Rudy Nadler-Nir is not the kind of person you’d expect to share a fake news story on Facebook. An anthro-geek, Nadler-Nir’s been in the digital sector since it was born, and his resume boasts names like Ogilvy. But late one night the social media reputation man saw a news item about actor Eli Wallach dying. A fan of the method actor who starred in ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Nadler-Nir clicked share.
“People started to respond emotionally. We shared memories of his movies, and of his place in our Cowboy-worshiping childhood,” he relates. But Wallach had been dead for quite some time. “Someone on my timeline chirped in: “he died in 2014”. It felt like being hit with a bucket of cold water.”
Fortunately the only harm done was to Nadler-Nir’s ego. But in the post-truth economy, there’s a lot more at play, like national elections or the safety of foreign nationals. If you shared the mendacious story ‘Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President’, as close on a million people did, you helped to get Trump elected. Closer to home, the sharing of fake news has caused outbreaks of xenophobic violence in South Africa. Why just a few days ago a fake news story wiped out $4 billion of a cryptocurrency company’s market value.
But, how did we get here?
We have arrived in the post truth economy where the news media is facing a crisis of confidence. “Trust in media has been eroded by two main factors. Until the arrival of the internet, traditional media was the only way to reach large audiences. The only voice was a trusted voice. Now media users have other authoritative sources of information, such as experts who write their own blog pieces,” says Anim van Wyk, Editor of Africa Check, that rightly declares on its site: “For democracy to function, public figures need to be held to account for what they say. The claims they make need to be checked, openly and impartially.” Africa Check is an independent, non-partisan organisation that does just this.
“The second reason is also related to the internet,” van Wyk adds. “Newspapers suffered a huge income blow with the arrival of online advertising. The result is a huge cutback in newsrooms and an even greater focus on content that will sell/gain clicks. With fewer people doing more, mistakes are bound to slip in more often.”
Azad Essa, co-founder of @thedailyvox and a journalist at Al Jazeera agrees. “The obsessive focus on profits has seen accuracy relegated to second place,” he says, adding that the way people perceive news brands has changed. News is no longer perceived as ‘the truth’. “Today people think of the news as just another product, like a cup of coffee or slice of cake. It is not delineated as something different that has a moral compass.”
What exactly do South Africans think of the local news media?
Twitter offers insight. Here are some of the less-than-favourable views:
What does the research say?
But revelations of paid and fake Twitter accounts means accurate crowd insights from the social networking service proves tricky, so let’s turn to research. In 2014 FutureFact did research on whether journalists were trusted more than politicians. The results? “76% have confidence in our journalists,” the researchers wrote at futurefact.co.za “This is not unequivocal as only 23% have complete confidence and 53% some confidence.”
Compare this to the US, where trust in the news media is worryingly low. Gallup reports that Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to its lowest level since the research company started polling. 32% of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, down eight percent from last year.
So which news media can you trust to tell the truth? That’s something you’re going to have to determine for yourself, using a healthy dose of skepticism, burgeoning curiosity and the will not to take anything at face value. To help you on your way, study Africa Check’s guide on how to stop falling for fake news. And read the advice from SA's media experts.
advice from some of SA’s best news minds & media pundits.
ALASTAIR OTTER (@alastairotter)
Alastair Otter, a partner in the Media Hack Collective : “When you see a story that sounds incredible, look for a second or third source to determine if it is true. Visit the sites of known reliable publishers and check if they are also covering the news. If they aren’t then be wary. Not finding a second source for a news story is not an absolute indicator that the story is false, but more of a caution.”
Azad Essa (@azadessa)
Azad Essa, Al Jazeera journalist and co-founder of The Daily Vox: “Fake news has always been with us. The world’s always been filled with con men. Stop pretending that people are going to spoon feed the truth to you. You have to take charge. The internet gives you the space, information and tools you need to really take charge. You have to wise up and follow the money.”
Glenda Daniels, Senior Lecturer Media Studies, Wits: “Pause and take a moment before pressing the retweet or repost button if the news is sensational or sounds like it could be false. Don’t become part of the vicious cycle.”
