On my radar: Fear of being misled again

‘Hi, my name’s Dion, and I’m confused.” This could well be the members’ mantra of a new support group I’m thinking of starting: the AFA – otherwise known as Alternative Facts Anonymous. Judging by what’s happened, just in the first month of 2017, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be a popular service. It will be a haven for those who just don’t know who to trust or believe any longer, and in time, a halfway house for the creators and dealers (we’ll call them “post-truth pimps”) of fake news wanting to reform, confess and atone for their media sins. 

2016 (the year that must not be named) was the launch pad for this media trend. Fake news and disinformation grew and spread like bacterial spore, with a volatile global political arena acting as a warm and moist Petri dish. Brexit, Trump’s election and even our own municipal elections were all affected by this higher form of mud-slinging – so much so that, by November, the Oxford Dictionary announced that their Word of the Year 2016 was post-truth. They described it as an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

And therein lies the key. Political post-truths stab specifically at your personal beliefs, fan the flames of emotion (inevitably outrage) and, because we now have attention spans of lab rats in a digital era, we fail to stop, think and check the facts. By the time we’ve screamed into our social-media echo chambers, the affirmation of the outrage that bounces back proves to be the drug we now all crave, and propels the trend.

The fact that South Africans experience tumultuous breaking political news stories – real ones, and sometimes in 12-hour cycles – makes it even harder to differentiate what is real, or not. The recent ANC #WarRoom saga just serves to add another layer of scepticism to what we read and believe.

Take, for example, a recent tweet I caught on the fly. It claimed that the Congress of the People had been “reliably” informed by a “well-placed” ANC member that a Cabinet reshuffle by Zuma was imminent, and that Finance Minister Pravin Gordan was going to be replaced by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

Emotional button pushed. Tick. Incredulous, kneejerk reaction. Tick. Hit the share button? Not so fast. I’m learning to be cynical and wary, but that doesn’t stop the message swirling in my head. After all, the 2015 announcement that Des van Rooyen was replacing Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister is something that you can’t forget. If by the time you read this column, Dlamini-Zuma is our finance minister, then I will most certainly be registering the AFA as a trademark.

But let’s take a step back. The origins of what made fake news popular, and now a formal industry, are interesting. The shift from traditional to online advertising spawned the concept of “click bait”. Online advertising thrives on the lure of the “long tail of the internet”, which made websites that were relatively small – but had attractive, niche audiences (like blogs for new parents or discussion forums for motoring enthusiasts) – attractive to advertisers.

A system known as “programmatic advertising” allows advertisers to track the impressions of their advert – the number of times it is displayed and viewed. This system, which measures and rewards clicks and impressions in cyberspace, has in essence fuelled the growth of numerous low-quality sites, set up specifically to boost impression rates. These types of sites are hard to monitor in terms of authenticity, but nevertheless count towards the number of impressions an advertiser would receive. This system, combined with polarised politics, helps drive the fake news industry.

It has also become a money-spinning industry. The Financial Times reported last year that teenagers around the globe are cottoning on to the lucrative business of writing fictional or wildly exaggerated news articles to ensure they will be shared and spread on fake news sites or social media. A 17-year-old fake news website owner (based in Macedonia) gleefully stated that: “One of my best stories said that Trump had slapped a Muslim guy at a rally.” You can just imagine the “click-and-share outrage” from that post. One of these websites notched an income of 7 500 (nearly R108 100) just for November. This is why the industry is booming, and will continue to grow.

Now that fake news has become an established industry, best you take anything you read with a pinch of salt. Forget #FOMO.

As for the AFA, I’ve already decided that the official hashtag is going to be #FOBMA, which stands for Fear of Being Misled Again.

Are you ready to sign up?

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit fluxtrends.com. Join him on Metro FM tomorrow at 6.30am, when he discusses these trends on the First Avenue show

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