Sharing fake news stories online and spreading false information could lead to criminal charges against the perpetrators.Last week police and community safety organisations around Knysna were inundated with false and often hysterical WhatsApp messages warning that trucks heading towards the town with aid for victims of the devastating fires were being hijacked and that people should be on the lookout for arsonists starting the fires.The police confirmed that no trucks were hijacked, yet the messages persisted.“Our officials are stretched to the limit and we don’t have extra personnel to look after that. Rumours are doing the rounds of people being arrested for arson. Those are unfounded and untrue. The same applies to hijacking of vehicles. No such incidents have happened,” police spokesperson Malcolm Poje told EWN.The KZN police also issued a stern warning after false messages warning parents that a kidnapping syndicate was operating in the area which caused panic among communities. The widely shared e-mail, copied onto WhatsApp community groups too, said pupils from local schools were being kidnapped and sold. Police also blamed fake news reports for an outbreak of violence in KwaMashu, Durban, last week. Foreign-owned shops were reportedly looted overnight amid what police say are false reports that children were being kidnapped for the sale of their body parts. Roads were blocked and cars were stoned, as foreign-owned shops were torched in the area.uMgungundlovu south police cluster spokesperson Sergeant Mthokozisi Ngobese warned people that sharing the false information online could mean jail time. He said the police were already investigating a case in Empangeni where a couple were arrested for sharing false information that caused panic.“We are aware of the false news that is circulating on social networks and we want to warn people to stop sharing it. If you see something like a kidnapping syndicate and so on, rather call your local police station to verify the information before sharing it,” Ngobese said. He said the police’s resources and time should not be used for chasing violent crimes that were sparked by fake news. The KwaZulu-Natal acting provincial commissioner, Major-General Bheki Langa said the fake reports were “disturbing”. “It is very disturbing to find that people continue to circulate fake information on social media causing unnecessary panic and fear.Unfortunately there are gullible members in our communities that believe everything they find posted on social media platforms by faceless individuals and who refuse to believe authorities,” Langa said.University of KwaZulu-Natal media expert Professor Jean-Phillipe Wade said the inventing and sharing of such stories is merely “an ego boost”.Wade called for a massive increase in media and literary studies to be taught at schools as “often people are genuinely taken with these stories and share them without consultation”. “With social media there is no requirement for editorial gate-keeping. Rumours spread far and wide and there’s no way of stopping it but we need to educate people on how to identify what is verified news,” Wade said. He drew attention to politicians using fake news to boost their image and their political agenda. Wade said internationally and nationally, politicians often spread fake news to “cover up their tracks”. He mentioned President Donald Trump and President Jacob Zuma as both using false information to justify their decisions or bolster their campaigns. Reports that South African football star Benni McCarthy committed suicide in London also surfaced this week and journalists from legitimate newsrooms scrambled to track McCarthy down, who squashed the fake reports.A social media post claiming that 250 cats, dogs, birds, hamsters and horses in the Germiston and Bedfordview SPCA kennels would be euthanised was also circulated this week. Chairperson of the Gauteng-based SPCA Elroy Parkinson said that as a result of the false information, their phone lines, e-mail and social media channels were flooded by concerned supporters, making it difficult for staff to respond to everyone.A NUMBER of media experts around the world have published lists and tips on how to spot fake news. Here are some that relate to South Africa:• Look to see if reputable news sites are also reporting on the story;• Check for odd-looking domain names;• Check the “About Us” tab on websites or look up the website on snopes.com for more information about the source; • Watch out for common news websites that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sources; • Bad web design and use of all caps can also be a sign that the source you’re looking at should be verified; • If the story makes you really angry it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to make you angry in order to generate shares and advertising revenue. • Source: Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts and WWR.