 3, December 1979, p 80; Rees and Day, The story of the Information Scandal, p 187; Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979, p 55.

[16]   The United States Department of Justice, “Report of the Attorney General to the Congress of the United States on the Administration of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. 1975”, <https://www.fara.gov/reports/Archive/1975_FARA.pdf>, 1975.7, p. 291 (Accessed 24 March 2016).

[17]   The United States Department of Justice, “Report of the Attorney General to the Congress of the United States on the Administration of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. 1975”, <https://www.fara.gov/reports/Archive/1975_FARA.pdf>, 1975.7, p. 291 (Accessed 24 March 2016).

[18]   J. Burgess, et al., The great white hoax: South Africa’s international propaganda machine (Africa Bureau, London, 1977), pp 65, 78; Nixon, Selling apartheid, p 72.

[19]   De Villiers, Secret Information, pp 63-70; Nixon, Selling apartheid, p 72; Thomson, U.S. foreign policy towards apartheid South Africa, pp 63-64.

[20]   Hull, “South Africa’s propaganda war: A bibliographic essay”, p 89; Burgess, The great white hoax, p 79; Geldenhuys, The diplomacy of isolation, p 112.

[21]   Inherent to the Information Scandal was that its financial accounts vary between contradictory and hazy estimates. Nobody knows exactly how much was spent and on what – or how much was siphoned by corrupt officials. Thus, the article, as such, cannot claim to supply emphatically exact numbers.

[22]   Rees and Day, The story of the Information Scandal, pp 169-170; De Villiers, Secret Information, pp 73-74; Rhoodie, The real Information Scandal, pp 82-83; Archive for Contemporary Affairs (hereafter ARCA), University of the Free State: P 58 –Basson Collection: Die Transvaler/Oggendblad, 1979.6.5: “The Erasmus Commission of Inquiry, Intermediate and Supplementary Report into alleged irregularities in the former Department of Information” [Newspaper] (Hereafter Die Transvaler/Oggendblad, 1979.6.5), p 6.

[23]   K. Rothmyer, “The South Africa lobby”, The Nation, April 1980, pp 455-456; K. Rothmyer, “The McGoff grab”, The Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 1979, pp 33-34; Rand Daily Mail, 1980.12.3, p 1.

[24]   C. Paterson and V. Malila, “Beyond the Information Scandal: When South Africa bought into global news”, Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 34, 2, 2013, pp 4-5; The Citizen, 1980.5.15, p 4; ARCA: P 58 – Basson Collection: Die Transvaler/Oggendblad, 1979.6.5, pp 23-24; Rothmyer, “The South African lobby”, pp 455-456.

[25]   Rothmyer, “The South African lobby”, pp 455-456; Rothmeyer, “The McGoff grab”, p 35; Justia US Law, “Securities and Exchange Commission v. John P. McGoff, Global Communications Corp., Sacramento Publishing Co., Appellants. 647 F.2d 185 (D.C. Cir. 1981)”, <http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/647/185/237629/>, 1981 (Accessed 17 May 2016); Paterson and Malila, “Beyond the Information Scandal”, pp 4-5.

[26]   The Erasmus Commission was established to investigate alleged irregularities in the Department of Information that were exposed by inquiries and the press, to evaluate findings, and to provide recommendations. ARCA: P 58 – Basson Collection: Die Transvaler/Oggendblad, 1979.6.5, p 2.

[27]   E. Windrich, “South Africa’s propaganda war”, South Africa Today, 36, 1, 1st Quarter 1989, p 54; ARCA: P 58 – Basson Collection: Die Transvaler/Oggendblad, 1979.6.5, pp 23-24; Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979, p 60; Rothmyer, “The South African lobby”, p 456.

[28]   ARCA: P 58 – Basson Collection: Die Transvaler/Oggendblad, 1979.6.5, p 24; Paterson and Malila, “Beyond the Information Scandal”, pp 5-6; Rand Daily Mail, 1979.4.7, p 1; Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979, p 67; Rothmyer, “The McGoff grab”, pp 36-37; Burgess, The great white hoax, pp 67-68.

[29]   Paterson and Malila, “Beyond the Information Scandal”, pp 10-12.

[30]   Special Collections and Archives University of Cape Town Libraries (Hereafter SCAUCP): Department of Information, Annual Report for 1974, pp 38-39, 42; Burgess, The great white hoax, pp 65-68.

[31]   SCAUCP: Department of Information, Annual Report for 1974, p 39; SCAUCP: Department of Information, Annual Report for 1976, p 17; Burgess, The great white hoax, p. 66; Nixon, Selling apartheid, p 78.

[32]   Nixon, Selling apartheid, pp 78-79; SCAUCP: Department of Information, Annual Report for 1974, p 39.

[33]   SCAUCP: Department of Information, Annual Report for 1974, pp 39, 42-43; SCAUCP: Department of Information, Annual Report for 1975, p 13; Burgess, The great white hoax, p 66.

[34]   The United States Department of Justice, “Report of the Attorney General to the Congress of the United States on the Administration of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. 1975”, <https://www.fara.gov/reports/Archive/1975_FARA.pdf>, 1975.7, p 292 (Accessed 24 March 2016); C. de Vries, “Die politieke implikasies van die ‘Inligtingskandaal’ tot met die uittrede van Staatspresident B.J. Vorster”, M.A. Dissertation, University of the Free State, 1983, p 26; Burgess, The great white hoax, p 81; The World, 1977.9.5, p 4.

[35]   Laurence, Race propaganda and South Africa, p 65.

[36]   Dictionary.com defines ‘lobbying’ as “a group of members who work to conduct a campaign to influence members of a legislature to vote according to the group’s special interest.” Dictionary.com, “Lobby”, <http://www.dictionary.com/browse/lobbying>, s.a. (Accessed 9 May 2016).

[37]   Hull, “South Africa’s propaganda war: A bibliographic essay”, p 80.

[38]   Burgess, The great white hoax, p 77; Laurence, Race propaganda and South Africa, pp 68-68; Hull, “South Africa’s propaganda war: A bibliographic essay”, p 80.

[39]   Hull, “South Africa’s propaganda war: A bibliographic essay”, pp 89-90; Beeld, 1979.2.29, p 3; Rees and Day, The story of the Information Scandal, p 200; Windrich, “South Africa’s propaganda war”, p 52.

[40]   P.H. Stone, “Muldergate on Madison Avenue”, The Nation, 14 April 1979, p 390; The Star, 1977.12.8, p 31.

[41]   Stone, “Muldergate on Madison Avenue”, p 390; The Star, 1977.12.8, p 31.

[42]   The Daily News, 1977.12.9, p 22.

[43]   Die Volksblad, 1977.12.9, p 3; The Daily News, 1977.12.8, p 3; Stone, “Muldergate on Madison Avenue”, p 390.

[44]   Nixon, Selling apartheid, pp 84-89; Hull, “South Africa’s propaganda war: A bibliographic essay”, p 92; African Activist Archive, “A fine face for apartheid”, <http://africanactivist.msu.edu/document_metadata.php?objectid=32-130-E84>, 1978 (Accessed 20 May 2016).

[45]   Hull, “South Africa’s propaganda war: A bibliographic essay”, p 93; Stone, “Muldergate on Madison Avenue”, p 391; Rothmeyer, “The South African lobby”, p 356.

[46]   Rees and Day, The story of the Information Scandal, pp 200-201; Nixon, Selling apartheid, pp 97-99; De Vries, “Die politieke implikasies van die ‘Inligtingskandaal’”, p 41; Stone, “Muldergate on Madison Avenue”, p 391; S. Stevens, “‘From the viewpoint of a Southern Governor’: The Carter Administration and apartheid”, Diplomatic History 36, 5, November 2012, pp 878-879.

