/ 26 September 2016

Apocalypse soon unless we clamp down on fake-news ‘satire’

Screenshot of a fake news website.
Screenshot of a fake news website.


In April of 2010 the closest thing the country ever had to a white supremacist icon was murdered by a black worker. The adherents of Eugene Terre’Blanche – and there were shockingly many of them – were incandescent with hatred. Their descriptions of the reprisals they planned against black people (black people in general, with no particular preference for the actual murderer) were the stuff of nightmares. One man described a detailed fantasy involving disembowelling, only to be interrupted mid-way by a compatriot. Such an approach was far too self-indulgently inefficient when mass slaughter was called for, he was scolded.

In retrospect it is easy to dismiss their ultimately empty posturing. Yet as the Boeremag treason trial was uncovering even then, just eight years before a small group of white extremists had actively worked to trigger an apocalypse of sorts. Beneath the in-the-moment thirst to avenge the death of Terre’Blanche was a well-developed dogma that held racial war as both inevitable and desirable.

As it turned out, Terre’Blanche was buried without some hothead racist taking a pot shot at a passing black person, and so triggering the kind of contagion of madness that SA had proven eminently capable of in the xenophobic attacks of 2008.

Yet again South Africa experienced what the religious can conveniently refer to as grace.

But what if, during any of those times of crises, we had been living in a world of rampant misinformation? What if the men waving the Nazi flag at Terre’Blanche’s funeral had suddenly received reports that he had merely been the first of a wave of targeted killings of white supremacists? What if, the day after Nelson Mandela died, the people of Soweto (where the Boeremag set off a bomb not all that long ago, as these things go) read that white extremists were on their way to pre-empt through massacre a prophesied black-on-white genocide?

Perhaps nothing would have happened. Perhaps we should not take the risk of finding out.

In 2015 fake news sites started to make serious money in the United States. Localised versions first came to our notice in 2016. By 2017 they will be well on the way to reaching their goal, and that goal is to reliably create frenzies.

This is how fake news works. You register a domain name using a foreign service that hides your identity; extra points for using a name that can easily be confused with a real news source, such as the current t1imeslive.co.za. Spot the “one” in that name? With the wrong font, in small type in a browser window, it is not that easy.

Using one of many simple, free templates, you throw up something that looks like a news website. You populate that website with things that look like news, only better: reports of celebrity deaths, outrageous political events, major disasters. Extra points if, somewhere on the site, you also post a disclaimer about how it is all satire, and urging your readers to laugh it off.

Importantly, you also populate your website with adverts, preferably of the kind not welcome elsewhere and which consequently pay more for those who display them: scams, pornography, fake degrees.

Next you go to Facebook, and buy some advertising space of your own. This gets your fake stories on the radar screens of unsuspecting people, who (whether from outrage, shock, horror, or even a sense of civic duty) immediately share them further.

People come to your site, you get paid for the ads they see and click on. The difference between what you pay Facebook and what you earn is just about pure profit. One US operator who shared recent statistics was clearing around $30 000 a month, and rising.

But your profit depends entirely on the extent to which you trigger indignation or fury or a similarly powerful emotion among readers, and convince them what they are reading is real, so enticing them to spread the word.

A good operator will employ all the techniques internet marketers have developed over the years, from A/B split testing to geo-location personalisation, and constantly hone. With each iteration – and there are many iterations because each is essentially free – the algorithm improves.

Creating a hand grenade to throw into tense situations is not the goal, but it is an inevitable byproduct.

It is easy to be a free-speech fundamentalist. I’ve been one as long as I can remember without ever breaking a mental sweat. It requires belief in only two basic tenets, the one more feel-good than the other: that people are essentially decent and smart, and that truth always wins over lies in the long run.

The internet has proven both to be wrong. Social media shows that people are essentially a mob of thoughtless arseholes, and the “post-truth” political era shows that the dark side is, in fact, the more powerful.

Education has failed; 300 years of April Fools’ Day hoaxes have not stopped the sharing of frankly unbelievable fake news articles as the real thing. Traditional recourse is meaningless; between cross-border transactions and easy anonymity the proprietors of fake news sites cannot be held responsible for their actions.

On a technical level the problem is trivial. Phising and online rackets have seen the creation of a robust system to identify malicious content and, if nothing else, warn users against it.

Dismantling the financial incentive is entirely feasible. Though the likes of Facebook profit from fake news advertising revenue in the short run, organisations of its ilk are at the forefront of combating pollution of the infosphere, because that environment is their bread and butter.

Legally the basics are in place. There is no freedom from the consequences of speech in South Africa, not even for members of Parliament. There are even provisions for criminal prosecution and lengthy jail terms for publishing misinformation – albeit limited to misinformation about elections. And criminal investigations can often pierce the veil of anonymity where money is changing hands, thanks to systems built to combat money laundering and terrorism funding.

The impediment is one of perception. Satire is holy. Through both apartheid and democracy we have seen how important satire is in humbling the mighty, in giving voice to anger. So, as a society, we react with pious horror at the thought of limiting it, and readily offer sanctuary to all who claim it – however farcical the claim.

Satire is in the eye of the beholder, and there is none in “Two arrested with over 80 000 ballot papers already marked as ANC votes”, nor in “Government flavoured condoms are full of tiny holes”. There is, however, potential for harm. Not the harm of hurt feelings or impinged dignity that our free-speech protections override, but the harm of electoral violence and HIV transmission.

And that is before the formula is perfected.

There are ways to hold satire to an objective standard without impinging on the real thing, just as there are ways to combat profit from misinformation without restricting the free flow of information. We need to start exploring them, fast.