Quick and dirty guide to beating fake news

2017-01-24 09:48

New US President Donald Trump slammed as “fake news” reports that his crowds were smaller than that of outgoing President Barack Obama’s 2009 event.

Of course. Trump is the best. Biggest. Ever.

But it is ironic that the man who benefited from fake news was so quick to rail against the media as dishonest and fake.

To be sure, there are certainly some elements in the media – mainstream or otherwise that produce flawed reports – but the spectre of fake news is not new, though it certainly has achieved a new level of popularity.

What then is fake news?

There are two distinct types of incorrect reporting: Sometimes, in the pressure cooker that is the modern newsroom, journalists may get elements of a story wrong. Instead of 100 people dying in an explosion, it may be 10, but the explosion still happened. On the other hand, there may be a report of the same explosion caused by a particular religious or political grouping, or foreign government, or state agency bent of creating civil discord. In the case of Trump, a journalist reported – incorrectly – that the bust of Martin Luther King jnr was removed. That was later corrected.

Deliberate seeding of fake news stories is often designed to create scandal and sensation – and it has a direct financial benefit over and above the political implications.

Some time ago, a story of a woman who gave birth to dog-looking babies did the rounds in the townships. It was said she was a drug addict who had sex with a dog to produce the hybrid babies.

The story took on multiple variations as people added their own elements to spice it up.

Despite there being absolutely no evidence for the story, it was whispered in taxis travelling through Cape Town’s townships so often that many people accepted that perhaps it really happened.

Beyond journalism, fake news thrives where people decline to ask critical questions: If a woman gave birth to puppies, why were the authorities not informed? Why have no reputable news outlets covered it?

Sensation at all costs

Fast forward to the introduction of lead-free petrol in SA and some talk radio hosts frightened their listeners by suggesting that older cars would not be able to use the new fuel, rendering them redundant.

Much the same drama surrounded the news of digital terrestrial TV in 2008. People worried that they would have to throw away their old TVs because radio hosts were keen to sensationalise the introduction of the new technology – and yet – here we are in 2017 and DTT is still not a reality in SA. It’s unclear whether some media personalities didn’t understand the issue themselves or whether audience growth was the primary consideration, but sensation does drive audience – and influence.

Expansion of the internet means that for some, fake news has become a business as publishers look to easy cash.

Online, publishers race for clicks which are directly proportional to revenue.

While responsible publishers have to employ a team of journalists, fake news outlets are generally fly-by-night operators that generate their income from advertisers not too concerned about the quality of the product, as long as it produces clicks.

They work on the premise that if you throw enough of it against the wall some will stick.

Consumer road block

The business model for fake news is not difficult: Produce the most sensational content that feed a particular demographic’s beliefs.

More often, the content exploits fears by accelerating rumour and speculation related to government incompetence, corporate misbehaviour or celebrity news.

The stories are written as news and will even quote officials, lending a mask of credibility to the content.

There are also fake news sites that push all kinds of ideas from using “vitamin B 17” – actually Amygdalin – as a homemade cancer cure, to cellphone radio masts being the cause of brain cancer, as well as speculation that liberals want to ban Christmas.

So how should consumers respond to fake news?

The response should not be to try and censor the internet – it is an exercise as futile and will only have the unintended consequence of creating a false sense of security.

No, the most important road block to fake news is internet consumers themselves.

Here are the critical questions you should ask yourself when confronted with potential fake news:

Is this website reputable? Hint: Reputable publishers will likely not risk their reputation on fake news, although the Mail & Guardian may have flushed its reputation through flawed editorial zeal.

Do other sites also carry this story? Hint: In the race for clicks, if the story is true, it will likely be copied on many news sites.

Am I being informed or convinced? Hint: Information doesn’t have an agenda – be aware of the use of personalisations in the writing. If it’s personal, it’s a blog, not news.

Resources like Africa Check are pretty good at sorting fact from fiction in SA and there are also international sites like Snopes that expose fake in your news feed.

Finally, if there are terms like “You won’t believe this”, “Wow” and “Shocking” in the headline, you’re probably not going to be reading quality journalism – and it’s a short hop from there to fake news.

Even if you read it, don’t believe it; certainly don’t share it.

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