[47]   ARCA: House of Assembly Debates (Hereafter Hansard), 2 April – 4 June 1976, part 62, col 5952-4; Nixon, Selling apartheid, pp 81-83; Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979, pp 164-165; News 24, “Operation Blackwash”, <http://www.news24.com/Archives/City-Press/Operation-Blackwash-20150430>, 2013.8.25 (Accessed 22 May 2016); M. Swilling, “Living in the interregnum: Crisis, reform and socialist alternative in South Africa”, Third World Quarterly 9, 2, April 1987, pp 411-412.

[48]   Nixon, Selling apartheid, p 91; Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979, p 63; Die Vaderland, 1977.10.11, p 11; The Cape Times, 1978.10.23, p 8.

[49]   SCAUCP: Department of Information, Annual Report for 1977, p 3.

[50]   De Vries, “Die politieke implikasies van die ‘Inligtingskandaal’”, pp 62-63, 70-71; C. Rickard, Thank you, Judge Mostert (Penguin Group, Johannesburg, 2010), pp 97, 99; Sunday Express, 1978.2.19, p 1; J. Mervis, The Fourth Estate, A newspaper story (Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 1989), p 441; Geldenhuys, The diplomacy of isolation, p. 120; ARCA: Hansard, 21 January – 17 March 1978, part 72, col 24.

[51]   Laurence, Race propaganda and South Africa, pp 56-57.

[52]   Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979, p 61.

[53]   Geldenhuys, The diplomacy of isolation, p 119.

[54]   Nixon, Selling apartheid, p 81.

[55]   Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979, p 61.

[56]   Rees and Day, The story of the Information Scandal, p 186.

[57]   Windrich, “South Africa’s propaganda war”, p 59; Sanders, South Africa and the international media 1972-1979, pp 61-70; Rees and Day, The story of the Information Scandal, p 187.

Friend or foe? How online news outlets in South Africa frame artificial intelligence

Title: Friend or foe? How online news outlets in South Africa frame artificial intelligence

Author: Susan Brokensha, University of the Free State.

Ensovoort, volume 41 (2020), number 7: 2

Abstract

The influence that the media have in shaping public opinion about artificial intelligence (AI) cannot be overestimated, since the various frames they employ to depict this technology may be adopted into the public’s socio-cultural frameworks. Employing framing theory, we conducted a content analysis of online news articles published by four outlets in South Africa with a view to gaining insights into how AI is portrayed in them. We were particularly interested in determining whether AI was represented as friend or foe. Our analysis indicated that although most articles reflected a pro-AI stance, many also tended to be framed in terms of both anti- and pro-technology discourse, and that this dualistic discourse was to some degree resolved by adopting a middle way frame in which a compromise position between the polarised views was proposed. The analysis also signalled that several of the articles in our dataset called for the need for human agency to regulate and govern AI in (South) Africa. This is an important call as it is in keeping with the need to ensure that AI is applied in such a way that it benefits Africa and its culture and context.

1. Introduction

Key milestones in the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) cannot be neatly mapped, given the need to take into account not only definitive discoveries and events in AI, but also hardware innovations, software platforms, and developments in robotics, all of which have had a significant impact on AI systems. Most AI scholars would agree that a defining moment in its history was the hosting by John McCarthy (Dartmouth College) and Marvin Minsky (Harvard University) of the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence (DSRPAI) at Dartmouth College in the United States in 1956 (Haenlin and Kaplan, 2019; Lele 2019; Mondal, 2020). Working alongside Minsky, Nathaniel Rochester (IBM Corporation) and Claude Shannon (Bell Telephone Laboratories), McCarthy coined the term ‘artificial intelligence’ in a 1955 proposal for the DSRPAI. In this document, the four individuals proposed that the 1956 brainstorming session be based on “the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it” (McCarthy, Minsky, Rochester and Shannon, 1955:2). Prior to the DSRPAI, crucial discoveries in AI included McCulloch and Pitts’ computational model of a neuron (1943) – a model which was then further developed by Frank Rosenblatt when he formulated the Perceptron learning algorithm in 1958 – and Alan Turing’s Turing Test (1950), designed to determine if a machine could ‘think’.

Since the 1950s, other significant events or innovations that have influenced AI systems are simply too numerous to summarise in one paper, but scholars such as Perez, Deligianni, Ravi and Yang (2018) helpfully describe the evolution of AI in terms of positive and negative seasons, the events and innovations just described constituting the birth of AI. The period between 1956 and 1974 is described by Perez et al. (2018:9) as AI’s first spring, which was marked by advances in designing computers that could solve mathematical problems and process strings of words (cf. De Spiegeleire, Maas and Sweijs, 2017:31). First winter refers to the period between 1974 and 1980 when the public and media alike began interrogating whether AI held any benefits for humankind amidst over-inflated claims at the time that AI would surpass human intelligence (cf. Curioni, 2018:11). Since emerging technologies (such as machine translation) did not live up to lofty expectations, AI researchers’ funding was heavily curtailed by major agencies such as DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). The so-called second spring is generally regarded as the period between 1980 and 1987, and was characterised by the revival of neural network models for speech recognition (cf. Shin, 2019:71). This brief cycle was replaced by AI’s second winter (1987-1993) during which desktop computers gained in popularity and threatened the survival of the specialised hardware industry (cf. Maruyama, 2020:383). The period between 1997 and 2000 is not described in terms of a particular season, but during this time, machine-learning methods such as Bayesian networks and evolutionary algorithms dominated the field of AI. The period from 2000 to the present is described by scholars as the third spring of AI, a season distinguished by big data tools (that include Hadoop, Apache Spark, and Cassandra), as well as by other emerging technologies such as cloud computing, robotics and the Internet of Things (cf. Maclure, 2019:1).

Although some authorities in the technology sector maintain that this spring will not endure owing to AI’s cyclic nature (Piekniewski, 2018; Schuchmann, 2019), others argue that it is here to stay (Bughin and Hazan, 2017; Lorentz, 2018; Sinur, 2019). Indeed, Andrew Ng, a leading expert in machine learning and author of AI Transformation Playbook (2018), is of the view that “[we] may be in the eternal spring of AI” – that “[the] earlier periods of hype emerged without much actual value created, but today, it’s creating a flood of value” (Ray, 2018:1). It appears that media outlets throughout the world, whether positively or negatively disposed towards AI, have jumped onto the AI bandwagon if newspaper headlines are anything to go by:

  • South Africa: ‘The robots are coming for your jobs’ (News24, 29 September 2016)
  • Nigeria: ‘Machine learning may erase jobs, says Yudala’ (Daily Times, 28 August 2017)
  • Brazil: ‘In Brazil, “AI Gloria” will help women victims of domestic violence’ (The Rio Times, 29 April 2019).

Meredith Broussard (2018) argues that some journalists and researchers have succumbed to technochauvism, which is the utopian belief that technology will solve all our problems. At the other extreme are those who may have exaggerated the risks that accompany AI. In this regard, robotics expert Sabine Hauert decries, amongst other things, “hyped headlines that foster fear […] of robotics and artificial intelligence” (Hauert, 2015:416). Hauert (2015:417) laments the public being faced with “a mostly one-sided discussion that leaves them worried that robots will take their jobs, fearful that AI poses an existential threat”.

In this paper, we aim to explore how South African mainstream news articles that are published online frame AI with a view to determining whether they are depicted as a friend or foe to humans. The main reason for undertaking such an exploration is that online media outlets play a critical role in not only disseminating information, but also helping the public gain insights into scientific and technological innovations (cf. Brossard, 2013: 14096). In accordance with framing theory, “the way an issue is framed and discussed through specific perspectives can influence how audiences make sense of the issue” (Chuan, Tsai and Cho, 2019:3409). A review of the literature indicates that apart from analysing how journalists have framed scientific and technological news about, for instance, biomedicine, chemistry, physics, and renewable energy (Gastrow, 2015; Kabu, 2017; Rochyadi-Reetz, Arlt, Wolling and Bräuer, 2019), scholars have not undertaken studies to determine how AI is covered by the South African online press.

