Propaganda: The dissemination of biased or misleading information, according to the Oxford Dictionary (hard copy). Admittedly, the pace at which information travels today coupled with an ease of access, paging through a dictionary might seem counter-intuitive. But I have recently questioned the quality of information obtained online. (Ironically that is the case here)

Donald Trump was the first to alert audiences of the dangers and influence of using ‘alternative facts’, especially to a political end, on a global scale. He made unsubstantiated statements in political speeches, exaggerated statistics and, according to some observers, sometimes made them up.

His methods quickly spread, after all, it worked.

South Africans have recently learned of a more disturbing and underhanded campaign. The ANC has found itself fending off allegations over a covert campaign aimed at undermining opposition parties in the run-up to the local elections. It included, reports say, an ANC friendly news site and chat show, fake opposition posters and social media influencers.

The Guptas have been accused of doing the same – allegedly trying to rid itself of the ‘state capture’ tag by passing it on to others. Home Affairs has also reacted to false online statements claiming the department has ordered the “immediate deportation of undocumented migrants”. And the entire ‘rogue unit’ at Sars was uncovered by sensationalist information fed to the Sunday Times, a traditional and well established media house. In this case the newspaper later retracted the story, as it was able to check the facts.

Here lies an important distinction, because although the media have been accused and in some instances found guilty of publishing or broadcasting false or biased information, they have the means to verify that information. Although it would be naïve to believe all media houses do.

     

A concoction of information

It begs the question whether fake news is a symptom of the current state of affairs. Due to the availability of information, the distributors of news often find themselves playing catch-up. This results in a blur of evidence based reports and those relying on claims, sometimes left at the accused party’s dismissal of the allegations.

Once a perception is spread, or goes viral, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the speculation from the facts; Even more so when credible news organisations publish reports on their websites about the latest claims and further worsened by circular reports. Information is constantly added, but rarely dissected.

This is an attractive environment for someone to plant an alternative narrative, often reinforced by the existing one.

Thanks to the internet, and social media in particular, information is spreading at an unprecedented rate. And it can be spread by anyone with access to the internet. This is a good thing in that the public has access to countless streams of information as well as a platform. The problem is checking whether the information is accurate.

While the media cannot be expected to fact-check every claim that is made online, it does have a responsibility when the information in question is of interest to the public. This would apply to any significant social, financial or political misinformation distributed to the public. In some instances, misinformation could comprise the safety on certain individuals.

The public in turn also has a responsibility. The fact-checking organisation Africa Check has a list of tips to help users identify fake news posts or websites. Whether they aim to influence public discourse or just act as click bait to make a quick buck, users need to at least try and determine the validity of the information they consume.

The role of the media, and by extension mine, is to entertain and inform the public. While we have a responsibility to ensure you are fed with accurate information, your obligation is simply to chew on it before you swallow.