Opinion in Mail & Guardian
Fake news is undermining the work of journalists
Glenda Daniels 01 Feb 2017 00:00
We are living in an era of increasingly narrow populist politics, corruption and inequality. It is also an age of social media banalities where everyone is a "publisher". In this mad matrix, the attacks on journalists are unprecedented, both internationally and locally.
Journalists are being blamed for fake news. Certainly journalists can become pawns in the political faction fights within the ANC, and between the ruling party and opposition parties. Watch the ugly fake news increase in the run-up to the ANC elective conference in December this year, as the muddied waters get darker. Barely one month has passed in 2017 and fakery and disinformation includes:
The ANC's alleged "war room", created to spread disinformation about opposition parties in the run-up to last year's municipal elections;
Fake posters, for example, of Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, with an AK-47;
Fake news that the former public protector, Thuli Madonsela, is a member of the Democratic Alliance;
A fake picture of The Huffington Post's editor-at-large, Ferial Haffajee, sitting on the lap of a captain of capital she has never met; and
Fake news sites of media organisations discrediting Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who has stood firm against the pressures of the present ruling faction of the ANC, which is screaming "white monopoly capital" (WMC) at any of its critics.
This is not an exhaustive list.
It's not journalists creating fake news. But, because the media space is now open to all, politicians are grasping the opportunity to tear apart their opponents — in opposition parties, critics and independent commentators using the new media space.
Traditional media groups, Times Media Group, Media24, Primedia, e.tv, Independent Newspapers and M&G Limited, have little control over who posts what on social media or the internet, claiming to be them. Then there is also media totally involved in the onslaught of discrediting opposition to the present ruling faction of President Jacob Zuma, for instance ANN7 and The New Age, and the tussle for independence at the public broadcaster, the SABC, continues between some of its journalists and management.
The atmosphere is that journalists who uncover corruption are being blamed for being "dishonest" when they get to the facts, but also when they fall prey to fake news and disinformation. If they write about state capture and the state of Zuptarisation (patronage of politics and business between the president and his friends the Guptas), they are vilified as being the mouthpieces of white monopoly capital.
The public discourse arena, rather than having a million splinters and tentacles, is now split into two fallacies: you support Zupta or white monopoly capital. To label those critical of corruption and the status quo as WMC supporters is crude ideological obfuscation.
It's now up to editors to be as vigilant as they can be and for journalists to resist falling prey to manipulation but there is still no foolproof solution to the posting of fake news. Fake news gets muddled up with real news and nobody knows what to believe and this is where the politicians have the edge — they will do the dastardly deed of planting stuff and then blaming everything on "the media" and "dishonest journalists".
This is the Trumpian strategy. After US President Donald Trump realised that the historic women's march (against racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry) had greater numbers than those who celebrated his inauguration he blamed journalists for his unpopularity, alleging that they were the "most dishonest people on the planet".
These are the tactics that politicians use when they have something to hide: tax dodging, fraud and other criminal charges, warmongering and a lack of popularity, among others.
So, throw fake news into the mix of upcoming ANC leadership elections and politicians' scapegoating of journalists, the waters are muddied for the public. Now you hear in public discourse that you can't trust journalists, you can't trust the news. Politicians and their paid hacks are using mediums that once only journalists had access to. Now it's a free-for-all.
Just as there is a clear line between those supporting a more humane, progressive world of greater social justice, accepting climate change and fighting for equality for the poor and women, immigrants, gays and the transgendered, and the rest, South Africa is splitting in the same way — binary oppositions of good and bad.
Then there are the journalists. Whose side are they supposed to be on? According to journalism 101, only one side — that of the public. The public and citizenry need journalists to expose corruption, hold the powerful to account and use their privileged spaces — on air, in the newspapers and online — to elucidate a rich diversity of views. In fact, all the views around town — minus fake news.
But what can journalists do to regain some credibility for their spaces?
First, accept there will be leaks, some authentic and some disinformation, the planting of documents and reports in inboxes in newsrooms, and so journalists eager to be first with the news, for their bylines to be on the front pages, may jump in with both feet far too quickly only to realise later the documents were fakes.
Second, journalists have to identify the source, verify the content, then check for context, and be transparent with the evidence after checking the authenticity of documents. In fact, they should be posting the evidence on their websites.
What can editors do? They should trust their journalists but also question them at the same time: Are you 101% sure of your story and sources? Editors should be signing off on their journalists' stories so that they take ultimate responsibility for what's in their papers, on websites and on the air.
What can owners of media do? For starters, how about thinking more about quality than profit? There is a logic that goes that, once you start thinking about quality, and producing it, the profits will come. Instead of putting pressure on editors to fire their seniors in the newsroom and hire youth (for two reasons — young journalists are cheaper and more au fait with the latest multimedia tech), they should keep the experience and institutional memories in the newsroom. Apparently, the older folk (over 40) spot mistakes and fake news quicker than the younger ones.
The public, consumers of news and social media users, meanwhile, can be extra-vigilant in this corrupt era. Scrutinise the posters: the one of Malema with an AK-47 was not a recent picture — he has lost lots of weight since — and work out that Haffajee would not be sitting on anyone's lap for a photograph.
When you pass on something sensational that you are not sure is real, you are a participant in fake news, damaging other people's reputations. That means you are as bad as dirty politicians.
Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.