Fake news poses threat to mainstream media – Minister

While the jury is still out on what exactly constitutes “fake news”, the peddling of untruths is not a new phenomenon in South Africa, and the fourth estate needs to work harder than ever to prove its credibility. This is according to Communications Minister Ayanda Dlodlo, who joined a SA National Editors Forum (Sanef) panel discussion in Cape Town on Wednesday, on the local impact and handling of fake news. Dlodlo said there was an important relationship between truth and power, as evidenced during the apartheid regime when lies were peddled.

“Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we were able to isolate lies from truth.” As with the proliferation of false and deliberate information campaigns during the US elections, South Africa too had seen an emergence of similar attitudes on “state capture” and “white monopoly capital”. “We need to be vigilant that our institutions are not eroded by hoaxes and wild conspiracy theories,” said Dlodlo.

Sanef chair Mahlatse Gallens referred to the rise of “paid Twitter”, which saw clear, orchestrated agendas online against ministers and editors to ruin reputations and elicit strong emotions.

‘These people aren’t stupid’

Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird believed this was just the beginning of overt, misinformation campaigns. “We saw some of them quite clumsily handled, but these people aren’t stupid. They hire the deepest, darkest forces to do their work for them and make it harder to discern fact from reality.”

He said South Africans were living in bizarre times, where the truth was stranger than fiction. “We have a huge crisis of credibility for media and for government.” Media houses could do more, he believed, to communicate their brands and website addresses.

Dlodlo said mainstream media was in trouble because its turf was being invaded and it had a responsibility, more than ever, to be “the best version” of itself. This meant insisting on the highest standards, being vigilant with fact checking and honesty, and quickly acknowledging mistakes, she said. Asked for her position on the system of self-regulation, she said she was new to her position and required time to look at “whether it works or not”.

For Gallens, media houses could not afford to risk their credibility by chasing to be the first with a story, without verification.

‘Any person with a cellphone becomes his own reporter’

Press Council director Joe Thloloe felt that part of the problem was that the founding fathers of the Constitution had succeeded much more than they had anticipated in protecting the right to freedom of expression. “Any person with a cellphone becomes his own reporter, his own sub-editor, his own distributor of the information they have… we were not aware that there were people who were going to take advantage of this success.” One of his suggestions was to create an application that allowed people to insert a story and verify whether the publisher was a member of the press council, had neutral status, or was known for fake news.

“We believe that genuine, authentic media are in fact going to be our defence against lies, lies, lies.” Thloloe believed publications that lived up to the local code of ethics and conduct were getting “as near to the truth as possible”. Sanef was advocating for informed citizenry through radio interviews, especially at community stations, said Gallens.

“Because we are starting so early, we actually stand a chance.”


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