Tag Archives: media ethics

What is ‘fake news’?

What is ‘fake news’? And how does it affect us?                                    Fake news 1

Have you noticed how this ‘catch-all’ confusing media term is being used every day? Donald Trump uses it to describe any news he doesn’t like, doesn’t agree with, or that doesn’t come from his own tweets. And although we associate the term with Trump, stories involving ‘fake news’ have been around for a while. But what does it mean in our hi-tech social media world and how does it affect our own interpretation of news and how we respond to it?

Is it propaganda, deception, misrepresentation or just plain you-know-what?

All of the above. One definition of fake news, or hoax news, is “false information or propaganda published under the guise of being authentic news. Fake news websites and channels push their fake news content in an attempt to mislead consumers of the content and spread misinformation via social networks and word-of-mouth” (www.webopedia.com/TERM/F/fakenews.html).

Wikipedia defines it as news which is “completely made up and designed to deceive readers to maximize traffic and profit. News satire uses exaggeration and introduces non-factual elements, but is intended to amuse or make a point, not deceive. Propaganda can also be fake news”   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fake_news .

In The Guardian, Elle Hunt explores ‘fake news’:  “Until recently, there was news and “not news” (referring to human interest stories or features). Now there is ‘fake news’, said to be behind the election of Donald Trump as US president. The US election result was influenced by a widespread belief in fake news among Trump supporters. 73% of Trump voters thought the billionaire financier George Soros paid protesters to disrupt the Republican candidate’s rallies – a fake news report later repeated by the president-elect himself.”

Other fake news includes a report that Democratic senators wanted to impose sharia law in Florida, and a false report that Trump supporters chanting “we hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back” at a rally was reported as true on election night.

Fake news in SA                         

Fake news 4According to Verlie Oosthuizen, a partner at Shepstone and Wylie’s social media law department, “Fake news – which previously targeted celebrities – has shifted to politics; Donald Trump’s election shows the impact of this growing trend on politics”.

Xolani Dube, from the Xubera Institute for Research and Development, believes what is now termed fake news has been around since the inception of power. “Pre-information age, fake news was called propaganda and preserved in print media and radio. It existed by other names before that. For anything to sustain itself it needs to rebrand, so it is appearing now as fake news, electioneering sabotage.”

Sabotage had allegedly been the aim of the work of an ANC team called the “War Room” in the run up to the local government elections. Allegations that its goal was to create posters depicting opposition political parties negatively, were contained in a court application by Sihle Bolani. The public relations strategist fingered Shaka Sisulu, Walter Sisulu’s grandson, as her recruiter, as did Thami Mthimkhulu, a Durban man who claimed – on Twitter – that he had been sent slanderous posters of EFF and DA leaders to share and “push” on social media.

The proliferation of fake news targeting political parties and politicians is “new-age propaganda” that is not likely to stop and political leaders have to brace themselves for the online onslaught. This is according to a social media lawyer and a researcher, who were responding to allegations that the ANC spent R50 million to spread fake news and pay social media “influencers” to discredit the political opposition. Many commentators agree that as the ANC succession debate heats up, South Africa could expect even more fake news. So be aware….

Should we be worried about fake news?

Social media expert, Arthur Goldstuck, believes fake news completely destroys public discourse and undermines democratic values: “Anyone who participates in this in order to advance their objectives should realise the long-term damage. It ultimately renders everything they put out untrustworthy.” He believes there should be consequences but “until someone is caught and prosecuted, it will go on”.

Hunt says, “These stories – compelling to click on, and with a “truthiness” quality to them – soar on the social web, where links are given the same weighting regardless of source, and particularly on Facebook where there is a potential audience of 1.8bn.”

Analysis by BuzzFeed found that fake news stories drew more shares and engagement during the final three months of the US election campaign than reports from, for example, the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN.    The power of this ‘fake news’ is clear.

So, how do you tell what is fake news?

