Le­git me­dia vs fake news

CityPress - - Voices - Janet Heard voices@city­press.co.za

Fake news is the “new” threat that sows pub­lic con­fu­sion and harm, but it is fu­tile for le­git­i­mate me­dia to feel like vic­tims. The very term “fake news” is a mis­nomer. If it is fake, it is not news. This point was made by vet­eran jour­nal­ist Joe Thloloe, di­rec­tor of the SA Press Coun­cil, dur­ing a re­cent lo­cal gath­er­ing about the pro­lif­er­a­tion of so-called fake news.

Thloloe’s point was re­in­forced in­ter­na­tion­ally at the World As­so­ci­a­tion of News­pa­pers and News Pub­lish­ers congress in Dur­ban last week.

Don’t call it news, call it dis­in­for­ma­tion, urges Claire War­dle of First Draft News, a US on­line plat­form that spe­cialises in tools to de­bunk false in­for­ma­tion.

Dis­in­for­ma­tion is not new – po­lit­i­cal agents and sabo­teurs have al­ways ma­nip­u­lated facts, and ped­dled lies and pro­pa­ganda. Now, in the in­stant dig­i­tal age, it is in­fect­ing the pub­lic space.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the main­stream me­dia pre­scribed – of­ten sub­jec­tively and con­tro­ver­sially – to the pub­lic the news and an­gles that they con­sid­ered to be per­ti­nent. They have lost this gate­keep­ing power, thanks to so­cial me­dia. While this has democra­tised me­dia, it has also opened up a space for abuse. By iron­i­cally ac­cus­ing them of be­ing ped­dlers of fake news, this is how the Don­ald Trumps and Gup­tas of the world have hit back at me­dia that are not their lap­dogs.

The flood of false in­for­ma­tion on­line has been cited as the num­ber one prob­lem in jour­nal­ism in the US, ac­cord­ing to Jane El­iz­a­beth of the Amer­i­can Press In­sti­tute. Although fact check­ing and ver­i­fi­ca­tion net­works were be­ing beefed up, the me­dia’s ef­forts to counter mis­in­for­ma­tion are out­played by eight to one.

The threat of per­sonal danger comes into play when abuse ex­tends be­yond fake sites mim­ick­ing cred­i­ble news ac­counts, to ma­nip­u­la­tive cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, of­ten us­ing #FakeTwit­ter. Dur­ing a de­bate on the ha­rass­ment of jour­nal­ists, for­mer City Press edi­tor and cur­rent edi­tor at large of Huff­in­g­ton Post SA, Fe­rial Haf­fa­jee, de­scribed the “dark heart of Twit­ter”, with fake news fac­to­ries and au­to­mated false armies emerg­ing in a bid to in­tim­i­date and destroy her cred­i­bil­ity and that of other jour­nal­ists ex­pos­ing state cap­ture.

The flood­gates opened, with jour­nal­ists from other coun­tries giv­ing chill­ing ac­counts of cy­ber ha­rass­ment.

The point was raised that jour­nal­ists use bul­let­proof vests for pro­tec­tion when cover­ing war zones, yet they are left ex­posed on so­cial me­dia.

The fight­back has now be­gun by bod­ies such as the SA Na­tional Edi­tors’ Fo­rum and Me­dia Mon­i­tor­ing Africa. Strate­gies in­clude nam­ing and sham­ing, pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, and putting pres­sure on plat­forms such as Face­book and Twit­ter to tackle mis­in­for­ma­tion.

Crit­i­cal in­tro­spec­tion has also been nec­es­sary. Me­dia bosses need to in­vest in train­ing to equip news­rooms with the skills re­quired to re­tain pub­lic trust. Cred­i­ble me­dia need to set the stan­dard by sep­a­rat­ing fact from false­hood. Ver­i­fi­ca­tion and fact-check­ing mech­a­nisms need to be en­trenched.

As so­cial me­dia is the plat­form where mis­truths have pro­lif­er­ated, so­cial-me­dia teams need to be an in­te­gral part of the news­room, not a sideshow run by staff with no jour­nal­ism train­ing.

Thloloe had some sage ad­vice when it comes to fight­ing back. There may be lay­ers of truth, but the clos­est the pub­lic will get to the truth is via jour­nal­ism that is rooted in the SA Press Code, which en­forces eth­i­cal jour­nal­ism and which the pub­lic can use to hold the me­dia to ac­count.

This code sep­a­rates real news from all the bullsh*t. Google the facts, by all means, but make sure you are di­rected to a gen­uine site.

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