2. Framing theory and AI coverage in the media

From the outset, we would like to point out that we are not claiming that there is a causal relationship between journalists’ framing of issues and society’s opinions about those issues. Instead, “media as a powerful cultural institution […] may influence [the] public’s attitudes towards an emerging technology, particularly in the early stage when most people feel uncertain, wary, or anxious about an unfamiliar yet powerful technology” (Chuan et al. 2019:340). A number of researchers have, in recent years, studied media coverage of AI (Holguín, 2018; Jones, 2018; Brennen, Howard and Nielsen 2018; Obozintsev 2018; Chuan et al. 2019; Cui and Wu 2019), and framing theory in particular appears to be useful for understanding how the media depict both utopian and/or dystopian views of this type of technology. Nisbet (2009a:51) points out that frames enable us to gain insights into “how various actors in society define science-related issues in politically strategic ways” as well as “why an issue might be important, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done”. How AI is framed “may differ substantially across outlets” (Obozintsev, 2018:65), given that the complex relationship between journalism and science is influenced by a number of variables such as “myth-making of journalists, constraints, biases, public relations strategies of scientists” (Holguín 2018:5), and the like. Some scholars and AI experts argue that media coverage of AI leaves much to be desired – that it is “bogus” and “overblown” (Siegel, 2019:1) and that the media may “resort to headlines and images that are both familiar and sensationalist” (Cave, Craig, Dihal, Dillon, Montgomery, Singler and Taylor, 2018:17). Others have noted that AI “is typically discussed as an innovation that can impact humanity in a positive way, making the lives of individuals better or easier” (Obozintsev, 2018:65). We are of the view that it is critical to explore how AI is framed in South African news outlets to obtain a better understanding of the various perspectives that will inevitably inform public opinion of this technology. This might in turn “help bridge the diverse conversations occurring around AI and facilitate a richer public dialogue” (Chuan et al., 2019:340).

Adopting an approach employed by Chuan et al. (2019) and Strekalova (2015), we differentiated between topics and frames in our dataset, acknowledging that each news article may reflect multiple topics and frames. A topic “is […] a manifest subject, an issue or event”, while a frame “is a perspective through which the content is presented” (Chuan et al., 2019:340). To determine whether AI was framed as friend or foe, we posed the following questions:

  • Research question 1: Which topics and sub-topics were prominent in widely circulated South African online news articles?
  • Research question 2: How was AI framed in widely circulated South African online news articles?

3. Methods

3.1 Sample

Since we made use of stratified sampling (Krippendorff, 2013:116), we adhered to specific strata to collect suitable online news articles. Following an approach adopted by Jones (2015), we selected online news outlets that have a very high distribution in South Africa. Using Feedspot, a site that, amongst other things, offers data curation of news sites as a guide, we chose to collect articles from The Citizen, the Daily Maverick, the Mail & Guardian, and the SowetanLIVE. Second, we used ProQuest and Lexis Nexis Academic to collect articles using the search term ‘artificial intelligence’. Like Jones (2015), we did not search for articles using the abbreviation ‘AI’ because it returned too many results, given that it is a common letter combination in English. Third, we selected or eliminated articles based on whether or not they had a sustained focus on AI. We also discarded articles such as those that were not text-based and those that were actually movie listings or letters to the editor, for example. Finally, we collected articles that were published between January 2018 and April 2020. In this way we ultimately selected 73 articles across the four news outlets.1 The unit of analysis was the entire news article.

We are mindful that a qualitative study such as this one is open to criticism since it is not possible for a researcher to distance him- or herself from the subject under investigation (Jones, 2015:26). With this is mind, we kept a detailed memo in which we compiled a thick description of our design, methodology, and analyses, and this “detailed reckoning” (Jones, 2015:26) is available for perusal.

3.2 Framework of analysis

We made use of existing frames to answer Research question 2, combining and adapting frames first proposed by Nisbet (2009b, 2016). These are the frames of social progress, the middle way, morality/ethics, Pandora’s Box, and accountability. We also employed three frames proposed by Jones (2015), namely, the frames of competition, nature, and artifice. These frames are summarised in Table 1 below.

Table 1: A typology of frames employed to study AI in the media

Frame

Definition

Social progress

The frame of social progress is evoked when journalists wish to draw attention to the benefits of AI. Nisbet (2009b) restricts this frame to improvements to quality of life, but we have expanded the definition to include benefits in other areas such as the economy, health, and education.

Competition

The competition frame reflects the threats that AI may pose and these threats pertain to job losses, automated weapons, data breaches, and the like (Jones, 2015).

Middle way

Journalists may employ a middle way frame to propose what Obozintsev (2018:86) refers to as a “third way between conflicting or polarized views of options”.

Nature

Jones (2015:32) argues that articles that evoke the frame of nature “tend to discuss our continuing relationships with current technology, question the direction that this relationship is taking, and are often couched in romantic terms. Anthropomorphism is abundant in this discourse”. Typically, the virtues of AI “are identified as superior” (Jones, 2015:32), although journalists may use the frame to pass judgement on this technology.

Artifice

The frame of artifice depicts AI as a technology that is arcane; it is perceived as a technology that will surpass us in intelligence and ultimately engulf us (Jones, 2015:37).

Morality/Ethics

The frame of morality/ethics questions the rights and wrongs as well as the thresholds and boundaries of AI in terms of issues such as data privacy, surveillance, and the development of biased algorithms (Obozintzev 2018:86).

Pandora’s Box

Also referred to by Nisbet (2009b) as Frankenstein’s monster or as runaway science, Pandora’s Box portrays AI as technology that may spiral out of control.

Accountability

Accountability frames AI as technology that requires control and regulation to prevent, for example, algorithmic bias or abuses of power. (Nisbet (2009b) refers to this frame as the frame of public accountability/governance.)

4. Findings: Research question 1

4.1 Main topics and sub-topics

Many articles in the dataset covered multiple topics, but Table 2 below provides a summary of the main topics reflected in the title and first paragraph of each article. The most popular topic in the dataset was ‘Business, finance, and the economy’ (18 articles), and under this topic, the sub-topic of AI and job losses was most prominent, followed by AI and job creation, and AI-driven technology that functions as a personal financial advisor. Less frequent sub-topics dealt with under ‘Business, finance, and the economy’ are also provided in Table 2. After this, popular topics revolved around describing ‘AI-human interaction’ in terms of the anthropomorphism of the former (12 articles) and reporting on ‘Big Brother’ as it pertains to the use of AI to surveil online users and gain access to their personal data (eight articles). The next three prominent topics (with six articles each) were ‘Healthcare and medicine’ (as they related to AI being used to detect cancer and function as doctors), ‘Human control over AI’ (in the sense of a need to control and regulate AI), and ‘South Africa’s preparedness for an AI-driven world’, which reflected concerns about the country’s AI skills shortage within the context of the fourth industrial revolution. Three articles each were devoted to the topics of the ‘Environment’ (food production, crop management, and ecology), the ‘News industry’ (deepfaking and the curation of news by AI), and the ‘Uncanny valley’ (considered in the discussion section of this paper). ‘Defence weapons’ (so-called ‘killer robots’), ‘Singularity’ (which describes a hypothetical future in which technology will become uncontrollable), and ‘Strong AI’(which describes the goal of some in the field of AI to create machines whose intellectual capability will match that of human beings) featured in two articles each. Finally, one article in the dataset focused on ‘Education’ (specifically on robot teachers) and one on ‘Cyborgs’. The latter topic was not filed under the ‘Uncanny valley’ because it was an outlier in the dataset; it revolved around an individual who had a cybernetic implant attached to the base of his skull and no other article featured human enhancement with in-the-body AI technology.

