Fake News in South Africa

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Fake news is fabricated news. People spreading lies dressed as news or using dramatic headlines to sell is old news. What is new, is our digital reality and social media where it is easy to invent spread and promote fake news (Bird, 2017). There are generally two kinds of fake or dodgy news. The first is a click bait to lead people to a fake or dodgy news site and where the content is still misleading and or doesn't subscribe to common standards of journalism. The second is when fake news is done as part of a deliberate strategy to misinform and shift public discourse (Bird, 2017). In SA, we have recently seen an explosion of fake news polluting the political atmosphere. One false e-mail, accusing an insurance company of being racist, went viral — but it turned out it was just the work of a displeased customer. Fake news causes companies and people with a good reputation to get bad reputations (Harber, 2017). All SA’s news studios are less than half the size they were a decade ago. This means fewer filters and less fact-checking. The result is that at the very time that social media demands greater caution, most news studios have fewer resources to sift the real from the fake (Harber, 2017). A professional journalist who did this would be excluded by his or her peers. But for social media trolls, there are seldom opposing consequences. Here, anonymity is critical. Culprits hide their identities, safe in the knowledge that they can’t be held accountable. Politicians spread fake news to mislead citizens for their own political purposes (Harber, 2017).


One of the greatest evolving threats to our media freedom is that posed by fake news. Fake news causes clear and present threats to media freedom, as it seeks to mislead citizens and disempower them from being able to be informed and to participate meaningfully in society (Bird, 2017). Other threats to media freedom include the reduction of quality and number of journalists which is a clear threat as it prevents stories from being told or being told fully. The commercial commanding and failing public presenter means limited audiences are targeted, and small commercial and community media struggle with sustainability. In addition to these threats there are potential threats posed by current regulation (Bird, 2017). In South Africa the apartheid government’s Stratcom spread stories claiming Joe Slovo — rather than Pretoria’s own agents — killed his wife, Ruth First (Harber, 2017). There have been one false e-mail, accusing an insurance company of being racist It went viral but it turned out it was just the work of a unsatisfied customer (Harber, 2017). More recently, newspapers ran reports on “Project Wonder”, saying police minister Fikile Mbalula was the target of an intra-police life-and-death battle. Though the reports carried all the red flags of political manipulation, the origin or authenticity of that report is still unclear (Harber, 2017). In America the US President Donald Trump has taken contempt for truth to a new level. For example, he claimed he had attracted the largest number of people appointed, when the evidence showed the opposite. During his campaign, he also said US unemployment was about 40%, when it was closer to 5% (Harber, 2017). According to the New York Times, a college student named Cameron Harris, newly graduated and in need of cash, sat down at his kitchen table with his laptop, and wrote a headline: “Breaking story: Tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse” (Harber, 2017).


Fact-checking operations, which are becoming more popular, are useful to fact check news. Among these is Africa Check, which confirms claims made in the public arena (Harber, 2017). Though some critics will use the “fake news” issue to call for government regulation of the Internet, this will meet resistance from those who (rightly) fear giving government a role in overseeing content (Harber, 2017). An alternative would be for government to regulate a limit of anonymity, or to put the responsibility on Internet service providers to maintain controls. However, this would only stretch as far as our borders, leaving those beyond government’s reach untouched. Individuals should sceptical about what they read until it is verified (Harber, 2017). Solutions to identifying fake news (Masuabi, 2018):

  • Sources: if there is no link assigned or journalist credited on a site it is better not to believe the news.
  • Verification sites: Use tools like Newstools, where you can check if the information you are reading is from a credible source. (You’ll need to download an extension which helps you identify whether the site you are browsing contains credible or dodgy news).

Steps you can follow to avoid falling for fake news (Masuabi, 2018):

  • Credible new sources: get your news from a legitimate and trusted source by knowing which entities are trustworthy (brands that have been around for a while).
  • Know that social media can be wrong. The news put on social media like Facebook and Twitter can be false. Make sure it is true before retweeting or sharing the news. (unless it is from a respectable account).
  • Don’t just believe one news agency: Gather news from different and diverse sources.

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