Social media 101: When ‘fact’ might be fiction

Verify the facts before you share to stop yourself from falling victim to posts on social media platforms.

Over the past few years, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, the realisation that mis- and disinformation is rife has become pretty clear.

It is not a new phenomenon, but it is good that more emphasis is being placed on the importance of fact-checking before posting, sharing or even liking something.

This is the fourth in a series of articles in which Caxton Local Media has been unpacking the South African Human Rights Commission’s Social Media Charter. The focus this week is on verifying information and the role social media plays in distributing mis- and/or disinformation.

The charter defines disinformation as:

  • False, inaccurate or misleading information designed, presented and promoted online to intentionally cause public harm. states: “Although both words refer to types of wrong or false information, only disinformation is wrong on purpose.”

Now that you understand the terms, the charter warns that you should not share information you suspect may be false, or share information when you have been unable to determine if the source is a credible one.

“If a social media post elicits an immediate emotional response (such as outrage, fear, disgust or dismay), pause and reflect on the source and veracity of the content before sharing. Be truthful and accurate on social media, and err on the side of caution when engaging with known peddlers of false information or anonymous social media accounts,” the charter states.

It is important to know what steps to take before sharing information:

  • Assume information received is false until proven otherwise
  • Fact-check all posts, comments, and links by checking their source
  • Be extra vigilant if the author of the post or comment is an anonymous account
  • Use fact-checking websites (like The Real 411 and Africa Check) to verify information
  • Check whether reputable news publications are reporting the story
  • Consider whether the article or post evokes an overly emotional response. If yes, it may be disinformation and/or misinformation.

Guidance notes

The Social Media Charter gives an example you are sure to be familiar with:

An unwitting family member/friend shares an advertisement on social media about a herbal remedy on that can allegedly cure a terminal disease.

The person does not intend to do harm. However, the company that manufactures and sells the product promoted in the advertisement – which is based on false information – has the intention to cause financial or even physical harm.

“In both cases, the information that is presented and promoted is false. The distinction vests in the intention of the person sharing the false information, and whether they intend its dissemination to cause harm,” the charter explains.

This ‘harm’ can be either private or public in nature.

When it comes to private harm, disinformation can constitute harassment, crimen injuria, cyberbullying and other forms of online abuse targeting individuals or organisations.

Dangers of disinformation

Public harm refers to when disinformation interferes with or infringes on the public’s right to make informed decisions about matters of public importance or interest.

“This, in turn, affects the public’s right to participate fully and effectively in society. Disinformation serves the purposes of individuals or organisations, and the information is designed to promote these interests.

“These can be either local or foreign bad actors [people who lie, cheat, or deceive], meaning that engaging or promoting such narratives could end up furthering the agendas of unscrupulous and even dangerous entities,” the charter reads.

Examples of circumstances in which the sharing of false information is particularly harmful:

  • False information regarding elections or undermining trust in democratic institutions
  • False public health-related information, particularly during a public health crisis
  • Fake or altered images/videos of individuals
  • False information that mischaracterises and vilifies minority and/or vulnerable groups of people.

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