Between 11 and 13 August, the hashtag #KnowYourNationalLottery topped Twitter in South Africa. how? There was nothing in the news to suggest that this hashtag should be trending.

When we looked at the tweets, many, perhaps most, seemed to recycle very similar text, supporting the societal benefit of buying lottery tickets. These include, for example, that lottery money goes to good causes, that spaza shops get a commission on the sales they make, and that it’s a good way to spend 5 rand.

The tweets, while rarely completely identical to each other, seemed robotic.

Most of the tweets also included videos from the three comedians: Schalk Bezuidenhout, Celeste Ntuliand Shumba Khlope supporting the benefits of buying lottery tickets.

Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a paid advertising campaign, although we couldn’t find anything that clearly identified it as such. We sent questions to Ithuba, the National Lottery Commission (NLC), Twitter and three comedians.

Twitter, as is apparently their usual practice, didn’t bother to respond.

The NLC strongly denied being behind the campaign.

But Ithuba, the operator of South Africa’s national lottery, responded that it was indeed their advertising campaign.

This means that the most popular hashtag on Twitter was not the result of organic tweets, but rather a paid advertising campaign that was not clearly identified as such. We wanted to know how often this happens. For example, have any political hashtags made it to the top of South African Twitter through paid advertising campaigns? But we can’t tell you because Twitter didn’t respond to our questions.

This week, Twitter whistleblower Peter “Madge” Zatko made many damning accusations at Twitter, including, according to CNN, that “Twitter management lacks the resources to fully understand the true number of bots on the platform, and has had no motivation to do so.”

See also: The most fascinating claims made by a Twitter whistleblower

What are the fakes about corruption in the advertising campaign?

Of the comedians and influencers using the hashtag, only Bezuidenhout reveals it’s a paid campaign (with the hashtag “#ad”). But Bezuidenhout video contains an alarming message.

In the video, which has more than 33,000 views at the time of writing, the comedian says: “Now I see people playing on social media…” followed by, in a sarcastic dramatic voice, “Oh, lotto, they’re stealing everybody’s five rand! There’s someone from the lottery who takes five rand each and builds a mansion in Fourways, which is a nice place anyway.

Then he says in a normal voice: “This is not true. Your five rand won’t go to Fourways. But it happens … in four ways.”

What does Bezuidenhout mean when he says something is “not true”? To the casual observer, the ad gives the impression that news coverage of National Lottery corruption is “fake news”.

Source: iStock.

Over the past four years, GroundUp and Limpopo Mirror have exposed massive corruption at the National Lotteries Commission. We showed how money meant for nursing homes, schools and drug rehabilitation centers was instead used to buy luxury real estate for people inside and connected to the NLC.

The stories have stood the test of time. The Special Investigations Unit has frozen the assets of people involved in lottery corruption and some have been disciplined, resigned or suspended.

So it is unclear to us how Bezuidenhout, whose script was allegedly supplied to him by Ituba, can effectively claim that the lottery corruption news is fake.

Ithuba is the company that manages the lottery draws. This is an appointed position that was extended for another two years last month.

The National Lottery Commission (NLC) manages the operators and pays a portion of the lottery revenue to non-profit organizations. So far, GroundUp’s reporting has not focused on Ithuba, but on the NLC.

Michelle Van Trotzenburg, Ithuba’s head of marketing and corporate affairs, wrote GroundUp in an email saying she was responding on Bezuidenhout’s behalf. The full response can be read here.

She states:

“Ituba notes its concern over claims that funds may have been misused by individuals or entities involved in the National Lottery ecosystem. The announcements drew attention to a new educational campaign promoting the lottery through a partnership with several local influencers. Ithuba wishes to assure that the company has absolutely nothing to do with the above allegations.”

“… Ithuba has embarked on numerous advertising campaigns, often working with local celebrities, influencers and other dignitaries. These campaigns are not trying to create narratives relating to the internal operations of the NLC… We want to reassure stakeholders that our educational campaigns are only intended to help highlight the benefits of the National Lottery. We work closely with our employees and ensure that they are paid fairly for their time and contribution. Ithuba makes every effort to deliver accurate and informative messages through our media and social media campaigns.”

So what did Bezuidenhout call “false”?

Originally posted on GroundUp.

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