Media battles against scourge of ‘fake news’
FAKE accounts and trolls are being used as “weapons” on social media, driving online propaganda with no checks and balances, duping the unsuspecting public.
Speaking at the World News Media Congress in Durban yesterday, journalists said fake news was drowning out properly-researched articles on the net, leading to “netizens” believing fake news.
“People don’t know what to believe anymore. It is a pretty alarming situation, it’s hard to keep up with all the fake news out there,” said Guy Berger, director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at Unesco.
Maria Ressa, chief executive of online news service Rappler, in the Philippines, shared her experience of how social media was “weaponised” to spread fake information about her.
The Philippines, said Ressa, ranked the highest globally for the number of hours spent online, with an average of 5.5 hours of desktop and 3.5 hours on mobile per day.
“Journalists deliver the information, people receive it, then make decisions on what they’ve read. Those decisions are based on emotions and how they felt when reading or watching the information. Emotions then travel on social networks people are linked to,” she said.
The danger comes when bots (a computer program that does automated tasks) and fake accounts take over.
Ressa faced an online onslaught by seemingly thousands of people, but when she and her investigative team analysed every “person” who harassed her online, they found that thousands were fake accounts. Further investigations whittled the list down to three people who attacked her for questioning Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.
The posts of the three were automatically shared and retweeted by bots and other fake accounts, making it appear as though she was a lone critical voice of the government.
“Those accounts had a reach of up to three million other accounts. Our democracy is at a tipping point. But we can’t give up. As much as fake news is out there, we believe in the good and that’s why journalists will always be there because we are committed to our communities,” she said.
Kjersti Loken Stavrum, of Norway’s Tinius Trust, said there was a massive demand from media audiences for news to be delivered in a different way, because fake news was constructed and delivered in a way that appealed to people.
“As media we have to respond to this onslaught of fake news and learn to present the news in a manner that is usable, findable, valuable, credible, accessible, and desirable. This amounts to the whole online user experience, but remains professional journalism,” said Stavrum.
The South African National Editors’ Forum said fake news could not continue and encouraged media organisations to work with it in fighting it.
Sanef media freedom sub committee chairperson Sam Mkokeli told delegates the industry should collaborate and compile a list of authentic news sites.
A list of some of the common spoof and fake news sites which continue to dupe readers, he said, should also be distributed.
He said websites and online platforms disseminating fake news also developed replica sites of legitimate news agencies and published stories that tugged at readers’ emotions.
“A number of social media accounts look similar... and a public that is not alert of the problem, don’t know who (or what) to trust.”
Mkokeli said there was “big money” behind some of the fake campaigns, which were well co-ordinated.
Jane Elizabeth, of the American Press Institute, said they surveyed 10 000 graduates of journalism schools in the US and asked them what was one of the many challenges that faced the industry.
“We gave them 10 choices and the number one answer was the flood of false information online,” said Elizabeth.