Surely it’s easy to tell fake news from real news   Actually, no.   A recent study carried out by Stanford’s Graduate School of Education assessed more than 7,800 student responses on their ability to assess information sources. Researchers were “shocked” by students’ “stunning and dismaying consistency” to evaluate information at even as basic a level as distinguishing advertisements from articles (from The Guardian article by Elle Hunt).

Soon, Facebook will flag stories of questionable legitimacy with an alert that says “Disputed by 3rd party fact-checkers”. Melissa Zimdars, a professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, compiled this list of websites that either purposely publish false information or are otherwise entirely unreliable, broken down by category.

The German chancellor Angela Merkel, pressured Facebook to introduce a fact check button to try to deal with fake news. This is already effective in the US as well and whether Facebook is going to mobilise this across the globe remains to be seen.

“I don’t believe there is a political will in South Africa to put up the same kind of pressure,” said Oosthuizen.  “Trying to prosecute the creators of fake news sites would be extremely difficult. You’d end up chasing leads in different jurisdictions.”

And what can we do to stop its spread?

So we’ve deduced that fake news is intentionally created and can discredit stories and the people in them and lead us to believe that something is true when it’s not. So we need to be smarter at recognising and combating news that is fabricated.

“Share responsibly”, says Hunt, “you are an influencer within your own social network: put in the legwork, and only post or share stories you know to be true, from sources you know to be responsible. You can help shape the media you want, too. Withhold “hate-clicking” on stories you know are designed to make you angry”.

Pay for journalism and news that have real value.

Maharaj – the gatekeeper and spin doctor at the hospital gates

What do you think of Mac Maharaj’s handling of the Mandela crisis situation?
How does his PR style contribute to brand Mandela and the public’s perceptions?
Maharaj lashed out at the media for broadcasting unverified information about the state of Madiba’s health. A member of the Mandela family accused the media of being overly-intrusive, “vulture-like”, preying on the ailing old man. They speak as though this is an average suburban 94 year old man, needing privacy as he nears his end while his traumatized family start mourning and feuding. Many citizens also believe the media should “leave Mandela alone”. But is that possible – given the man’s global position as an iconic statesman and a symbol of freedom, democracy and human rights? And given that, for the past 3 decades. the government has been ‘selling’ Mandela to the world as the one true embodiment of a perfect South Africa, the Rainbow nation – he has become a brand! He left behind any notion of being a private individual when he chose to represent the ANC and the people in the struggle for freedom and democracy until his death. He is ours and the world’s.

Apart from the issues of media ethics and privacy vs public interest, we should also take a look at what the role of a spokesman is in terms of public relations and government relations. It is quite clear from this that in government communication – and this is government communication – relationships between politicians, media professionals and the public impact the quality of democracy. And this needs to be interrogated.
According to most Public and Government Relations theorists and practitioners, the task of government communication is not about “pleasing customers”, but informing tax-paying citizens. And in times of crisis PR people have to be particularly ready to inform the public to avoid any misconceptions, rumours and unverified information circulating.

In this unique case, being Mandela’s private spokesperson involves also being a government spokesperson because of the nature of the ANC/Mandela relationship. So why does Mac Maharaj “shield Madiba” by conducting press conferences at his own convenience, subtly distorting or hiding information or not disclosing the true facts of the situation? His task is to turn the speculation into facts by his visibility and ability to share information – good or bad – with the nation. However, because of the choice and tone of his disclosures and expositions he may be accused of exacerbating exclusion and division, instead of drawing citizens together at this pivotal point in our democracy. The question then becomes, is he being a good spokesman for Mandela and/or the ANC government?

Now, make no mistake, everybody loves Nelson Mandela and everything he stands for but they resent the way that those around him choose to change their stance on his relationship with the media to suit their own agendas. What was the idea behind propping him up for the cameras surrounded by the ANC cronies when the word was spreading globally that Mandela would be horrified by the state of the ANC today. That was their last chance for a photo opportunity to insinuate that he approved their actions, when in fact he was so ill, he would have sat with any group had it had access to him! Who did this caper please – citizens or ANC customers? I recall there was a major public outcry by concerned citizens.

What do you think of Maharaj’s handling of the Mandela situation????