All news outlets covered ‘Business, finance, and the economy’, ‘AI-human interaction’, ‘Healthcare and medicine’, and ‘South Africa’s preparedness for an AI-driven world’. ‘Big Brother’ was addressed only in articles published by The Citizen as were ‘Cyborgs’, ‘Education’, and ‘Strong AI’. Both the Daily Maverick and the Mail & Guardian reported on ‘Defence weapons’ and ‘Human control over AI’. AI in the ‘News industry’ was covered by The Citizen and the Daily Maverick. The ‘Uncanny valley’ featured in both The Citizen and the SowetanLIVE. AI as it relates to the ‘Environment’ received attention in The Citizen, the Daily Maverick, and the SowetanLIVE. The topic of ‘Singularity’ was addressed only in Daily Maverick articles. Apart from concluding that it is not surprising that the topic of ‘Business, finance, and the economy’ dominated as this dominance has been detected in other studies on how AI is framed in the media (cf. Chuan et al., 2019), we hesitate to draw any specific conclusions from this data. One reason for this is that, as stated at the beginning of this section, most articles reflected multiple topics. Another reason is that some of the titles in the dataset were quite misleading. One article published in The Citizen, for example, was entitled ‘Ramaphosa becomes first head of state to appear as hologram’ (5 July 2019), but the article itself considered South Africa’s preparedness to cope with the fourth industrial revolution including AI and robotics.

Table 2: Topics and sub-topics in the dataset (n=73 articles)

Main topic

Sub-topic(s) if applicable

Number of articles

AI-human interaction

(Robot companions/colleagues/assistants)

12

Big Brother

(AI surveillance/data privacy, including discussions of ethics/algorithmic bias)

8

Business, finance, and the economy

AI and job losses

AI and job creation

AI as financial advisors

AI to help businesses grow/become more efficient

AI to assist in human resources (including discussions of ethics/algorithmic bias)

AI as insurance brokers

6

3

3

4

1

1

Cyborgs

Human enhancement with in-the-body, AI-driven technology

1

Defence weapons

(Automated weapons)

2

Education

(AI teachers)

1

Environment

AI to improve food and crops

AI to improve the ecosystem

2

1

Healthcare and

medicine

AI diagnosticians

AI doctors

5

1

Human control over AI

(The importance of human agency in the development and implementation of AI)

6

News industry

AI and deepfaking

AI as curating the news (including discussions of ethics/algorithmic bias)

2

1

Singularity

Human identity under singularity

Human beings in a post-work world

1

1

South Africa’s preparedness for an AI-driven world (AI skills shortage)

(Training of human beings in an AI-driven world)

6

Strong AI

(AI modelled on the human brain)

2

Uncanny valley

(Appearance of AI as human-like or robot-like)

3

5. Findings: Research question 2

5.1 The frames of social progress and competition

An exhaustive analysis of all articles in terms of whether the frame of social progress or the frame of competition was more salient indicates that across all four news outlets, 50.68% of the articles focused on social progress, while 15.06% addressed competition (Table 3). Since the frame of social progress reflects the benefits that AI holds for humankind, while the frame of competition reflects the risks and threats inherent in AI, we concluded that most of the articles across the outlets were positively disposed towards AI, a conclusion supported by other studies (Obozintsev, 2018; Cui and Wu, 2019; Garvey and Maskal, 2019). One important reason for considering the salience of the two frames is that in terms of the distribution of these frames by source, both frames were employed in 54.79% of the articles (Table 4), a phenomenon which is considered in detail in the discussion section. We will return to the frames of social progress and competition just before the discussion section when we have considered all frames in context.

Table 3: Most salient frame by source

Newspaper

Social progress

Competition

Middle way

Nature

Artifice

Morality/

Ethics

Pandora’s Box

Accounta-

bility

The Citizen

(n=33)

19

4

0

2

0

6

0

2

Daily Maverick

(n=16)

8

1

0

0

0

3

0

4

Mail & Guardian

(n=14)

6

3

0

1

0

0

0

4

Sowetan-LIVE

(n=10)

4

3

0

3

0

0

0

0

Table 4: Distribution of frames in the dataset (without taking salience into account)

News outlet

Social progress

Competi-

tion

Social progress and competition

(in which the middle way was employed)

Middle way (in which the social progress and compe-tition frames were not evoked)

Nature

Artifice

Morality/

Ethics

Pando-ra’s

Box

Accounta-bility

The Citizen

(n=33)

8

8

14

(middle way=10)

3

22

6

9

1

2

Daily Maverick

(n=16)

2

4

10

(middle way=6)

1

12

8

6

1

6

Mail & Guardian

(n=14)

2

2

10

(middle way = 7)

4

10

6

5

1

7

Sowetan-LIVE

(n=10)

2

2

6

(middle way=3)

0

9

4

1

0

1

Middle way frame used in 34 articles

5.2 The middle way frame and its presence or absence in articles employinng the frames of social progress and competition

In her study of the framing of AI in news articles (n=64), Obozintsev (2018:40) found that only 3.1% were framed in terms of a middle way frame, but in our dataset, nearly 35.61% of all articles that employed both the frames of social progress and competition reflected this frame (Table 4): with regard to the 14 articles published in The Citizen that evoked both frames, ten employed a middle way frame. Out of the ten articles in the Daily Maverick that used the two frames, six employed a middle way frame, and out of the ten Mail & Guardian articles that used both frames, seven employed a middle way frame. The SowetanLIVE dataset contained six articles employing the two frames, and three of these evoked a middle way frame. The possible reasons why a middle way frame was constructed in these articles is considered in the discussion section.

5.3 The remainder of the frames

Although the frame of nature was not one that was made salient in most articles – it featured as a prominent frame in only six articles – it was nevertheless employed in 72.60% of all articles, which is not surprising, given that it is popular in the media to question or embrace the potential for AI to match or surpass human intelligence and to interrogate its capacity to form bonds with human beings. The frame of artifice did not appear at all as a salient frame, although it was used in 25.47% of all articles. The frame of morality/ethics was a salient frame in nine articles only, but it did occur in 28.76% of the articles in the dataset. Pandora’s Box did not feature as a salient frame, but was employed in 4.10% of the articles. Accountability is a frame that Obozintsev (2018) reports was rare in her dataset (7.8%), but we found that this was used as a salient frame in 13.69% of the articles under investigation, while it was touched upon in 21.91% of all articles. We speculate that its salience in particular articles was partly due to the fact that these articles also reflected the frame of morality/ethics and/or Pandora’s Box, frames which typically question issues of control and power. In addition, the writers of these articles included academics, computer scientists, mechanical engineers, and social commentators, all of whom have a vested interest in ethical issues around AI and in technology that leverages AI for the public good.

5.4 Revisiting social progress and competition in relation to all frames

Although a pro-AI stance was evident across the news outlets when we examined the salience of the frames of social progress and competition, we also had to consider the prevalence of this stance based on (1) an analysis of all frames and (2) a close reading of each article. One could be forgiven for concluding that, based on the data in Table 4, it is possible that most articles did not in fact reflect a pro-AI stance, given that frames outside of the social progress frame may reflect negative views of AI. However, an exhaustive analysis of each article allowed us to negate this conclusion. The analysis indicated, for example, that across the dataset, the frame of nature was evoked in 53 articles. In 35 of these articles, AI was depicted in positive terms, 15 reflected a negative view, and three were neutral (in the sense that they did not adopt a specific tone). For every article, we tracked each frame and determined if, overall, AI was portrayed in a positive, negative or neutral light. We concluded that 41 articles (56.16%) reflected a positive view of AI, 29 (39.72%) conveyed a negative view, and three (4.1%) were neutral (Table 5). AI was overwhelmingly viewed in a positive light in ‘AI-human interaction’, ‘Business, finance, and the economy’, ‘Education’, the ‘Environment’, and ‘Healthcare and medicine’, while it was depicted in a negative light in discussions around ‘Big Brother’, ‘Defense weapons’, ‘Human control over AI’, the ‘News industry’, and ‘South Africa’s preparedness for an AI-driven world. In terms of social progress (i.e., benefits) and competition (i.e., threats), the news coverage of AI across outlets and sources was more positive than negative.

