How do we deal with fake news?

Are these leaked accusations about deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa’s marital infidelities true? Is this real or is it fake news? How does one even know who to believe?

Sifting fact from fiction is one of the biggest challenges facing society today.

Of course, fake news is not new. You may remember US President Richard Nixon saying: “I am not a crook”; President Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sex with that woman”; and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s detailed evidence of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. At home, the apartheid government’s Stratcom spread stories claiming Joe Slovo — rather than Pretoria’s own agents — killed his wife, Ruth First.

They were all spreading disinformation to mislead citizens for their own political purposes. Today, we call it “fake news”.

So what changed? Why did the Oxford Dictionary name “post-truth” its new word of the year last year?

A search of new books on Amazon reveals six titles about the subject, three of which have the word “bullshit” in the title. In one of them, Evan Davis tells us we are at “peak bullshit” — but this is the optimistic view: from a peak, we can only go down.

The phenomenon has spawned neologisms, such as bot (a robot that floods social media with messages), cyborg (the combination of a human brain and a bot to manipulate social media) and weaponising (turning social media into a political tool).

But if it’s been around for years, why is there such great concern about it now?

Well, for a start, US President Donald Trump has taken contempt for truth to a new level. For example, he claimed he had attracted the largest inauguration crowd, when the evidence showed the opposite. During his campaign, he also said US unemployment was about 40%, when it was closer to 5%.

When challenged on the size of the inaugural crowd, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said: “Don’t be so overly dramatic” — these were just “alternative facts”.

It’s not just spin — it’s paying no heed to truth at all.

In SA, we have recently seen a proliferation 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 disgruntled customer.

Elsewhere, we’ve seen false claims against journalists — such as Huffington Post’s Ferial Haffajee and Tiso Blackstar group editor at large Peter Bruce — from a systematic, well-resourced and extensive campaign to discredit them.

While dirty tricks have long existed, the Internet and social media have made them far more powerful.

On the Internet, the absence of gatekeepers — the editors, subeditors and fact-checkers who filter and verify claims before they air in traditional media — allows for great freedom of speech. But the flip-side is that this includes the freedom to spread malicious, fraudulent and dangerous material.

A few decades ago, if there were an allegation that Ramaphosa had beaten his wife, it would not have gone out without the media calling the claim into question.

But social media enables instant dissemination without anyone checking the information.

A professional journalist who did this would be blackballed by his or her peers. But for social media trolls, there are seldom adverse consequences. Here, anonymity is critical: culprits hide their identities, safe in the knowledge that they can’t be held accountable.

Sometimes fake news is spread as a joke. An image of a shark on a Houston freeway during last week’s US floods turned out to be a manipulated photograph. But it was cited with horror on Talk Radio 702 and a US television station before they realised they were being conned.

But on other occasions, the consequences are worse. Nobody knows the extent to which fake news influenced Hillary Clinton’s denouement in the US election or the result of the Brexit referendum — but the fact that the (false) Brexit claim that the UK sends £350m/week to Europe is still being repeated is revealing.

However, the critical moment comes when the story reaches the mainstream media, with its supposed gatekeepers.

Sometimes, the media refutes the story and puts the record straight (as happened with the insurance company). But with Ramaphosa, one newspaper gave the story authenticity, even as most others treated it with scepticism and framed it as part of a dirty tricks smear campaign.

Of course, there are many other cases of traditional media giving credibility to manipulated information. Three years ago, for example, the Sunday Times carried stories of how a “rogue unit” in the SA Revenue Service ran a brothel and bugged the presidency. The paper later recanted, but it seems it had been taken in by one faction of a vicious internal dispute.

Today, there are two other dynamics at play.

First, elements of our traditional media have become highly partisan, actively supporting not just political parties but factions within them. This isn’t new: newspapers have often taken a political standpoint that shapes coverage. But the difference lies in the increased willingness of some to bend the rules of journalism: balance, fair play and accuracy.

For example, The New Age newspaper and its sister ANN7 television channel were created to serve the Gupta family. They have been relentless in propagating spurious allegations against the family’s opponents.

Second, the space for independent, critical journalism that cares more about accuracy, verification, balance and ethical practices is shrinking under financial and political pressure.

All SA’s newsrooms are less than half the size they were a decade ago. This means fewer filters and less fact-checking. The upshot is that at the very time that social media demands greater vigilance, most newsrooms have fewer resources to sift the real from the fake.

During the US campaign, when it looked as though Trump couldn’t win, he began talking about the election being rigged. “I’m afraid the election is going to be rigged, I have to be honest,” he said (using a stock phrase of those about to be dishonest), adding that he was hearing “more and more” about evidence of rigging.

On the other side of the country, 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”.

Harris Photoshopped the label “Ballot boxes” onto a picture he’d found on the Internet (from another time and place), and posted them on his website, which was cynically named “Christian Times Newspaper” for his conservative mid-Western target audience.

He added the journalistic touches that made it feel authentic: the word “Breaking” in the headline; quotation marks to indicate it was a claim; and his last line promised that “this story is still developing and CTN will bring you more when we have it”.

Six million people saw it.

Why? For money. The traffic to the site earned him pay-per-click advertising revenue of up to $100,000 for this and other stories.

There’s another enlightening example from Veles, a small town of just 45,000 people in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia.

During the US election campaign, 140 websites were set up in Veles to publish aggressive pro-Trump content aimed at conservatives in the US. They sounded authentic: WorldPoliticus.com, TrumpVision365.com, USConservativeToday.com and DonaldTrumpNews.co.

But when US website BuzzFeed investigated, it turned out they were all bogus.

The young Macedonians who ran these sites didn’t care about Trump. They were responding to straightforward economic incentives: an American Facebook user is more valuable than any other. Every time someone clicked on their site they earned money.

One such site, Ending the Fed, which didn’t list an owner, was responsible for four of the top 10 false election stories. It included fake stories on how Pope Francis endorsed Trump and how Clinton sold weapons to terror group Islamic State.

In SA, most fake news sites are not financially motivated. Rather, they appear to be part of a well-resourced campaign to shift the news agenda away from the #GuptaLeaks and to influence the ANC presidential race.

British firm Bell Pottinger, hired by the Guptas, was at the centre of this use of the “dark arts” of public relations to “weaponise” social media. But this week, the company was booted out of the UK’s Public Relations & Communications Association for “bringing the industry into disrepute”.

In SA, of course, we have something of a unique twist, as our fake news sometimes takes the form of dubious “intelligence reports”.

It was just such a report that President Jacob Zuma cited when he controversially fired finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March. The intelligence services distanced themselves from the document, but it raised questions about the role of rogue elements in disrupting our politics.

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.

The real question is: what can be done? Bell Pottinger has been called to account by its peers and clients, but is this enough? After all, it does not deal with the youths of Veles, or the individual in his kitchen weaponising his laptop.

Fact-checking operations, which are springing up all over, are useful. Among these is Africa Check, which verifies claims made in the public arena.

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.

An alternative would be for government to regulate only so far as to limit anonymity, or to put the onus on Internet service providers to maintain controls. However, this would only stretch as far as our borders, leaving those beyond government’s reach untouched.

But at this stage it is unclear whether it is enough to rely on individuals to be sceptical about what they read until it is verified, or to rely on the shrinking traditional media to fact-check claims.

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