Verify information to counter fake news‚ seminar hears

19 July 2018 - 17:41 By Ernest Mabuza
Africa Check senior researcher Kate Wilkinson has warned against spreading unverified information and passing it as the truth
Africa Check senior researcher Kate Wilkinson has warned against spreading unverified information and passing it as the truth
Image: iStock Images

A number of speakers from the media and civil society met in Pretoria on Thursday to decide on ways to fight the spread of fake news‚ which they described as having a debilitating effect on society.

One of the main points that was made at the seminar‚ hosted at the Institute for Security Studies on Thursday‚ was that there was a need to ensure that information that goes to the public is verified.

Africa Check senior researcher Kate Wilkinson said there were a lot of people around the world‚ especially in Africa‚ who made very important decisions about their health based on the information they found online.

She said in Nigeria during 2003‚ some religious leaders started to spread rumours without any medical support that the polio vaccine was designed to sterilise their children.

“These rumours were not only spread informally but were published in the press without verification.”

This saw the spread of polio in Nigeria.

“Nigeria‚ to this day‚ is battling to reverse that damage.”

Wilkinson said the term fake news originally referred to websites which were created to look pretty much exactly like traditional news websites but with fake and scandalous stories which were written and published to draw viral traffic which would then make huge ad revenues for people who had created these websites.

“Subsequently we have discovered all sorts of misinformation. We tend to keep using the same term to describe the myriad of problems.”

Wilkinson said the problem with doing that was that there were a number of different types of misinformation and that each type of misinformation required a very unique solution.

Wilkinson said sometimes poor reporting was referred to as fake news.

“It is a way to dismiss journalism involving certain media houses and the solution to poor journalism is not the same solution to traditional fake news websites.”

On the issue of misinformation‚ Wilkinson cited an example of a media campaign by the Department of Basic Education in 2013 in which it boasted that it had opened a new school a week for 19 weeks and presented the media with photographs of the schools.

“Certain media houses republished these photo galleries without any reporting or journalism.”

She said checks to verify the information revealed that the information provided by the department was not correct‚ such as that the schools were opened over a period of over a year.

She also cited an interview with Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba where he had made a claim about the number of undocumented immigrants in the Johannesburg CBD‚ and the interviewer had not questioned Mashaba about the source of his claim.

Teldah Mawarire‚ advocacy manager at CIVICUS‚ a global organisation of civil society organisations‚ said the impact of fake news was that it eroded public trust of what civil society did.

An example was that fake news might be used by the mining industry to spread false information about an activist.

“Sometimes fake news is generated about civil society. People lose trust in civil society‚” Mawarire said.

Mawarire said fake news also contributed to the rise of “uncivil society”.

Mawarire said these were usually government-funded organisations whose aims were to take away civil rights of people‚ like reproductive rights of women‚ the rights of LBGTI communities and rights of migrants.

Another speaker Anzet du Plessis‚ who presented preliminary research on fake news‚ said there might be a way to “inoculate” against fake news - by getting real news first before fake news.

X