The Coca-Cola kingdom

Coca Cola has recently been criticized by political activists for its ongoing support of Swaziland's King Mswati III. The king has come under international and domestic scrutiny for his lavish lifestyle in a country cited as one of the poorest in the world. While the company states that the King doesn't receive any direct benefit from the company's operations, activists still say that its presence constitutes a vote of confidence for the regime.  The company has flown the Mswati out to its headquarters in Atlanta, and has taken out ads in Swazi newspapers celebrating the monarch's birthday. 

According to activists cited by the Guardian, Coca-Cola alone contributes to nearly 40 percentof Swaziland's GDP. Though a real figure is undoubtedly difficult to procure, (especially since Coke isn't releasing any information), some studies have found that the number is a bit further from the truth.

Nearly half of Swaziland's exports are based on sugar and drink concentrates, the vast majority of which belongs to Coca-Cola. It's membership in several common markets, including the South Africa Customs Union (SACU) which includes South Africa and Botswana, has allowed it to ship hundreds of millions of dollars worth of product per year. As a result, Swaziland is the lead exporter of Coca-Cola products in Eastern and Southern Africa.

In a USAID Report from April 2008, researchers estimated that 35 percent of Swaziland's foreign exchange earnings came from Coca Cola's operations within the country. Foreign Exchange earnings are the proceeds from the exports of goods, and returns on investments in convertible currencies.  From the report:

In 1987, Coca-Cola made one of the biggest capital investments in Swaziland to-date by establishing a plant dedicated to the production of concentrates used in Coca-Cola beverage products. Coca-Cola Swaziland, also known, as "CONCO" is the largest supplier of Coca Cola concentrates in Africa, with production plants also located in Egypt and Nigeria. Having recently celebrated 20 successful years of operations in the Kingdom, CONCO is by far the largest foreign exchange earner for the Kingdom, contributing to 35 percent of GDP21.

It's a bit more difficult trying to figure out what portion of GDP Coca-Cola is actually responsible for. The World Bank estimated that exports contributed to 58 percent of Swaziland's GDP in 2010, which in dollar terms would be approximately $2.1 billion.  Assuming that 38 percent of exports were still drink concentrate as the USAID stated, Coca Cola would still be responsible for nearly 22 percent of Swaziland's GDP, just by selling bottles of Coke to Eastern and Southern Africa. This of course doesn't include the numbers from Coke purchasing Swazi sugar, labor, marketing and everything else that goes into making the nectar of college students everywhere.  It's certainly a bigger footprint than the 18 percent the Swaziland Sugar Association estimates, but a lot less than the 40 percent number going around in the media.  It's key to note that this number is not the amount that they pay in taxes to the Swazi authorities, as the number is being portrayed. 

While it doesn't help that statistics in Swaziland aren't exactly easy to come by, having one company control such a large portion of a country's total output in the 21st century is still striking.



Fake Wendi Deng account casts doubt on Twitter verification

Ever since Twitter developed a system in 2009 for authenticating celebrity accounts, following a lawsuit by then-St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa over the unauthorized use of his name, the microblogging site's blue-and-white "Verified Badge" has become an authoritative imprimatur -- the surest way to tell whether an account is genuine or fake.

But the system is under greater scrutiny today after the administrator of an account allegedly belonging to Wendi Deng Murdoch, which briefly received the Verified Badge after launching on Sunday, admitted that she was not, in fact, the wife of News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch, who had joined Twitter right before the New Year with his own verified account. Before the revelation, news outlets had dissected Rupert and Wendi's splashy appearance on the social networking site tweet by tweet (Rupert praised Rick Santorum and Fox films, while Wendi advised her beloved Rupert on Twitter etiquette, flirted with the likes of Ricky Gervais, and overused exclamation points and smiley faces). The Guardian even quoted an anonymous News Corp. spokesman as confirming the authenticity of Wendi's account (the company has since walked back the claim).

On Tuesday, fake Wendi Deng marveled at how easy it was to fool people. "I was as surprised -- and even a little alarmed -- when I saw the Verified tick appear on the profile," the administrator reflected, adding that Twitter hadn't been in touch prior to issuing the badge and that the site "should be checking out its Verified status more carefully." The account's bio now reads, "Verifiably not @rupertmurdoch's wife. Unless you're Twitter. Or News International. SPOOF ACCOUNT." The Guardian is now reporting that a British man living in London is behind the hoax.

Twitter isn't saying much about the mishap, telling The Atlantic Wire, "We don't comment on our verification process but can confirm that the @wendi_deng account was mistakenly verified for a short period of time." In fact, Twitter has revealed little about how its verification process works over the years, informing the Wall Street Journal in March 2011 that "we continue to very selectively verify accounts most at risk for impersonation on a one-off basis and highly irregular basis" but refusing to elaborate (the paper noted that some celebrities have been verified after reaching a certain number of followers, while others have had their managers contact Twitter directly to verify their accounts). Twitter's Verified Accounts page explains that the company is no longer accepting public requests for verification.

The Deng debacle has people questioning Twitter's security and ability to expose impersonators. TechCrunch observes that while Twitter often verifies celebrities with a web presence by making sure a star's website links to his or her Twitter account, the company, in the case of Wendi Deng's account, appears to have "trusted the numerous media reports claiming the account's legitimacy instead." And those media reports, in turn, only quickened when Twitter verified the account. A vicious cycle, with one howling British man in the middle of it all.