Table 5: Positive, negative or neutral views of dominant AI topics

Topic

Number of articles

Positive

Negative

Neutral

AI-human interaction

12

11

1

0

Big Brother

8

1

7

0

Business, finance, and the economy

18

13

5

0

Cyborgs

1

0

0

1

Defence weapons

2

0

2

0

Education

1

1

0

0

Environment

3

3

0

0

Healthcare and medicine

6

6

0

0

Human control over AI

6

0

6

0

News industry

3

0

3

0

Singularity

2

1

1

0

South Africa’s preparedness for an AI-driven world (AI skills shortage)

6

2

3

1

Strong AI

2

1

0

1

Uncanny valley

3

2

1

0

6. Discussion

6.1 Nature and artifice

In an insightful Royal Society report of 2018, the researchers point to a tendency in fictional narratives to anthropomorphise AI, and this tendency was apparent in many of the articles in our dataset that evoked the frames of nature and artifice (Craig et al., 2018). Below are some typical examples of the anthropomorphisation of AI:

  • Intellectual superiority: “Technology has the ability both to remove [a financial advisor’s] biases and analyse a full array of products, potentially identifying suitable solutions that the advisor may have missed on their own” (The Citizen, 10 March 2018).
  • Human-like senses: “AI noses are now able to smell toxic materials, AI tongues can now taste wines and offer opinions on their taste scores, and robots are now able to touch and feel objects” (Daily Maverick, 12 November 2018).
  • Robot domination: “…robots decide who gets to live and who dies” (Mail & Guardian, 11 April 2018).
  • Life-like robots: a robotic model called ‘Noonoouri’ “is said to be 18 years old and 1.5m tall. The Parisian describes herself as cute, curious and a lover of couture” (SowetanLIVE, 20 September 2018).

The Royal Society report (2018:4) notes that what is concerning about such descriptions is that they instil certain “[e]xaggerated expectations and fears about AI”, and unfortunately also “contribute to misinformed debate, with potentially significant consequences for AI research, funding, regulation and reception”. It is important to point out that not all the articles in our dataset portayed AI in such a way that it was disconnected from reality. In an article in The Citizen entitled ‘China’s doctor shortage prompts rush for AI healthcare’ (20 September 2018), the journalist evoked the frame of nature when she subtly judged AI’s capacity for emotional intelligence by quoting some patients as claiming that they still “prefer the human touch.” She also quoted a technology officer as observing that “It doesn’t feel the same as a doctor yet. I also don’t understand what the result means.” These sentiments echo those of medical informatician Reddy Sandeep (2018:93), who contends that “[c]ontemporary healthcare delivery models are very dependent on human reasoning, patient-clinician communication and establishing professional relationships with patients to ensure compliance”.

6.2 AI as superior to human intelligence

Yet, many articles in the dataset that evoked the frame of nature to portray AI as matching or surpassing human intelligence also questioned this intelligence either by suggesting that AI should be regulated by human beings or by arguing that AI can neither feel nor think creatively. In a SowetanLIVE article published on 20 March 2018, for instance, the journalist questioned AI’s intelligence through the frame of nature: “[a major concern] is the fact that although robots may have AI (Artificial Intelligence), they are not as intelligent as humans. They can never improve their jobs outside their pre-defined programming because they simply cannot think for themselves. Robots have no sense of emotions or conscience. They lack empathy and this is one major disadvantage of having an emotionless workplace.” Only seven articles reflected the view that AI is unequivocally superior to human intelligence (although often doing so through the use of reported speech and/or multiple voices). Such a view “may be detrimental to the public’s understanding of A.I. as an emerging beneficial technology” (Obozintsev, 2018:1), and readers could be forgiven for feeling anxious when confronted by statements such as “educators must consider what skills graduates will need when humans can no longer compete with robots” (Mail & Guardian, 16 February 2018) and “there will come a time where technology will advance so exponentially that the human systems we know will be obliterated” (Mail & Guardian, 4 October 2019). Another article that framed AI as transcending human intelligence was ‘Self-navigating AI learns to take shortcuts: Study’ (The Citizen, 9 May 2018). As is typically the case when the frame of nature was employed, the AI system in this article was romanticised and anthropomorphosised through messages such as “A computer programme modelled on the human brain learnt to navigate a virtual maze and take shortcuts, outperforming a flesh-and-blood expert.” Although the journalist framed the AI system in terms of the claims made about it by its designers, she did not go on to question the claims. David Watson (2019:417), who studies the epistemological foundations of machine learning, argues that “[d]espite the temptation to fall back on anthropomorphic tropes when discussing AI […] such rhetoric is at best misleading and at worst downright dangerous. The impulse to humanize algorithms is an obstacle to properly conceptualizing the ethical challenges posed by emerging technologies”. (We consider how ethical issues surrounding AI were represented in our dataset a little later on in this paper when we discuss morality/ethics, accountability, and Pandora’s Box.)

6.3 AI that looks/sounds like a human or AI that looks/sounds like a robot?

In a number of articles, the frame of nature or the frame of artifice was evoked to depict AI as human-like, and one example was evident in ‘Who’s afraid of robots?’ (Daily Maverick, 5 March 2019) in which the suggestion was made that human and robotic news anchors could become indistinguishable from one another in the near future. By contrast, AI in other articles was described as looking more robot-like. In ‘Robot teachers invade Chinese kindergartens’ (The Citizen, 29 August 2018), for instance, an educational robot called ‘Keeko’ was described as “[r]ound and white with a tubby body” and as an “armless robot” that “zips around on tiny wheels.” In the same article, the journalist quoted a teacher as describing the robot as “adorable”. It is no coincidence that in the dataset, robots that looked like ‘Keeko’ were variously described as “adorable” (The Citizen, 29 August 2018) and “client-friendly” (SowetanLIVE, 20 March 2018), while those who looked or sounded like human beings were framed as “eerie” (SowetanLIVE, 8 March 2018) or “uncanny” (Daily Maverick, 10 November 2019). These types of descriptions constitute a reference to the ‘uncanny valley’, a phenomenon “which describes the point at which something nonhuman has begun to look so human that the subtle differences left appear disturbing” (Samuel, 2019:12). Research studies indicate that individuals perceive robots to be less creepy if they are designed in such a way that they are distinguishable from human beings (MacDorman, 2006; Greco, Anerdi and Rodriguez, 2009). In ‘The rise of the machines looks nothing like the movies’ (Daily Maverick, 10 November 2019), the journalist briefly speculated why most machines do not look like humans: “most do not resemble us, they do not walk on two feet, they do not have pre-programmed facial expressions and human gestures for us to study, for us to suspect, to imbue with sinister motives, real or imagined.” A number of scholars have speculated why most machines do not have a human-like appearance. Samuel (2019: 12), for example, argues that “[while] eliciting social responses in humans is easier when the robot in front of them is human-like in design, this does not mean that robots automatically become more accepted the more human they look. This may initially be the case, but human design appears to reach a point at which positive social responses turn into negative ones and robots are rejected for seeming ‘too human’”. The journalist of an article published in The Citizen on 5 September 2018 showed awareness of this problem when, in evoking the frame of nature, he noted that because a machine called ‘Sophia’ “is designed to look as much like a robot as a human, with its mechanical brain exposed, and no wig in place to humanise her further”, people who encounter her “know they are dealing with a robot and don’t feel fooled into believing it is human.”

