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By Hein Kaiser


Fake news: Often ignorant, sometimes manipulative, sometimes dangerous

There’s no real way of stopping fake news or, in some instances, telling it apart from real unfolding events.

Sometimes the eye sees only what the brain wants to see. People want to have fears or desires confirmed …and that’s why fake news is so easily manufactured and spread around.

This week, thousands were duped on WhatsApp and online by a dramatic video said to be of a bridge near Barberton in Mpumalanga collapsing and being swept away by a flooding river. But, looking close, there were clues: Like cars on the right side of the road, different paved cycle tracks … which you wouldn’t see in Mpumalanga.

It didn’t take digital sleuths long to determine that the video was a flood in Ohio in the US posted on TikTok.

Fake news influences

Online analyst Michelle Venter of Bold Online said the Barberton bridge incident is one of many and while sometimes fake news is born out of an ignorant and somewhat innocent social media post, the majority of the time it’s accepted that false content is a calculated attempt at influence.

Even supposedly sophisticated people like ActionSA leader Herman Mashaba have been duped by fake news.

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In a string of tweets last week, Mashaba expressed outrage and later ignored the embarrassment of reacting to a video of a racist fracas at a school he assumed was local. He tweeted an appeal to both the SA Police Service and the department of education to investigate the incident, noting the need to guard against toxic environments for children.

In a single click, Mashaba became both victim and propagator of fake news.

Not new

Fake news is not new, but it’s snackable and like the school racism incident, irresistibly dramatic. It can also be dangerously influential. It has also slipped its tentacles into mainstream media at times. And there’s no real way of stopping fake news or, in some instances, telling it apart from real unfolding events.

The very platforms used to propagate tall tales have also been accused, several times, of censorship and selective shadow blocking of posts that may or may not meet corporate agendas, or that of their political or brand masters.

South Africa, like many other countries, has been impacted by fake news and its proliferation. There have been several incidents of fake news that also set the news agenda, from inflated reportage of xenophobia in 2019 through to Covid misinformation.

Use of social media

A few years ago, London public relations agency Bell Pottinger used social media to manipulate racial tensions in SA through its white monopoly capital campaign, among other rabble-rousing messaging woven in between.

Venter said that nothing much has changed since the Bell Pottinger campaign, noting that brands with big budgets and political parties or organisations with particular goals continue to create micro and macro impactful versions of fake news.

“People are planting thoughts and ideas on the internet, and there are commercial or political reasons behind it. It’s a known practice,” she said.

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Fake news is also used to manipulate public image.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s use of a Harry Potter fanfare visual, faking their own reception at a public gathering, is equally considered to be falsified information.

So too, some of the welcoming crowd images that circulated depicting masses of tourist arrivals, following the Tottenham Hotspur R1 billion SA Tourism sponsorship debacle.

Experts accuse weaknesses in traditional media for the proliferation of fake news, in part.

Traditional media outlets vs credibility

Digital analyst Carmen Murray said that traditional media outlets have eroded their own credibility by scouring social media for headline grabbing click-bait.

Elon Musk recently announced the slow release of the Twitter Files, a public flogging of the platform’s previous management, that allegedly clearly shows both the censorship, selective propagation of ideas and the absolute power that platforms wield when it comes to manipulation and misinformation.

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The free flow of information that social media provides can be dangerous and can be weaponised. Importantly, said Venter, there is no way anyone can really tell what is real and what is not.

– news@citizen.co.za

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