In this edited version of a speech delivered at a roundtable in Cape Town on Thursday, Communications Minister AYANDA DLODLO says there is a lot we can do to halt the proliferation of fake news.
The recent proliferation of fake news has roused the ire and condemnation of fact checkers and traditional news publishers across the globe. Many believe that fake news undermines our faith in the mainstream media and the very foundation of our democracy.
I, too share similar thoughts.
Going through some of the literature review on this phenomenon, one is reminded of Michel Foucault, the parent of post-modernist thinking, who famously declared that ‘truth depends on who control discourse’.
In other words, that there is an important relationship between the truth and power, or what he understood as a power/knowledge nexus.
If you use this analysis again, you may recall how Apartheid South Africa peddled lies and fake news about how many of our activists died in jail, think about Ahmed Timol…..apartheid police and security agents insisted that many of our activists slipped on a piece of soap, threw themselves out of John Vorster Square and some were said to have committed suicide.
Through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, we were able to isolate lies from the Truth.
Gramsci is another philosopher who brings to bear many nuanced notions about the ‘Truth’ and how we understand it, how hegemony is produced and how society consents to a certain ‘common sense’ or a taken for granted way or unquestioning manner of understanding the world.
In other words, as society, we consent to particular types of rule, or ‘regimes of truth’, like the idea that there are only two sexes, or that men are naturally inclined to lead, or that wealth is accumulated through hard work: despite the evidence to the contrary.
What I am saying is that the notion of untruth performing as truth or the idea of multiple competing truths are not new phenomenon.
But its current manifestations do suggest a significant shift in the way we think about truth claims, its relationship to power and the possibilities for forging communities or solidarities between people.
So, we may ask, do we have a common global definition of what Fake News is or even a South African version?
I argue that the jury is still out on this one and I will at this point, insist that the idea of ‘fake news’ gained prominence largely in recent months.
Researchers have reported a sharp growth in its use in the media since November 2016 during the American election campaign that saw a proliferation of hoax stories that emerged during the campaign.
Thus, it became evident that fake election stories, made up to reinforce the beliefs and prejudices of specifically Trump supporters (but others too) often outperformed stories by trusted news sources (Globe and Mail).
Before we consider why fake news proliferates at this moment, let’s pause to consider what we mean by it…
First, let us pose the question: Is Fake news a new term?
In the blog ‘Ideapod’, Professor Noam Chomsky speaks about how the Media is designed to control your thoughts, the preface to the blog suggest that Fake News was around a long time before Facebook and Chomsky has been informing people about it for decades…
Writing in 1988 in his influential seminal work ‘Manufacturing consent’; Chomsky proposed that the mass communication media of the US was designed to carry out Propaganda, in short mainstream media existed to control one’s thoughts.
Many scholars note that the phenomena of Fake news gained popularity in the printed media in the 20th century and rose from the end of the First World War to a peak in 1940 – coinciding with the onset of the Second World War.
Academic Kalev Leetaru, writing in Forbes magazine, suggested that this reflected ‘the rise of propaganda research and the impact that false information could have on societies’ at the time.
For Evan Annett, fake news refers to mostly deliberate disinformation campaigns.
The motives for disinformation include:
- For profit – to attract digital advertising revenue as stories are shared in the digital marketplace;
- For crime – hackers have sometimes accessed websites of reputable news organisations and spread false stories through them;
- For Disinformation for political gain – historically we’d associate this with propaganda and with spin: a technique of power we understand to mean the dissemination of information designed to win support from allies and confuse enemies. But propaganda is not necessarily false. It is often about the interpretation of reality rather than making up that reality.
This suggests the fundamental difference with today – where disinformation for political gain is about the establishment of fraudulent news outlets to disseminate plausible lies about a competitor.
Think back to the days of the ‘War in Iraq’ and how largely based on False and Fake News, about allegations of weapons of mass destruction supposedly hoarded by Saddam Hussein.
Today, more than a decade later, Iraq and the entire region remains largely unstable and in the advent of ISIS in the region has been identified as a breeding ground for many of the acts of terror that the world continues to witness.
The advent of Fake news is perhaps best captured in the now quite famous example of Donald Trump’s proclamation that his inauguration attracted the biggest crowds ever. He made this claim even when the photo evidence of his inauguration against Obama’s inauguration conveyed a contrary story.
His supporters believed him… because they believe that the media conspiracy against him and right-wing perspectives generally will result in biased portrayals of them. In other words, conventional media have lost their standing as arbiters of objective truth.