Of course it is not a given that individuals simply do not like machines that look human. Indeed, Samuel (2019:9) puts paid to the notion that people are inclined to favour anthropomorphic robots. He argues that “people show a preference for robots’ design to be matched to their task” (Samuel, 2019:9). In this respect, people tend to be positively disposed to human-like features if the robot in question is a social robot. Alternatively, “an industrial robot may be thought of in a different manner and thus does not appear to need to look human in order to be deemed acceptable for their task by a human observer” (Samuel, 2019: 9). In the dataset, a number of journalists appeared to be aware of the connection between appearance and task. For example, in ‘“Call me baby”: Talking sex dolls fill a void in China’ (SowetanLIVE, 4 February 2018), the reporter evoked the frame of nature to describe sex dolls as “shapely” (although the reporter also questioned just how life-like the dolls were, describing one as possessing a “robotic voice” and as having lips that do not move). In addition, the dolls were described as being able to “talk, play music and turn on dishwashers”. Clearly, in order to be regarded as a social companion, such dolls are required to look, sound and act more life-like.

On the subject of robots serving a social function, the journalist of the article just referred to also reported that “buyers can customise each doll for height, skin tone, amount of pubic hair, eye colour and hair colour”. Tellingly, the journalist went on to claim that “the most popular dolls have pale skin, disproportionately swelled breasts (sic) and measure between 158 and 170 centimetres”. The way in which these dolls were described here is similar to the way in which they were described in other articles in the dataset. For instance, and quoting Hanson Robotics (probably to maintain authorial distance), the journalist in an article published in The Citizen (5 September 2018) described the robot ‘Sophia’ as being “endowed with remarkable […] aesthetics”, while in a SowetanLIVE article (28 September 2018), robots serving as fashion models were described as female as well as “lean” or “slender, with dark flawless skin” (SowetanLIVE, 28 September 2018). In the entire dataset most robots driven by AI technology were reported as being female; in addition to Sophia, sex dolls, and robotic fashion models (such as ‘Shundu’ and ‘Noonoouri’), journalists also referred to ‘Alexa’, a virtual assistant (SowetanLIVE, 8 March 2018), ‘Vera’, a robot that assists in interviewing prospective job candidates (The Citizen, 27 April 2018), and ‘Rose’, a robot that sells insurance (The Citizen, 22 January 2020). According to Döring and Poesch (2019:665), the media tend to represent human-robot relationships in terms of “stereotypical gender roles” and “heteronormativity” (cf. Stassa, 206; Ndonye, 2019), although it should be added that in our dataset, the various journalists did not themselves encourage these representations, but merely framed female robots in terms of how they were described by their designers or by the AI industry in general. Disappointingly, with the exception of three journalists who (1) alluded to individuals on Chinese social media platforms expressing their concerns that sex dolls “reinforce(d) sexist stereotypes” (SowetanLIVE, 4 February 2018), (2) questioned whether AI may discriminate against bank loan applicants on the basis of gender (Mail & Guardian, 14 March 2019), and (3) observed that “[w]omen and minorities are grossly […] underrepresented” when AI-droven algorithms are employed, no other journalist in our dataset questioned how the AI industry is reinforcing power relations in which the objectification of women is normalised. This is highly problematic in another important sense: the media need to challenge gender stereotypes because applying gender to an AI-driven application may have serious consequences. In this respect, McDonnell and Baxter (2019:116) point out that “[t]he application of gender to a conversational agent [such as a chatbot system] brings along with it the projection of user biases and preconceptions”.

Remaining with the subject of how AI-driven technology is anthropomorphosised, it is interesting to note that in the dataset, the term ‘AI’ or ‘artificial intelligence’ was often replaced by the word ‘robot’, and there appear to be two reasons for this. First, in articles in which AI was regarded as dangerous, the word ‘robot’ served as a “spacing device” (Jones, 2015:40) in the sense that “it [set] another barrier between the reader and the developer of the technology and [provided] a focus for any negative will”. Jones (2015:40) observes that “[it] seems far easier for the journalist to focus on a physical being than an abstract concept called artificial intelligence”. This was evident in ‘South Africa should lead effort to ban killer robots’ (Mail & Guardian, 11 April 2018) in which the journalist referred to governments around the world producing “killer robots” that “decide who gets to live and who dies”. Here, the term ‘killer robots’ was used in place of the term AI/artificial intelligence, “[providing] a focus for risk concerns about the Other” (Jones, 2015:44). Second, in articles in which AI was regarded in a more positive light, the term ‘robot’ “[served] to assist in the anthropomorphizing of the technology as it is far easier to draw comparisons between a human body and a robot body” (Jones, 2015:40). In an article that appeared in The Citizen on 29 August 2018, the journalists used their own voices as well as that of a teacher to describe Keeko, an educational robot, as “adorable” and as “[reacting] with delight” when children answer questions correctly.” The journalists did not interrogate the societal or ethical consequences of placing such educational robots in classrooms, and even quoted the principal of the kindergaten where Keeko is based as stating that robots are “more stable” than human teachers. According to scholars such as Engstrom (2018:19), “in humanising robots and AI, we have to ask ourselves whether our perception of them as machines changes – for example, whether it causes us to feel empathy or even love for them, and whether it will make us have higher expectations [of] the technologies to carry out human responsibilities”. This is unfortunately not a theme that the journalists in our dataset interrogated.

Why did the journalists in our dataset show a tendency to portray AI-driven technology in human form? A partial answer may lie in how AI is portrayed in film and on television. Brennan (2016:1) speculates that “[i]dentification depends on viewers’ ability to understand characters through the lens of their own experience. As such, it relies on recognisable social categories like gender, age, nationality, class and so on. […] Writers must construct the characters of technological protagonists, or antagonists, using recognisable human traits”. Brennan (206:1) goes on to argue that this may unfortunately “limit the ways that AI and robotics are represented and imagined”. Interestingly, the journalist of a Daily Maverick article published on 10 November 2019 speculated that we are inclined to depict robots in human form “perhaps because of our elevated view of ourselves.”

6.4 Morality/ethics, Pandora’s Box, and accountability: AI as uncontrollable and unregulated

Raquel Magalhães (2019:1), editorial manager of Understanding with Unbabel, argues that what is problematic about humanoid representations of AI is that they detract from real issues, particularly from those that pertain to ethical considerations around data privacy concerns (owing to facial recognition algorithms), the use of biased algorithms in decision making, ‘killer robots’, and the absence of clear policies that help control and regulate the development of AI. However, there does appear to be some light at the end of the tunnel; a recent study by Ouchchy, Coin and Dubljević (2020:1) has found that although the media’s coverage of the ethics of AI is somewhat superficial, it does nevertheless have “a realistic and practical focus”, and our dataset confirmed this finding.

As already noted, a total of 21 articles in the dataset (28.76%) employed the morality/ethics frame, and within this frame, journalists questioned the ethics of fake news (‘Misinformation woes could multiply with “deepfake” videos’, The Citizen, 28 January 2018) data breaches (‘#FaceApp sparks data privacy concerns’, The Citizen, 17 July 2019) video surveillance (‘CCTV networks are ‘driving an AI-powered apartheid SA’, The Citizen, 9 December 2019), and biased algorithms (‘Developing countries need to wake up to the risks of new technologies’, Mail & Guardian, 8 January 2018). All these threats constitute reasonable concerns in the area of AI (Stahl, Timmermans and Mittelstadt, 2016; O’Carroll and Driscoll, 2018), yet they are sometimes overlooked in favour of what Bartz-Beielstein (2019:1) refers to as “the well-known ones such as the weaponisation of AI or the loss of employment opportunities”. In a study in which, amongst other things, she explores the nature of media coverage in AI, Obozintsev (2018) reports that the frame of morality/ethics was rarely employed in her dataset. It is possible that this frame was evoked more often in our dataset because a number of writers were also academics, computer scientists, and technology experts; we speculate that writers in these fields may be particularly interested in considering the political, socio-cultural, economic, and ethical implications of AI in (South) Africa.

