The insidious poison of fake news can be lethal to humans

01 June 2017 - 08:39 By Times Editorial
MOB JUSTICE: Children and adults in KwaMashu take to the streets in protest following social media rumours that foreigners were abducting children
MOB JUSTICE: Children and adults in KwaMashu take to the streets in protest following social media rumours that foreigners were abducting children

Truth can be elusive at the best of times. At a point in our post-apartheid trajectory when many facts are much stranger than most fiction, it can be even harder to work out what is really going on.

If you don't live in KwaMashu, where xenophobic violence claimed at least one life this week, it's probably hard to give credence to the rumour that triggered the unrest. It said foreigners had orchestrated a wave of child kidnappings.

But to a community beset with any number of apparently insuperable problems, this rumour was all it took to release the pressure valve. It didn't have to be true; KwaMashu - like so many other places around the country where protests break out every day - was ready to blow.

Social media was instrumental in spreading this rumour, which was effectively a rudimentary form of fake news - a phenomenon that's becoming more widespread and, suddenly, life-threatening.

Fake news has been around forever, of course, and was previously called gossip. But since the invention of the printing press, the unscrupulous or merely careless have turned it into a manipulative tool. Social media has merely unleashed more of its potential on an unsuspecting and eagerly receptive audience.

As a result, societies around the world have taken on the appearance of characters in soap operas, jumping to (wrong) conclusions that only lead to more drama, more angst and ultimately more needless suffering.

This is one of the unintended consequences of the unparalleled and welcome freedom of expression social media has delivered to billions of people around the world.

Make no mistake, the fake news will not stop. But in our own lives and communities, we can help to limit its negative consequences with a healthy dose of scepticism.

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