Guest Column

Responsible citizens don't share fake news

2018-01-24 11:43

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Joshua Carstens

It sounded like the seemingly impossible had finally happened: “Jacob Zuma has resigned,” a local website proclaimed a few days ago.

Soon Twitter was abuzz with the news and a US congressional aide even said that Zuma was lost. But this was not true; Zuma was still our president and the “lost Zuma” referred to a failed satellite mission in the USA.

Still, this “news” website quoted Zuma: “I would have preferred to carry through to the finish, whatever the personal agony it would have involved, and my family unanimously urged me to do so.” It turned out that this was a copy-paste quote from former US president Richard Nixon’s resignation speech in 1974.

Zuma’s resignation might be a dream come true for many people, but it certainly doesn’t warrant the publication of this fake article. As the rand reacted to the “news” it was a perfect illustration of how fake news can have real-world consequences.

Other fake news headlines that appeared recently include, “South Africa to introduce hour sex breaks at work”, “Pravin Gordhan is a blesser” and “Oscar Pistorius loses his hands in jail.”

The phenomenon of fake news especially came to the foreground during the 2016 US elections, when fake Russian Facebook accounts bought R1.2 million in political ads, most of them spreading bogus stories about Democratic Party presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

“So, what is the big deal?” you might ask. “It’s just a story.”

Fake news impacts on the national conversation, voting patterns and perceptions of government and prominent people.

It is no coincidence that journalism is often referred to as the fourth pillar of democracy. Without a free, independent and reliable media there will be little accountability. Parallel to the judiciary, executive and legislative branches, the media plays an important role in upholding democratic values.

There’s a reason why the media is tightly controlled in autocratic countries such as North Korea, China and Russia. These governments realise the impact of an informed voting population. It’s difficult to cover up corruption, nepotism and maladministration if you have a free press; it’s the only way the public can judge whether they have put the right people in office.

Luckily, the media has strong constitutional protections in South Africa. Our mainstream media is robust in its reporting and criticism of government. They expose corruption, state capture and incompetent officials.

But this is of little use if voters can’t distinguish between real and fake news. It hurts our democracy every time you share that fake news story on Facebook. It influences the attitudes and actions of other voters. By not checking whether a story is fake or not, and simply sharing it with your friends, you are doing more harm than good.

Just because the article aligns with your personal ideological beliefs it doesn’t make it right to spread hatred, fear and division.

Every day we are flooded with information on social media platforms: “See, this is why party x is racist,” you would say. Or: “I knew that official was dodgy.” It reaffirms your beliefs and subconsciously influences the minds of other voters.

Let’s get one thing clear: This is not a case of sensationalist news. It’s not news at all. Mainstream news that is sensationalist in nature aims to provoke public interest, but not to the point of fabricating information. They might exaggerate, underplay or be selective in their reporting (which is another debate about the accuracy of news) but responsible outlets won’t fabricate a story.

As much as the ignorant has been oblivious to what the term really means, it’s been widely used by anti-democratic, populist leaders. Fake news in the wrong hands chisels at the statue of our democratic values.

A recent article in The New York Times refers to it as “a cudgel for strongmen”. Donald Trump uses “fake news” to refer to any coverage that he does not agree with, and increasingly anti-democratic Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro labels international media as “fake” because of their “false versions”. In Myanmar security officials claim, “there is no such thing as Rohingya, it’s fake news”, and the Russian foreign ministry even uses a red stamp (“FAKE”) on its website to label news that it disagrees with.

As print media moves over to a digital format, the ability to make a distinction between real and fake news will become increasingly important. Our duty as citizens is not only to vote every four years; it’s to remain active and engaging in politics and society.

Gone are the days where it was “the media” who separated the wheat from the chaff. That is now the job of every responsible citizen. 

- Joshua Carstens is a content producer at Health24 and a Masters students in Political Science at the University of Cape Town.

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.

Read more on:    donald trump  |  jacob zuma  |  social media  |  fake news
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