As noted in the findings section, 21.91% of all articles evoked the frame of accountability. In doing so, these articles reflected (1) fears about how AI is controlling human beings in terms of their movements/online speech or (2) an emphasis on the need for human beings to control and/or regulate this technology in some way. An example of fears about AI controlling human beings is evident in the title of an article published in The Citizen on 5 August 2019, ‘Whatsapp could soon start censoring what you are saying’, while an example of a call for human beings to control and/or regulate AI is reflected in an 18 July 2019 Daily Maverick article in which the journalist claimed that “At least four rights are threatened by the unregulated growth of AI: freedom of expression, privacy, equality and political participation.” Fears about AI controlling human beings or about AI being uncontrollable was particularly evident in the Pandora’s Box frame which was constructed in three articles (4.10% of the dataset). In ‘Prepare for the time of the robots’ (Mail & Guardian, 16 February 2018), for example, the journalist argued that AI-driven technology could unleash a Pandora’s Box and that students in Africa have to be properly trained “so that they gain the insight that will be needed to defend people from forces that may seek to turn individuals into disposable parts”.

What is interesting about these fears is that they mirror one of the the findings of Fast and Horvitz (2017:966) that “[t]he fear of loss of control […] has become far more common in recent years” when it comes to public opinion of AI. Readers will no doubt feel unnerved when they encounter statements such as “[the future] looks to be dominated by machines” (Mail & Guardian, 16 February 2018). Such predictions conjure up AI as being arcane and as a technology understood by only a few; they may be compelled to conclude that AI is beyond their control (cf. Nelkin, 1995:162).

On a positive note, out of the three articles that evoked Pandora’s Box, only one offered no solutions as to how we should control and regulate AI. The remaining articles referred to putting policies in place that will protect users in (South) Africa from the dangers of AI such as those that pertain to privacy issues and autonomous weapons as well as to ensuring that human beings take responsibility for the performance of AI systems. To provide a specific example, in a Daily Maverick article (29 January 2019 ), the writer called for technology and data to be democratised: We […] need to incorporate into the devices of the 4IR a character of the world as we desire it and not make these devices reflect biases, prejudices and unequal economic spaces as they currently exist.” By offering up solutions such as these, journalists challenged the notion that “technology is developed in a vacuum, with the suggestion being that the human user is an afterthought (Jones, 2015:36). Holguín (2018:17) points out that the importance of taking responsibility for AI is sometimes overlooked, “but it seems crucial for understanding the development of technology as depending on human agency. Thus, the improvements and goals of these intelligent systems are not self-driven by the force of technology, but by the decisions of the human actors behind their creation”.

It is encouraging that some of the articles in our dataset (i) identified AI’s potential threats as they relate to morality and ethics and (ii) within the frame of accountability, considered policies and principles that could help regulate these threats in (South) Africa. In ‘Why we need an AI-resilient society’, Bartz-Beielstein (2019:1) refers to strategy (i) as “awareness” and to strategy (ii) as “agreements”. The former strategy refers to helping society recognise the dangers that AI may pose and can be generated “by publishing papers and giving public talks” (Bartz-Beielstein, 2019: 6), for example. Agreements is a strategy that calls for society to generate principles and laws that regulate different aspects of AI.

6.5 Constructing dualistic frames

It is not surprising that just over half of the articles under investigation in this study reflected both pro- and anti-technology discourse since it is an inherent paradox in many news articles about technology including AI (Jones, 2015: 42; Brennan, Howard and Nielsen, 2018; Chuan et al., 2019). In the dataset, the polarised discourse around AI was typically framed in terms of both competition and social progress. This dualistic frame is apparent in a Mail & Guardian article which appeared on 16 March 2020 in which a World Economic Forum claim – “automation will displace 75-million jobs worldwide by 2022” – was juxtaposed with the statement that “AI is reducing the time it takes to generate reports, analyse risks and rewards, make decisions and monitor financial health.” The question is, Why simultaneously frame AI in terms of competition and social progress? Some scholars are of the view that AI may be constructed in dualistic terms to offer up a “digital opiate for the masses” (Floridi, 2016:1), as it were. Philosopher and ethics scholar Luciano Floridi (2019:1) puts it bluntly when he observes that “Fear always sells well, like vampire or zombie movies”: in other words, it is appealing for the mass media to frame AI around dystopian, dualistic narratives (Holguín 2018:5) because this increases readership and ratings (cf. Obozintsev, 2018:1). This view is shared by Dorothy Nelkin who, in a cynically entitled article ‘Selling science’, argues that “too often science in the press is more a subject for consumption than for public scrutiny, more a source of entertainment than for information” (Nelkin, 1995:162). This entertainment factor was apparent in the more sensationalist or alarmist titles in the dataset such as ‘“Call me baby’: Talking sex dolls fill a void in China’ (SowetanLIVE, 4 February 2018), ‘Prepare for the time of the robots’ (Mail & Guardian, 16 February 2018), and ‘Ballerina bots of the Amazon job-pocalypse’ (Mail & Guardian, 1 March 2019). Of course, articles about AI may also be alarmist and/or sensationalist because the media are under pressure to succeed within what Davenport and Beck (2001:2) refer to as the “attention economy” (cf. Cave et al., 2018:17) in which clicks and views are highly sought after.

Of interest is that research on dualistic or competing frames indicates that individuals are averse to such frames and therefore attempt to resist them (Sniderman and Theriault, 2004). Obozintsev (2018:15) observes that “exposure to two competing frames can render one frame ineffective, or even counter-effective”, particularly if the frame is not aligned with their belief systems.

6.6 Framing uncertainty through dualistic frames

We argue that making use of a dualistic frame such as one in which AI is couched in terms of both competition and social progress is not necessarily a reflection of bad journalism (cf. Kampourakis, 2019). Indeed, it is not surprising that the media employ competing frames given that AI is an emerging technology characterised by uncertainty and conflict (cf. Hornmoen, 2009:1; Kampourakis and McCain, 2020:152). Notwithstanding the fact that the relationship between science and journalism is complex, Holguín (2018:5) contends that “[when] the scientific community is not able to agree on the possible risks or impact of a new scientific or technological breakthrough, this subject may become salient in newspapers”. Here we propose that the media may highlight uncertainy around AI and its risks or impact by framing this technology in terms of dualistic frames. Hornmoen (2009:16) points out that “[t]he alternation between different perspectives, with an apparently contradictory identification in the journalist’s report, contributes above all to construct an image of an emergent scientific field”. We further suggest that journalists may attempt to resolve the competing frames of competition and social progress in specific ways. In an article published in The Citizen on 19 June 2019, the journalist evoked both the frame of competition to depict AI as destroying jobs and the frame of social progress to portray this technology as creating jobs. The journalist attempted to resolve this dualistic frame by mitigating it: he quoted the vice-president of a software company as claiming that while AI may result in some jobs becoming redundant, AI will also generate labour switching in the sense that it will create “new categories of work.” Quoting Deloitte, he qualified this by reporting that AI will replace menial tasks/manual labour, thus “augmenting the workforce and enabling human work to be reframed in terms of problem solving and the ability to create new knowledge.” What is interesting about this article (and many others in the dataset) is that it did not question the veracity of the claim made in the field of AI that manual labour and menial tasks will be replaced by automated technology. In failing to provide readers with this particular context, we argue that the articles may compel readers to adopt an anti-AI view (cf. Jones, 2015:41). A typical claim about AI and menial tasks is epitomised in “Menial […] tasks that might once have needed the human touch are slowly but surely being replaced with the accuracy of computers” (SowetanLIVE, 31 July 2018). Although it is undeniable that automation is replacing and will continue to replace certain jobs, in the short- and medium-term at least, “[manual] work is likely to remain surprisingly resistant to automation” (Heath, 2014:1, in converation with Michigan Institute of Technology economist Erik Brynjolfsson). This is due to a phenomenon known as Moravec’s Paradox according to which AI researchers have observed that machines find it difficult to perform tasks that humans find easy, and vice versa. One article published in the Daily Maverick (12 November 2018) referenced this paradox when he stated that “Generally, jobs that require gross motor skills are easier to automate than those that require fine motor skills. The jobs that will remain will be those that require a human touch”.

