The master signifier in fake news is power and politics. That’s fixed, everything else floats. Alas, journalism is now on the back foot because the public is confused about where the fake news comes from. But when they jump right in to spread information they know may be fake they are engaging in schadenfreude (joys of misfortune or malicious joy).
The world is deep in the throes of a disinformation era through fake news, alternative facts and post truth.
Locally, the bad news is that it’s going to get worse as the ANC elective conference approaches. The good news is journalists are uncovering fakes and providing tips on how to spot them. But the undisputed fact remains: It’s going to be close to impossible to shut down fakes and to always tell what’s real and what is not. Apparently, lying is not illegal, if you haven’t taken an oath.
Fake news, or made up stories, is about political machinations using the power of technology, particularly social media, and creating fake news websites masquerading as authentic ones. And, while fake news is about politics, and power, rather than journalism, the trade is becoming seriously tarnished.
The year 2016 will go down history as the one in which the phenomenon of fake news took off, playing a crucial role in, among others, key historic events such as the US presidential race and Brexit. In the US after President Trump witnessed the thousands upon thousands of women and other pro-democracy protesters out on the street, and at the same time heard that the number at the inauguration celebration were smaller than the marches, and indeed those who celebrated with former US president Obama, he labelled journalists’ as the most dishonest people on the planet.
Yet the news from the journalists was accurate. There are other cases when real news was also dubbed as fake by authorities insecure about power but wanting to manipulate facts to their advantage. For example, Cameroon’s authorities were recently in a bid to stop “‘fake” news about protests. In fact, the protests were happening. But the phenomenon of fake news was used by politicians to pretend this wasn’t happening.
So not all news dubbed fake is actually fake! This is the trouble for journalism. This has been in happening in many parts of Africa for many years – journalists in Botswana, Swaziland, for example, have been charged for fake news when they have been reporting on the shenanigans of the powerful elite.
The year 2017 will be South Africa’s year for the ubiquity of fake news because of the ANC conference in December 2017 will elect a president, to lead the country for the next five years. Fake news is being used intra-party wise as in factions in the ANC: apparently it’s a black and white issue now of binary oppositions: those against white corruption (White Monopoly Capital or WMC) but are sympathetic to black corruption (Zupta), and everyone else – except for the fact that the EFF is against both black and white capital. So it’s not as clear-cut as binary oppositions – there are splits and more splits.
Fake news is also used by a faction of the ruling bloc and used to discredit opposition parties, such as the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters and, not surprisingly, also independent institutions such as the media. And not all media – given that the traditional media itself is split into those somewhat independent from ruling the party (TMG, Media 24, eTV, Primedia, the Mail & Guardian) and those soft on the ANC: SABC, Independent, ANN7 and The New Age.
The consequences of fake news for the public is quite dire. This has a devastating effect on people’s constitutional rights to access to reliable information as in Protection of Access to Information Action of 2000, so that they can make important decisions which affect their lives for example, such as, who to vote for.
Some of the manifestations of fake news include fraudulent Twitter handles purporting to be The Huffington Post South Africa, Talk Radio 702, and the Sunday Times, among others.
Prominent individuals, as well as political parties and independent organisations who have all fallen victim to fake news all have one thing in common – they have been involved in one way or the other of exposing state capture and corruption. They (individuals, finance minister, public protector, the EFF, DA, independent media and some political commentators and editors) are now part of the disinformation scandal and are being smeared as pro-white monopoly capital”. In fact, anyone who is critiquing and exposing corruption from the Zuma faction of the ANC at present is labelled
As traditional election campaigns lose their impact with voters, political parties are increasingly turning to more subtle methods, using everything from fake news to paid Twitter accounts to manipulate voter sentiment.”
Who drives fake news? And what purposes and agendas do some of the examples serve? The crude agenda is to gain power, and credibility, by discrediting and destroying the reputations and credibility of others – their critics and opposition parties, and of course to spread propaganda.
What is to be done?
Don’t believe everything on the internet and on social media. Rather check with the traditional media, other tested sources. However, the imitations are now really good so it’s hard to tell the real from the fake. It takes time and an expert eye to check the fonts and size of fonts, including the design of the page.
The South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) representing the journalist industry (or at least that faction of the media which believes in independence from political parties) has condemned the proliferation of fake news websites and Twitter handles. The forum concedes that at present there is no clear legal route or action to take against the sites.
“Such inaccurate reports by websites masquerading as credible news sources are highly damaging and hurtful to those involved and their families. They also do a great disservice to legitimate news websites and the news industry as a whole.”
The forum also noted that the fake sites purposefully use names and logos very similar to authentic media houses in an attempt to deceive their readers.
“We call on the publishers to desist from publishing these false and inflammatory stories with immediate effect as it is grossly irresponsible. Sanef also calls on all South Africans not to perpetuate false news cycles by sharing such stories on their social media networks.”
Clearly, there is much mischief-making afoot, aided and abetted with the immediacy of social media and the internet. Some social media users have become addicted to “likes” and more followers, so insecure as they are, engage in schadenfreude when they re-tweet something they suspect is not true.
Everything floats in this age: things are fluid, they shift and change: the websites, the Twitter handles, disinformation, facts, including journalists place in the media world. But the fixed, or the master signifier, vis-à-vis fake news is Power and Politics – dirty power and politics. Honestly, you really don’t have to get involved.
Dr Glenda Daniels is a senior lecturer at Wits University’s media studies department and is also the chairperson of Sanef’s Ethics and Diversity sub com.