The Twitter murder that never happened

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It was a horrific crime that came to light in a series of impassioned tweets that gripped and appalled a nation. But it was all made up.

The story of a brutal rape and murder has provoked an outpouring of emotion from South African social media users, and was picked up by the press. It turned out to be completely fabricated, but has sparked a very real debate about rape in the country.

The clue - that many seem to have missed - was in the first tweet. "Story time..." it read.

It was posted on Sunday, and followed up over the next few hours with 70 numbered tweets, each reporting the next step in the grim tale. The tweets appeared to come from a little known Twitter user called @JustKuthi. She described her desperate search for her "friend" Kamo, who was found raped and injured at the end of the tale, before dying in hospital.

Image source, @JustKuthi

Not everybody saw the initial tweet, and other aspects of the story combined to make it appear real. Kamo has a Twitter profile, for example, that the author linked to at the end of the story.

Image source, @JustKuthi

Many on the network were so moved by the story which they took to be real, that they began tweeting messages of support and condolence. The author played along, retweeting the messages without clarifying that the story was made up. "I want to hug you so hard. I will pray for you. Please pull through," one of the posts read.

Government representatives at South Africa's Department of Women tweeted: "Please be counted in and help us fight violence against Women and Children. The story of #Kamo is heartbreaking."

"Kamo" has appeared almost 60,000 times on Twitter since Sunday, and a hashtag #RIPKamo has been used a further 7,000 times.

On Monday morning, South Africa's Star newspaper printed an account of the story as fact. "Tears for young Kamo as her young life is senselessly and brutally cut short," read the headline, now itself the subject of ridicule on Twitter. Sceptical social media users took issue with the paper's article, asking if they had verified the death, or been in touch with the author.

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Later in the day the paper admitted that it - along with so many others - had been fooled. Its editor Kevin Ritchie told rival news organisation News24 that the the fake story highlighted important issues about "Journalism 101". He admitted that the story had not been checked with police before it ran. "We are red-faced and not happy with this at all," he said. "We are doing whatever we can to learn from this because this is not the journalism we pride ourselves on practicing.. It is a huge lesson for us and the industry."

In a seeming act of penance, the Star journalist who wrote the original piece started digging and posted a fresh article later on Monday. Walking readers through the investigation, she seemed to have got closer to the truth. @JustKuthi appears to be an 18-year-old woman from a town in northern South Africa, the paper reports. Explaining the inspiration for her tweets, the teenager told the Star: "It was just a story I read on the internet and it made me feel like I didn't want to live in South Africa anymore, so I made up my own story to show people how bad it is to live in South Africa... So many people responded, I just left it. I apologise for misleading everyone,"

She also said that a real friend of hers - also called Kamo - had died very recently, and that the Twitter account she referenced in the story actually belonged to her. But the Star cannot trace the account to a real person.

"There are many Kamos out there"

Regardless, the story has now spun out into a real world debate. "If the tale is indeed made up, why did so many people unquestioningly believe it could really happen?" asked a writer at one South African news site. And the Department for Women stepped back into the fray on Twitter.

"Violence against women and children is real. Khuthi's story may be fake, but in reality there are many Kamos out there."

Image source, @Boity
Image source, @KopanoMashishi

Sexual violence is a major issue in South Africa. According to government statistics there were more than 50,000 reported sexual offences in the year 2014 - 2015. While that reflects a small drop in the official numbers, campaigners fear the real number is far higher.

Blog by Sam Judah

Image source, Facebook/Brahim Zaibat

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