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Fake news – a powerful weapon




This message has been driven home with alarming repercussions in the past few weeks, highlighted by two separate events: the passing of ANC struggle stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela on April 2 and the flare-up of tensions in Gaza in the Middle East, which began on March 30 and is ongoing.

Both incidents sparked a plethora of false information and vile misrepresentations on social media, with potentially devastating consequences.

Respected veteran journalist Anton Harber and colleagues Thandeka Gqubule and Nomavenda Mathiane discovered first-hand the negative effects of social media, thanks to a video clip recently posted online by Huffington Post SA. It showed parts of an interview, conducted in June 2017 with the late Madikizela-Mandela, in which she made reference to these journalists. She claimed the Weekly Mail (now Mail & Guardian), which Harber edited in the 1980s, was “anti-me and anti-ANC”, and said the newspaper “actually did the job for Stratcom” – the apartheid government’s disinformation disseminating wing that set out to win over white South Africans through smear campaigns. The video has since been removed.

Harber, a Wits University professor of journalism and founding editor of the Weekly Mail, slammed media organisations for publishing the video clip, which went viral. Harber vehemently dismissed the claims made by Madikizela-Mandela.

He said on Twitter that the Weekly Mail exposed some of apartheid’s dirtiest.

A furious Harber told eNCA this week that it was “disgraceful that Huffington Post and the Citizen put the interviews up without context. They didn’t approach us for comment, they put up something that’s libellous and dangerous.”

While speedy retractions and apologies were made by the two publications, social media had spread the word – and the reputational damage was done. Social media became host to a stream of new narratives around Madikizela-Mandela’s life and times.

Acclaimed media trainer and veteran journalist Raymond Joseph told the SA Jewish Report: “The problem with social media is that by the time truth gets out of bed, a lie has gone halfway around the world. Research shows that corrections and apologies do not receive the same traction as mistakes.

“People believe what they want to believe, and what you have is revisionist history colliding with social media – and the victim is the truth. The untruths going around are unbelievable.”

The recent flare-up in tensions on the Israeli Gaza border has, likewise, seen its fair share of purposeful misinformation being disseminated as fact.

Richard Landes, associate professor in the department of history at Boston University, coined the term “Pallywood” (Palestinian Hollywood) to describe the many Hollywood-like staged incidents promoted as news and posted on social media with the aim of discrediting Israel and its soldiers.

A website called IsraelUnwired showed scenes of supposedly injured Gazan Arabs running from Israel Defence Forces (IDF) snipers in fear. It was apparently uploaded to Facebook and captioned “Evil Israelis shooting at poor teenagers”.

A closer look at a wider version of the same image shows the teenagers running right next to a group of Gazans looking all relaxed and having a picnic. This is the tip of the iceberg, according to experts like Landes.

Another example of this is Palestinian children purposefully trying to provoke Israeli soldiers to elicit a negative response on film – these are staged aggressions meant to provoke and capture IDF infractions on screen.

Paula Slier, a South African journalist based in the Middle East, says: “For years, West Bank Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi has been featured in videos confronting Israeli soldiers. In December, she slapped a soldier on the same day her cousin was hit by a rubber bullet. Then in March this year, she accepted a plea deal that had her serve an eight-month prison sentence. Tamimi and her family have been accused of participating in Pallywood, with many Israelis calling her “Shirley Temper”. Others accuse her parents, also activists, of exploiting her for continued appearances in videos. But for Palestinians, Tamimi is a symbol of resistance to Israeli occupation, a heroine.

“It’s a matter of debate whether the videos of her confronting IDF soldiers are brave displays or grandstanding for the camera.”

During the 2014 Gaza War, the BBC raised questions over whether trending images on social media were fake. On social media, people tagged photographs with the hashtag #GazaUnderAttack to display the effects of Israeli air strikes on Palestinians. The BBC found that many of the photographs dated from as far back as 2009, and many were from Syria and Iraq.

Said Joseph: “Whenever the Middle East flares up and Gaza burns, you’ll often see videos and images being used that haven’t been faked necessarily, but have been used out of context. You start to see pictures popping up and when you check, you’ll often find that they are photographs taken of a previous intifada or taken in Syria and Afghanistan.”

Landes highlighted a photograph that was recently used by UNRWA, the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees. The agency used an old photograph of a forlorn Syrian girl in an advert meant to highlight the plight of a young girl in Gaza.

While the spread of disinformation has been around forever, social media has upped the game, said Joseph.“No side is innocent in this. There is dissemination of disinformation from all sides. This is not a war that can be won.

“Social media is a disinformation tool and everyone engages in it. We have passed the stage where wars are simply played on the battlefield.”

He added that in the world of social media, “everyone has a voice”.

“Messages are unfiltered. There are no checks or balances, no true journalism is applied and once the message gets out, it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle.”

Joseph speaks of confirmation bias. This is where you believe something and then you read something that backs up your belief – as a result, you view the information as credible.

Ultimately, it is up to us to check and double check information,” he said.

While Harber is picking up the pieces after the controversy of the past few weeks, he tells the SA Jewish Report it has been a difficult time.

“It has been a very upsetting and painful time because the accusations were horrifying. In this age of social media, stories run wild and people say terrible things, and it’s very hard to counter it.

“Fortunately, many people have shown support, which has made a huge difference.

“This was a real lesson in the dangers of social media. People need to be much more critical of information, claims and allegations. They need to become more sceptical about which media outlets and journalists they can trust to verify and check the facts because allegations are extremely damaging. People must be very careful of unverified information on social media.

“It reminds us how important proper investigative journalism is and how important thorough fact checking is in order to counter misinformation. Institutions need to be built that can put time and resources into checking facts and getting things right. We have to educate people, particularly children, on how to differentiate between media they can trust and media they can’t trust.

“These are dangerous times. Social media amplifies the capacity of people to spread lies. It also spreads many positives, but there is nothing to replace people reading media carefully, critically and sceptically.

“You need to build credibility to be able to challenge those stories. If you indulge in the same kind of dirty tricks, then your own credibility dies. The minute you associate an institution or a person with fake news, it stays with them forever. All we can do is build media institutions and individuals with impeccable credentials.

In the meantime, following the Twitter storm surrounding Madikizela-Mandela’s unsubstantiated claims, Harber says: “Life carries on. I’ll write more about it to fill the gaps, but only when the mood isn’t quite so heated.”

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Martin

    Apr 20, 2018 at 10:51 am

    ‘Just like the best restaurants are awarded a Michelin Star, news outlets should be overseen by an international bureau of standards and get some kind of internationally recognised certificate of credibility, so that consumers can know which sources to trust. Not an easy task, considering how governments would try to buy influence, but nonetheless, necessary,’

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