Similarly Prof. Chomsky just made the point last month speaking to Jon Sharmon from the website AlterNet that ‘It appears that in order to maintain his popularity, the Trump Administration will have to try and find some means of rallying the support and changing the discourse to bolster their regime.
Chomsky argues that the advent of Fake news may lend the Administration to increase its scapegoating levels by blaming the loss on jobs by American citizens in certain sectors on the fact that some ‘bad people in Washington are preventing them from getting back their jobs’.
‘Often in this instance, through Fake news websites, vulnerable people, immigrants, Muslims and elitists are often blamed for the state the American voting population finds itself in’.
Chomsky further cautions that ‘we shouldn’t put aside the possibility that there would be some kind of staged or alleged terrorist act, which can change the landscape of the country instantly’.
We may ask, what is the situation then in our own region, continent as well as South Africa?
We too are beginning to see these attitudes emerging in the South African context too, especially in relation to issues of ‘state capture’ and ‘white monopoly capital’.
We need to be vigilant if we want to ensure that our institutions are not further eroded by hoaxes and wild conspiracy theories.
In this sense, the proliferation of fake news is a symptom of a much larger malaise.
It is a malaise that began in the last 3 to 4 decades and is associated directly with the global orientation towards a neoliberal political economy.
The unfettered influence of market economics on political life has substantially reduced the capacity of democratic institutions to reproduce themselves, in the context of established democracies, and to deepen themselves, in the context of new democracies.
What Can the Media Do?
As colleagues in the media you have a huge responsibility in this regard. The redirection of the Fourth estate into just another commodity, whose motive of profit supersedes all other motives, has left us all vulnerable.
This has resulted in the following:
• The gutting of investigative desks,
• The juniorisation of newsrooms,
• The inflation of the revenue imperative, which have meant over-reliance on fewer news sources and the increase in op-ed over news. This has been spoken of ad-nauseam over the past few decades.
Coupled with that is the emergence of digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter which generate significant avenues for the swift and unchecked dissemination of information. On one level, these platforms can reflect the zenith of a democratised public sphere, unmediated by statist or market power.
But on their dark side, these platforms can represent precisely the dominance and predominance of the neoliberal market.
This refers to both the ownership of these platforms by the new global elite. And, also, provides the opportunity for notable conspiracy theorists, as well as invisible bots (creation of fake viewers) at the behest of sometimes nefarious agendas, to reach significant audiences and peddle their junk.
Similarly, it emerged in 2016 that over 100 political news sites were being run by a group of teenagers in a provincial town in Macedonia, publishing highly partisan news stories – many false that were designed to garner clicks and Facebook reactions and monetise these through advertising. One young man claimed to have made US$16, 000 from the advertising on his site in August – November 2016.
In order to combat fake news, there are a number of issues we should consider. Firstly, we must insist on what fake news is not…
Is Fake news, news from satire sites? If so, do such sites
need to clearly label their stories as such. Having said this, we should acknowledge that ‘not all satire sites are incubators of Fake news.
It is good to laugh and God knows we all need laughter in our country but sometimes Laughter has a price especially when it undermines our inherent dignity as enshrined in our Constitution and fuelled through Fake news.
We all sometimes get things wrong in our personal lives and in the media.
We must therefore insist on the highest standards, of course, but also know what the intention is in these matters. Mistakes must be quickly and honestly acknowledged and properly rectified.
There are roles for all of us in this regard.
Very specifically, as political actors, we need to re-assert the fundamental democratic principle that places the public at the forefront of our politics.
For the 4th estate, we need to be vigilant in verifying our stories, in fact checking stories before publication, in fighting for the integrity of our newsrooms, both private and publicly owned, to be the best version of ourselves. The central skills of critical reading and critical thinking begin with us… Thus, we have a bigger role.
Government has a duty to protect our citizens from deliberate falsehoods which are a danger to our democracy by ensuring amongst others that State entities such as the Film and Publication Board also have a role to play in regulating content distributed on the internet.
Currently, there are no specific mechanisms in the UK for dealing with fake news spread online through social media.
What then should Governments do?
Various options can be looked into including the effectiveness of self-regulation by media organisations, state led regulation options as well as co-regulation. This is a discussion for another day.
We now know that a person cannot get HIV from drinking from a cup of someone who is infected or eating from the same plate.
At least, if we can leave this room having agreed on what ‘ Fake News is and how best we can mitigate its impact we would have achieved our objective.