6.7 Employing the middle way frame

In addition to mitigating claims, the journalists in our dataset appeared to resolve the ‘AI as competition’ and ‘AI as social progress’ paradox by adopting a middle way frame. Typically, the journalists recommended a compromise position in which human beings and AI should work together in order to complete a variety of tasks. In an article published in The Citizen on 22 January 2020, for example, the journalist quoted a clinical professor of imaging sciences as suggesting that “the combined forces of human and machine would be better than either alone” in the context of breast cancer detection.

Out of the 40 articles in the dataset that evoked the frames of competition and social progress, 26 employed the middle way frame and 14 did not. We argue that the presence or absence of the middle way frame in articles that reflect the competing frames may influence how readers perceive AI – whether they regard it as threatening or not. In the 14 articles that did not evoke the middle way frame, the coverage of AI was overwhelmingly alarmist in the sense that this technology was framed as replacing or being about to replace human beings. No room was made for a future in which human beings would be able to exercise control over AI-driven technology. A typical example is reflected in an article in The Citizen (4 October 2019) in which the journalist evoked the frame of nature and quoted Elon Musk as claiming that “computers actually are already much smarter than people on so many dimensions.” We noted that some journalists took this claim a step further and employed the frame of artifice to argue that the lines between AI and human beings will blur to such an extent that the former will entirely replace the latter (cf. Jones, 2015:37). In ‘Prepare for the time of the robots’ (Mail & Guardian, 16 February 2018), the journalist used the frame of artifice to claim that human beings will be “cannabilised” by machines that will “outperform [them] in nearly every job function” in the future. It appears that articles in which AI is portrayed as matching or surpassing human intelligence, but in which a middle way frame is used, may be less alarming to readers because the human element is not dismissed. In a SowetanLIVE article of 2 January 2020, a researcher was quoted as claiming that “[a] computer programme can identify breast cancer from routine scans with greater accuracy than human experts.” However, the journalist tempered this claim when he used a middle way frame to quote the same researcher as observing that “[there’s] the opportunity for this technology to support the existing excellent service of the (human) reviewers.”

6.8 Using reported speech and multiple voices

Whether or not the middle way frame is employed, we also propose that journalists may attempt to resolve uncertainties around AI through the use of quotations/reported speech (Cotter, 2010:174) and multiple perspectives (Hornmoen, 2009:78): “Due to the technical complexity of the latest developments [in] the field and the uncertainty of its predictions around the impact, it seems probable that journalists will count on external sources that to a greater or lesser extent allow them to report on the topic and ‘validate’ their claims and arguments” (Holguín, 2018:7). Examples of the use of reported speech are evident in the section just before this one. Studying why and how journalists employ reported speech is a research paper on its own, but Calsamiglia and Ferrero (2003:44) observe that journalists may use reported speech “as a means of orientating their position on the topic of reference” and absolving themselves from “their responsibility to inform objectivity”. Another device we identified was the use of multiple voices through reference to formal reports, tests, and academic studies. We see this device operating in ‘Is your job safe from automation?’ (SowetanLIVE, 20 March 2018) in which the journalist stated that “According to a new Accenture report, one in three jobs in South Africa (5.7 million jobs) is currently at risk of total automation.” Use of reported speech and reference to formal reports, tests, and studies allow journalists to establish multiple perspectives which “play a major role in constructing popular understanding of the science in question” (Dunwoody, 1999:69; cf. Hornmoen, 2009:4), particularly if that science is marked by controversy and/or uncertainty. As far as the latter is concerned, Holguín (2018:7) suggests that an over-reliance on ‘experts’ means that journalists avoid providing critical judgements about the risks and impact of AI. In a 4 June 2019 Daily Maverick article, for instance, the journalist claimed that “Soon AI will drive our cars, stock our warehouses and take care of our loved ones. It holds much promise, and industry players say it is on the brink of explosion.” To validate the promise that AI holds, the journalist then quoted a number of experts and referred to “the AI Maturity Report”, which reports that “local organisations invested around R23.5-billion in AI over the last decade.” Other than briefly acknowledging that AI must be driven by human beings, the journalist did not critically interrogate the possible risks of AI.

Looking more closely at our dataset, what is problematic is that the use of multiple voices did not necessarily mean that an article was “multiperspectival” (Hornmoen, 2009:79): “closer inspection may reveal that the text is primarily advancing ‘ways of seeing’ and the rhetoric of a particular group of researchers” (Hornmoen, 2009:79). When it came to articles in our dataset that reflected competing frames, we had to determine which frames were made more salient to promote a particular view of AI (cf. Hornmoen, 2009:81). Consider, for example, ‘Will your financial advisor be replaced by a machine?’ published in The Citizen on 10 March 2018. In this article, AI was framed as a paradox in the sense that it was described in terms of competition (i.e., as leading to loss of jobs for financial advisors) and in terms of social progress (i.e., as helping financial advisors become more creative). The question in the title was repeated in the article: “will [financial advisors] become redundant altogether?.” Through reference to multiple voices (in the form of quotations from financial experts), the journalist constructed a middle way frame when he argued that AI will not replace financial advisors and that machines and human beings will work together to provide clients with financial advice. Returning to Calsamiglia and Ferrero’s (2003) study of reported speech, it appears that the use of reported speech in this case allowed the journalist to orientate his position on the topic of machines replacing human beings.

7. Conclusions

Like other studies on media portrayals of AI, our study signals that coverage in widely circulated South African newspapers tended to veer between utopian and dystopian views of this technology, although most articles reflected a more positive view since they evoked the frame of social progress more frequently than they evoked the frame of competition. In other words, AI was portrayed as friend more frequently than it was portrayed as foe. A pro-AI stance was particularly evident in the areas of ‘AI-human interaction’, ‘Business, finance, and the economy’, ‘Education’, the ‘Environment’, and ‘Healthcare and medicine’. Those articles that had an anti-technology stance, and that focused on threats/competition, were dominated by moral/ethical considerations around ‘Big Brother’, ‘Defence weapons’, ‘Human control over AI’, the ‘News industry’, and ‘South Africa’s preparedness for an AI-driven world’.

We argue that the employment of both the frames of social progress and competition may enable journalists to construct AI as an emerging and uncertain technology. We propose that future research should explore how uncertainty/conflict generated by journalists about AI is processed by readers, since the effect of this uncertainty/conflict is not known: “identifying and testing uncertainty-inducing message features is crucial as uncertainty is a complex cognition that can trigger or reduce both positive states […] and negative states” (Jensen and Hurley, 2012:690). As already mentioned, it does appear that a reader’s exposure to conflicting frames may cause a frame to be rendered ineffective or even counter-effective (Obozintsev, 2018:15).

In most articles in which AI was framed in terms of both pro- and anti-technology ideologies, journalists also made use of the middle way frame, which we argue allowed them to establish a compromise position between AI as friend and foe.

Of interest is that many articles made use of anthropomorphic tropes when discussing the nature of AI and these tropes overwhelmingly and unrealistically framed AI as either matching or surpassing human intelligence. Yet, several articles also subtly judged the intelligence of machines by questioning whether they had the capacity to think and feel. Others touched upon human agency in the development of AI in (South) Africa or considered human agency in more detail, discussing how AI’s growth and implementation should be governed and regulated for the sake of transparency and accountability. The call for human agency is critical as it steers society in the direction of an AI paradigm that draws on Ubuntu and that constructs AI as a technology that orbits around humanity, social justice, and community engagement (Nayebare, 2019:50-51). The public in South Africa and the rest of Africa constitute underrepresented voices in the field of AI (cf. Cisse, 2018), and the media have an important role to play in making sure that they are informed about AI and play a role in its implications for their lives and futures.

Footnotes

1 We acknowledge that since we examined articles published by only four news outlets, our results may not be representative of frames employed by other outlets.

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