Sharing fake news can land you in jail

2017-06-05 10:40
Spreading false information  could mean jail time, say police.

Spreading false information could mean jail time, say police. (The Witness)

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If you share fake news stories online, you could face criminal charges.  

This stern warning was issued by police after false messages warning parents that a kidnapping syndicate was operating in Pietermaritzburg 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, this 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.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  fake news

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