Think!Fest: Debating fake news

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Photo: Nelly Zulu

From Donald Trump’s accusations to the Gupta saga in South Africa, “fake news” has become apparent today, creating distrust between the media and its consumers. A panel of media experts including Adriaan Basson, Mark Oppenheimer, Kayla Roux, Verashni Pillay and Thandi Smith sat down to debate this contentious topic on Tuesday 4 July at the Monument’s Ntsikana Room as part of the Think!fest Programme.

“There’s no such thing as fake news.” Kicking off the debate with that proclamation, Basson – the editor of News24 – explained that if news is fake, it is not news – and that there are many different types of misinformation. He added that there are publications and special interest groups who create and spread fake news as a means of gaining revenue or pushing their own agendas.

Basson discussed a number of examples of fake news circulating online, including a Gupta-centric story titled “The dogs of war”. One prominent example that drew titters from the crowd was drawn from a fraudulent news site with the headline: “Zimbabwe sends female footballers to Brazil to be impregnated by soccer legend to upgrade talent”. Basson cautioned the media, saying that if such stories are to be published, it could lead to serious damage claims.

The publication of propaganda and Photoshopped pictures with the intent to attack public figures also plays a big part in spreading fake news. Twitter-bots are created to spread fake news further so that people find it difficult to distinguish between real truths and untruths as social media is flooded with disinformation. Basson described this as a scary thing for reliable journalism because it pushes the white capitalist narrative, something that South Africa does not need.

“With the digital revolution, anyone with a smart phone or access to technology can disseminate information,” he said.

On how to solve the problem, Basson suggested that citizens, not only journalists, need to be involved. He also mentioned making use of fact-checking sites such as First Draft News that monitor the seven types of news misinformation, as well as making use of exisiting regulatory bodies to keep the media accountable.

Pillay, the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian and The Huffington Post South Africa, said that journalists have been slow in terms of tracking false information on social media. She spoke of the effects of the digital age, saying that we are taking in so much digital information that our minds try to find shortcuts.

Public trust in the media, argues Pillay, has been lost. From misleading, provocative headlines aimed at garnering clicks to media organisations rushing to meet deadlines has led to a loss of quality in journalism.

“You find that so many of our problems could be solved if we go back to the old ways of doing journalism,” she says.

Smith, head of the policy unit at Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), presented to the audience a Chrome extension (not yet publicly available) that MMA has created to distinguish credible news from ‘dodgy’ news.

Roux, a digital media lecturer at Rhode University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies, explained that her students determine if a news article is fake by examining the source. Additionally, Roux shared a few tips on how to spot fake news and verify information, such as breaking away from your social media ‘echo chamber’ and consulting alternate sources instead of relying only on your instincts.

“The first thing I always tell my students is to break away from their filter bubble,” she said.

The last panelist, Oppenheimer – a practicing Advocate and member of the Johannesburg Bar – touched on propaganda and the reasons for its dissemintation, and questioned whether it was a view that reflected the attitude of the majority or of a loud, powerful minority.

The debate was closed with a question and answer session, with the audience expressing concern about the digital age and its effect on the media.

By Hlumela Dyantyi and Nelly Zulu

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