The Truth about “Fake News”

The Think!Fest debate about “Fake News” invoked a term that’s become an almost laughable hashtag, thanks to Donald Trump’s prolific tweets accusing his media critics of brazen lies and distortions. But closer to home, this discussion occurred against the backdrop of the South African National Editors’ application to interdict the Gupta-associated Black First Land First group who have recently intimated and threatened journalists. The BLF accuse prominent journalists of protecting “White Monopoly Capital” through their production of “fake news”. One of the journalists on the group’s blacklist is Adriaan Basson, editor of News24, who was the panel’s first speaker.

Basson thinks we should stop talking about “fake news”. He doesn’t find the term useful, as there are several types of mis- and disinformation. There’s a difference, for instance, between a satirical article and a completely fabricated “clickbait” story, or between a news item in which the content is mainly accurate, but the context is manipulated.

Basson placed the spread of disinformation in the context of the nefarious use of twitter bots and the war on journalism, both locally and abroad. He also touched on the power of images and memes specifically in smearing critics and disseminating untruths.

The next panellist was Verashni Pillay, former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian and Huffington Post South Africa who was recently caught up in the publication of a fake blog on Huff Post. Pillay foregrounded the difficulty of policing social media organisations and digital media.

She spoke about how producers are also culpable for the erosion of public trust in journalists. Simultaneously, structural constraints prevent journalists from doing their work thoroughly and ethically, since spare financial rewards in digital journalism means media workers are alway running after clicks. As media companies reduce resources and increase targets, there’s frantic overreporting, but little rigorous journalism.

Addressing the distribution of “White Monopoly Capital” propaganda on social media, allegedly the work of UK Public Relations firm Bell Pottinger on Zuma’s behalf, Pillay argued that this did not happen in a vaccum. The “Zupta”/ BLF co-option of anger about economic inequality between black and white South Africans wouldn’t be possible if there wasn’t an element of truth. We continue to live in a grossly unequal society, Pillay emphasised, which is evident in our largely untransformed newsrooms.

As an example of one possible solution, Thandi Smith, Head of the Policy Unit at Media Monitoring Africa, demonstrated a potentially useful new tool, “Know Fake News”, a Google Chrome extension being developed by MMA to track fake news websites.

Kayla Roux, Digital Media lecturer at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, offered equally practical tips to improve our critical media literacy as audiences. She encouraged us to break out of the “filter bubble” which ensures Facebook only shows us content which matches our interests and worldview. Roux also suggested double-checking the sources of news stories, reverse-searching images that seem suspect and becoming skilled in data journalism, so that we can understand and use publicly-available statistics.

The panel’s final speaker, advocate and writer Mark Oppenheimer, proposed that “fake news” was part of a relativist, “post-truth” zeitgeist which results in the prevalence of the Trump administration’s “alternative facts”. He argued that the “White Monopoly Capital” narrative is “playing on discontent”.  Oppenheimer implored us to “care about empiricism” in order to resist propaganda.

In the discussion that followed, Basson and Pillay objected to what they saw as Oppenheimer’s downplaying of the real anger felt by black South Africans about economic inequality.

Basson suggested that in order to hinder the spread of untruths, we should make use of South Africa’s robust regulatory organisations, such as the BCCSA and the Press Ombudsman, when faced with distortions in mainstream media outlets such as the Gupta-owned ANN7 channel.

Roux and Smith were especially optimistic about the ability of an active citizenry to keep media sources accountable. Roux suggested that people want “real news”. Basson agreed, quoting Joe Thloloe, director of the SA Press Council: “If it’s fake, it’s not news”.

By Andrea Thorpe

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