Fake news – Experts warn of dangers of spreading rumours online

This picture is used for illustrative purposes only. Picture: AFP/Miguel Schincariol

Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird advises social media users to be wary of posts that immediately bring out an emotional response.

Social media users are using fake news as a weapon – and it’s working in sowing distrust in some of the country’s most critical institutions, experts have warned.

SA’s top prosecutor was forced to deny a rumour started on social media yesterday, while the top justice in the country was preparing to address the same rumour to the nation tomorow, because a tweet consisting of a picture of a list of judges and amounts they purportedly received from the CR17 campaign went viral, prompting journalists to question those implicated.

This was unethical and dangerous, said constitutional expert Pierre de Vos, who wrote in his blog Constitutionally Speaking of the perils of treating “obviously false claims against judges and the NDPP” as if they were credible.

But William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, said there were also dangers in not addressing wildfire rumours because, left unaddressed, people were prone to believe them.

National director of public prosecutions (NDPP) Shamila Batohi reluctantly answered questions from the SABC yesterday, calling the claim “utter rubbish”.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng’s office also announced a special briefing tomorrow during which he would address the same claims.

The Law Society of South Africa condemned the claims as an attack on the judiciary and the National Prosecuting Authority.

The difference between giving credence to unsupported allegations and addressing them for what they were, lay in the way the media treated them, said Bird.

“If you say these are the guys allegedly named according to something, it is bad journalism,” said Bird.

Pointing out that a certain rumour had gone viral on Twitter, despite a lack of supporting evidence or credible sources, was the more responsible route to take, he said.

“The concern is ordinary citizens may well believe there are prominent justices and judges who have been receiving money from the CR17 campaign, even though there is no evidence to support that – and that can be damaging.

“That Mogoeng Mogoeng and Batohi are having to address this matter to show you the dangers of misinformation on social media.”

While journalists had a duty to ask difficult questions of those who hold public office, De Vos was critical of the practice of treating claims of this nature as worthy of a response.

“If somebody shares an allegation on Twitter that I am cheating on my boyfriend by having an affair with Busisiwe Mkhwebane, the only sane and ethically responsible thing for a journalist to do is to ignore the hilarious and obvious false claim.”

Bird likened the damaging nature of normalising baseless claims on social media to the emerging trend of outing alleged sex offenders on the same platform.

“Think before you share. It may look like a good idea … but you have to take step back from the emotional reaction and ask what purpose does it serve if I retweet this?”

He advises social media users to be wary of posts that immediately bring out an emotional response. Look for the same story in credible news websites.

“If you cannot find it there, don’t share it, because chances are you are fulfilling the agenda of someone trying to spread misinformation.”

News filtering tools and apps were becoming increasingly useful in protecting consumers from falling prey to fake news.


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