Adriaan Basson

If it’s fake, it’s not news

2017-07-06 08:34
President Jacob Zuma.

President Jacob Zuma.

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Bra Joe Thloloe, director of the SA Press Council and legendary editor, recently made the following remark that stuck with me at a panel discussion about so-called fake news.

“If it’s fake, it’s not news,” Thloloe said and pleaded with the public and the media to stop using the phrase “fake news”.

The term has become a magical, all-encompassing phrase to describe a range of things: from patently false clickbait websites to legitimate news publications you don’t agree with (think Donald Trump and Mzwanele Manyi).

I participated in a fascinating discussion about the issue at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this week and was again persuaded that “fake news” should fall. The term simply doesn’t help us to grapple with the plethora of issues it tries to encapsulate.

The extremely helpful online resource First Draft News has distinguished between seven types of mis- and disinformation they believe are lumped together under the banner “fake news”. I believe there are more than seven categories, but it’s a useful starting point:

1. Satire or parody. “No intention to cause harm but has potential to fool.” Think of a Zapiro cartoon, meme or the satirical American “news” website The Onion. The aim of these forms of media is to entertain and comment.

2. Misleading content: “Misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual.” These publications or platforms don’t publish false news, but mislead their audience by portraying the facts in a skewed, biased manner. I would argue that the patently biased coverage of politics by the Gupta-owned ANN7, that clearly propagates President Jacob Zuma’s faction in the ANC, falls under this category.

3. Imposter content: “When genuine sources are impersonated.” This could be a comedian or publication that deceives its audience by pretending to be or speak on behalf of a real source. It’s not harmful if clearly identified and understood by the audience.

4. Fabricated content: “News content is 100% false, designed to deceive and do harm.” This category was classically defined as “fake news” before the water became muddied by Trump and other enemies of the truth. Several local websites like Mzansi Live or City Sun qualify under this category. They publish patently false stories, often referring to celebrities or politicians. Their content is distributed on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter by trusting readers and they make money by selling clicks to advertisers on Google.

5. False connection: “When headlines, visuals or captions don’t support the content.” This is a common complaint against legitimate sources of news, who are under increasing pressure to lure clicks by using sensational headlines.

6. False context: “When genuine content is shared with false contextual information.” Publications with strong ideological biases often publish stories that suit their agendas, confirm their prejudices and serve as an echo chamber. A local example is Maroela Media, a publication owned and operated by Afrikaner lobby group AfriForum which focuses mainly on (true) news articles about crimes committed against white victims, but largely fails to report on crime committed against black victims. The consequence is the existence of false perceptions that a genocide against white people is underway, particularly on farms.

7. Manipulated content: “When genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive.” Examples could include the selective use of quotations by politicians to suit a pre-determined narrative or the manipulation of photos to aggravate or falsely portray an event or incident.

Mis- or disinformation is of course nothing new. Apart from number four – fabricated news, which is intrinsically linked to the business model of digital media – the remainder of the “offences” are as old as the news. In another time, we called it “bad journalism”.

In South Africa we have regulatory protection against bad, misleading or false journalism. Readers and viewers can complain against news publications, including News24, to the Press Ombudsman (that falls under the office of the Press Council) or to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, in the case of television and radio reports.

The war against fabricated news is trickier. These websites are often opaque and registered in foreign territories with no or little transparency or respect for media freedom.

What are the risks of these websites? Three came to the fore in Grahamstown.

1. There is a real risk that these false or fabricated stories can ignite violence against the subjects of these pieces. In May, locals targeted foreign shop owners in KwaMashu, Durban after a false news article said that foreigners were abducting and killing children to sell their body parts.

2. They can be used to promote a political or business agenda and propagate hatred and violence against competitors or foes. In South Africa, a website called WMC Leaks was recently launched to counter the revelations in the #GuptaLeaks. The website, which has links to a former Gupta employee who works as an IT engineer in India, publishes false information about prominent South African journalists and attempts to link the #GuptaLeaks revelations to a massive anti-black conspiracy driven by white capital. The results of this have been threats levelled at journalists, including myself, by Black First Land First (BLF), a Gupta-supported lobby group, to protest at our private houses.

3. The digital business model is still largely dependent on traffic (clicks) from readers to sell advertising. The more clicks you get, the more you can charge for advertising space on your website or app. Every time you click on a fabricated news item, that website grows and can charge more for ads.

The war on fabricated news cannot be won by the media alone. We are dependent on you, our readers, to help us get it right and not be lured by clickbait and propaganda. It will be a sad day if the debate about economic redress or the lack thereof is hijacked by agents of disinformation in a campaign to protect business and political elites from prosecution.

Let’s claim back news, as Bra Joe pleaded, and do so through probing, fearless and fair reporting.

- Adriaan Basson is editor of News24. Follow him on Twitter.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

* Only comments that contribute to a constructive debate will be approved by moderators.

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