Fake news is the “new” threat that sows public confusion and harm, but it is futile for legitimate media to feel like victims.
The very term “fake news” is a misnomer. If it is fake, it is not news. This point was made by veteran journalist Joe Thloloe, director of the SA Press Council, during a recent local gathering about the proliferation of so-called fake news.
Thloloe’s point was reinforced internationally at the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers congress in Durban last week.
Don’t call it news, call it disinformation, urges Claire Wardle of First Draft News, a US online platform that specialises in tools to debunk false information.
Disinformation is not new – political agents and saboteurs have always manipulated facts, and peddled lies and propaganda. Now, in the instant digital age, it is infecting the public space.
Traditionally, the mainstream media prescribed – often subjectively and controversially – to the public the news and angles that they considered to be pertinent. They have lost this gatekeeping power, thanks to social media. While this has democratised media, it has also opened up a space for abuse. By ironically accusing them of being peddlers of fake news, this is how the Donald Trumps and Guptas of the world have hit back at media that are not their lapdogs.
The flood of false information online has been cited as the number one problem in journalism in the US, according to Jane Elizabeth of the American Press Institute. Although fact checking and verification networks were being beefed up, the media’s efforts to counter misinformation are outplayed by eight to one.
Exposed on social media
The threat of personal danger comes into play when abuse extends beyond fake sites mimicking credible news accounts, to manipulative cyberbullying, often using #FakeTwitter. During a debate on the harassment of journalists, former City Press editor and current editor at large of Huffington Post SA, Ferial Haffajee, described the “dark heart of Twitter”, with fake news factories and automated false armies emerging in a bid to intimidate and destroy her credibility and that of other journalists exposing state capture.
The floodgates opened, with journalists from other countries giving chilling accounts of cyber harassment.
The point was raised that journalists use bulletproof vests for protection when covering war zones, yet they are left exposed on social media.
Sanef fightback campaign
The fightback has now begun by bodies such as the SA National Editors’ Forum and Media Monitoring Africa. Strategies include naming and shaming, public education, and putting pressure on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to tackle misinformation.
Critical introspection has also been necessary. Media bosses need to invest in training to equip newsrooms with the skills required to retain public trust. Credible media need to set the standard by separating fact from falsehood. Verification and fact-checking mechanisms need to be entrenched.
As social media is the platform where mistruths have proliferated, social-media teams need to be an integral part of the newsroom, not a sideshow run by staff with no journalism training.
Thloloe had some sage advice when it comes to fighting back. There may be layers of truth, but the closest the public will get to the truth is via journalism that is rooted in the SA Press Code, which enforces ethical journalism and which the public can use to hold the media to account.
This code separates real news from all the bullsh*t. Google the facts, by all means, but make sure you are directed to a genuine site.