Jane Duncan (@Duncanjane)
Jane Duncan, Professor of Journalism, University of Johannesburg: "Sweatshops don’t encourage ethical journalism. We must give journalism the space to practice ethical journalism, which relates to fair labour rights. So much is produced by freelancers who are badly paid, if they are paid at all. Fair labour rights create an environment where journalists can adhere to ethical standards.
A happy newsroom can lead to a newsroom where journalists invest more time, effort an energy into stories. Journalism then becomes a vocation, rather than just something they do to put food on the table. We need to create environments where journalists will stay longer and give more. We are not having a discussion about what media organisations need to do to create ethical environments for good journalism. We need to do this."
Kanthan Pillay (@KanthanPillay)
Kanthan Pillay, Group Head: Online for E Media Holdings and former CEO of Yfm: "Toss out the adjectives. Journalism is about fact, and adjectives are about opinion. So when you see the word “controversial”, read no further. It’s controversial only because the journalist is lazy. If you strip off the adjectives you see the facts, and you can start ascertaining what the truth is. Obviously ensure that the news stories you consume have a multiplicity of credible sources."
Mahlatse Gallens (@hlatseentle)
Mahlatse Gallens, political editor of News24: "Online many fake news peddlers often try brand themselves similarly to established news organisations. For instance they would use the colours of News24 but change the name a little. At News24 we advise people to double check the sites they go to. On big stories - like the recent fake story of Desmond Tutu passing - remember that if other media houses don't cover the story this should act as a warning bell. In general South Africans critique everything they read. This is very welcome. Use this attitude, but double check the sources of all information. Go and find the original documentation or sources of stories. For instance go and read the Gupta emails yourself. Don't make click baiters and fake news peddlers rich. Remember using social comes with responsibility and you don't want to run foul of the law when it comes to sharing information. Take responsibility for what you share."
Rudy Nadler-Nir (@RudyN)
Rudy Nadler-Nir, MD at DIGIACS, Reputation Observation and Analysis Specialists: “As a rule of thumb, I differentiate between “reliable media providers” (BBC, Reuters, AP, Washington Post, The Guardian, Haaretz, Al Jazeera, News24, M&G [Mail & Guardian], Daily Maverick, Eyewitness News) and the rest. I use news aggregators (Flipboard and Feedly, as well as Google News) so I am able to corroborate news that seems not so kosher. Lately I am less trusting of friends and colleagues on Facebook and, to a lesser extent, Twitter. If news breaks on Twitter or Facebook (for example, the massacre at the Manchester Arena), I check through my “reliable media providers”, to see if anything came through.”
Siki Mgabadeli (@sikimgabadeli)
Siki Mgabadeli, financial journalist at Moneyweb: “The first thing is to check the source - is it an established publication? Is it one you’ve known for a long time and has journalists you have trusted? Are the people posting stories actual journalists? If not, then who do they represent? Are there vested interests at play? Before sharing an article, see if it’s something that’s been quoted elsewhere, by a reputable news organization. Who is sharing it is very important. Most times, you can work out a person or platform’s agenda by looking at what else they’ve shared and their political/ideological leanings. Check everything before you share.”
Thapelo Lekgowa (@Thapelolekgowa)
Thapelo Lekgowa, photographer, researcher and former journalist who helped to break the Marikana Story: "It is always best to be skeptical and to build your own view on issues. The people that I know phone other people to verify news, so if there is a story in Bloemfontein they'd phone someone in Bloemfontein. If you want to know something go directly to the source of the story where you can. If I want to know something about the ANC I'll go and have a drink with an ANC member in our local bar. People don't trust the national news media, but trust community journalism and reporting which happens through social media more. The traditional new media don't carry local news that are relevant to the people in most cases. The news media chooses what matters to the news media which is why people have lost trust in the media. The news media no longer carries stories that matter to the people."
William Bird (@Billbobbird)
William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa: “Don’t trust social media. Click through links, and ensure that stories link through to news headlines at a credible site. Make sure that you consume a diversity of news content. The reason for this is important. If a big story is going to break, it will be carried by a range of media. Diversity allows a better and different picture and encourages a greater level of skepticism of stories that appear, that don’t fit the dominant narrative.”