Behind the City Sun website: The rise of fake news sites in South Africa

2016-08-18 14:15
The City Sun website

The City Sun website

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Cape Town – South Africa has seen a sharp rise in the number of fake news websites in the last year, promoting stories ranging from humorous, sensational, and biased, to just plain propaganda.

Were these sites to be believed, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela would have been shot nine times, thousands of ballot papers marked with ANC votes would have been found during elections, and the DA would have cut free township Wi-Fi in Nelson Mandela Bay.

Even the ANC Women’s League was caught out into denying a www.eyenews.co.za article about its president, Bathabile Dlamini, lobbying to replace Jacob Zuma as ruling party head.

These stories are just a few which have gone viral, as shocked or outraged Facebook users are duped into sharing the links.

The question on many people’s lips is: what is the agenda? Most of the sites are teeming with adverts, so clickbait is certainly one answer.

One also sees elements of "educate, entertain and inform" shining through where content is marked as satire (sadly not always funny or clever).

But there is a deeper narrative, one that speaks to the country’s dark past, politics, and media freedom.

Described by many as spreading ANC propaganda, City Sun exemplifies the resurgence of "alternative news".

News24 investigates:

Propaganda or a proper gander?

Public figures and political parties - and what they say or do, or don’t - are the lifeblood of news stories. 

A long-standing criticism of local media has been the representation of certain interests, a lack of transformation, and negative attention on the ruling party. 

Enter 39-year-old Percival Mncwango, a fierce supporter and card-carrying member of the ANC who decided to take matters into his own hands. News24 established that the business degree graduate registered the City Sun’s domain name earlier this year.

The website promotes positive views of the ruling party, and makes a number of unflattering claims about the DA and the EFF. 

Attempts to contact Mncwango and his business partner Thembela Banzi on various numbers were unsuccessful.

The two run a company called Uhuru Media. It is believed the company offers training in digital and internet media.

Media strategy

In February last year, Mncwango was outspoken on how the media was no longer neutral.

"The exchange of envelopes between the DA and majority media houses is indicative of that," he told a friend on Facebook.

"So we either sit and leave everything to chance or we do something about it. While we are correcting the problem, we must also develop media houses that help us fight lies with the truth."

The business partners boasted powerful Facebook friends between them, including Education Minister Blade Nzimande, his deputy Mduduzi Manana, ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, and ANC chair in KwaZulu-Natal, Sihle Zikalala.

Mncwango spoke online of writing and publishing numerous stories to "set the record straight".

"People will then choose as to which news to believe."

He was scathing of media houses like News24, Eyewitness News (EWN) and the Mail & Guardian. 

A few months ago, he told EWN online: "The role of media is to inform the public and not to have own opinion about politics. I know that more objective online news organisations and individuals are on the rise and will defeat this demon of biased media houses."

His pro-ruling party content has certainly found an audience.

According to analytics site Alexa, the website had shot up in traffic and page views over the past few months.

Ninety percent of its visitors were from South Africa, a third found their way there through Facebook, and people spent just over 3 minutes on the site.

The most common searches that sent people to the site included "high court", "chief justice mogoeng mogoeng", "helen zille", and the "anc mayoral candidates list".

Mncwango or City Sun was also linked to two Facebook pages supporting the ANC and government news.

Freedom of speech

Disseminating certain political views through media was nothing new, according to Professor Lizette Rabe, head of Stellenbosch University’s journalism department.

"In the past, media companies were founded not only in South Africa, but globally, to pursue interests of a political view, way before broadsheets," she told News24.

"It’s just a new medium and there people have to ask themselves, do I trust this site?"

Academics were of the opinion that the increase in these news sites was a positive sign of freedom of speech and of the media.

Dr Musawenkosi Ndlovu, a senior media studies lecturer at the University of Cape Town, said new technology lowered publishing and dissemination costs.

He said some sites questioned the notion and practice of objectivity.

"Some speak to the mistrust of the news agenda of established mainstream/big media, which is seen by others as biased in favour of various interests."

The increasing popularity and consumption of alternative news demonstrated that some members of the public were interested in opinion rather than facts, he said.

The disadvantage? "It is very, very hard to hold them responsible if they unethically shredded the last ounce of your reputation with lies."

Rabe echoed this sentiment.

"Just as one would not go to a doctor without knowing he is a registered, professional physician, South Africans should be aware of who and what their news sources are."

She believed the country had a very media-illiterate society.

"It is also because of our past, having had an authoritarian government with no media freedom."

'On a very dangerous edge'

Most media houses subscribed to good journalistic practice through the press code and were accountable to complaints directed through the press ombudsman.

Recourse was harder where sites were hosted on anonymous domains or blog sites. Aggrieved people might only have recourse where the provisions of media freedom were being abused and the responsible party could be identified.

Rabe said people needed to make sure the sites were trustworthy; otherwise it had to be accepted as someone’s viewpoint.

At the same time, she warned that mainstream media was "on a very dangerous edge" with drawing audiences in.

"Their posters on lampposts are also clickbait in a sense, because it is more sensationalist than it needs to be. Old media should be aware of desperate times and circulation issues."

She qualified her statements as opinion, saying that as a social scientist, there would need to be a proper study on these emerging alternative news sites.

Read more on:    news  |  media

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