Opinionista William Bird 4 May 2017

From Media Freedom to the Real impact of Fake News

Support our media, pay subscriptions, write to journalists when they do well and also when they let you down, and most importantly remind people who trash out media that they may have their faults but our democracy would be a millions times poorer without them.

We have a lot to celebrate on World Press Freedom day. It is easy to forget just how brutal our past was, how many media were complicit with the apartheid government, but also how those who fought, faced arrest, abuse, death threats and more. Media weren’t allowed to mention the ANC of Mandela, let alone Biko or Sobukwe. Today our media still experience threats, but the scale and magnitude of the threats cannot be compared to South Africa before democracy. Of course there is still a huge amount wrong with our media, a fact our political parties seem only too pleased to point out. I guess we can’t really blame political parties for attacking our media when they do slip up – after all political parties feel that media are only too eager to pounce on them when things go wrong. Far too often both media and political parties are their own worst enemies.

On the downside, the following will all be familiar generalisations: Politicians and political parties lie, they treat citizens like we are idiots. When they should communicate they hide or are evasive, when caught with their hands in the cookie jar they instead try assure us that it wasn’t them. They are corrupt, and show total disdain for those who voted them into power. Media slip up or allow themselves to be used for others agendas, they are sloppy and unprofessional and think they are a law unto themselves.

While there is some truth to those generalisations, their main function is to serve as ammunition for media against political parties and vice versa. Crucially they undermine the actions of the politicians and those in government who do work extremely hard and tirelessly and deliver. Similarly, they make it only too easy to brush off the stellar work by journalists and media houses to help us understand events in our nation, and also expose wrongdoing.

There are a number of clear threats to media freedom in South Africa. We have witnessed an increase in direct threats to our journalists, in some cases by crowds, as we saw in a few instances during the #FeesMustFall protests, but also by private security where journalists have been physically removed from public areas and forced to delete images. There are also the gravel sinister and anti-democratic threats against journalists for uncovering things that some don’t wish to be uncovered. Most glaringly we have also seen threats against the SABC 8 simply for doing their job. What made these threats all the more concerning was the response by those in authority including the SABC itself and the Minister of communication, both seeking to downplay or ignore the threats and in so doing potentially implicating them in the deeds.

Other threats to media freedom include the reduction of quality and the number of journalists is a clear threat as it prevents stories from being told or being told fully. The commercial imperative and failing public broadcaster means limited audiences are targeted, and small commercial and community media struggle with sustainability. In addition to these threats there are potential threats posed by draft legislation. From the Cyber Security Bill, the Draft Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill as well as more recently, comments made by the Minister of State Security about the desire to regulate social media.

Perhaps one of the greatest emerging threats to our media freedom is that posed by fake news. To be clear fake news, is not new. People spreading lies dressed as news or using dramatic headlines to sell are old strategies. What is new, is our digital reality and social media where it is easy to invent spread and promote fake news. (Ironically this same ability can also be used to help spread and disseminate credible news). While fake news sounds like an easy concept, our reality means what’s true and what isn’t is often hard to determine. One of the ways we are currently approaching fake or dodgy news is instead to look at defining the positive, rather than the negative. In other words what constitutes trustworthy or credible news? We know where media are clear about their aims, where they have clear processes to ensure that what they tell us most of the time can be verified, that credible media subscribe to self and co-regulatory bodies. We know journalists who are credible tend to exist online, that they have a track record. It is easy for us having monitored media for over 24 years to know what more credible news looks like. The trick is to help ensure all of us can identify credible news, for once we know that, it then becomes a lot easier to also see what fake or dodgy news looks like.

There are generally two kinds of fake or dodgy news. The first as click bait to drive traffic to a fake or dodgy news site and where the content is still misleading and or doesn’t subscribe to common standards of journalism and then fake news done as part of a deliberate strategy to misinform and shift public discourse. Both are clear and present threats to media freedom, as they seek to mislead citizens and disempower them from being able to be informed and to participate meaningfully in society.

We are working on a number of plans to tackle both kinds using our existing and some tools in development. It is important for example to be aware that many of the fake/dodgy news sites copy from credible news sources in order to save the dodgy site work, but also to add a layer of credibility to the news story. So we are finding that many of the stories appearing on theses dodgy sites have as much as 50 to 60% of the actual story being copied from a legitimate news site. Of course no credit is given to the original source, but what the reader is then presented with is a half credible story.

Another area has recently emerged dealing with the impact of the dodgy sites on our most vulnerable members of society, our children. It is here that the real threat of dodgy news is made clear, but also the real strength and value of credible media and media freedom has for our society.

To be clear, traditional media often do not cover themselves in glory when it comes to reporting on children. Our research shows children are marginalised in news coverage. In other instances, traditional media violate the rights of children by identifying them when it is clearly not in their best interest to do so. In so doing, media show scant regard for their own ethics, co-regulatory bodies, their audiences and indeed the constitution which guarantees their very media freedom. This is why we have been working with media for over a decade to help improve their coverage and ethical reporting of children – and like many areas in our media there are significant positive shifts, but still a long way to go. But the point is however that through our MADS and GLADS, and direct interaction, we are able to engage directly with media, editors and journalists. Sometimes they may not like what we have to say but they are accountable and on those unusual occasions where we hit a dead end we go to the relevant self and co-regulatory bodies for relief. These are critical steps and issues for media freedom, for while media may get things wrong we can at least engage and hold them accountable and learn.

Not so easy for dodgy news sites. The issue is starkly illustrated in the wake of a video of a 14-year-old girl who engaged in sexual activity. It was clearly “child porn” or more accurately child sexual abuse imagery. When we were alerted to it via comments on social media we reported it immediately. YouTube to their credit removed the video within minutes. It demonstrated a real and meaningful response by a massive multinational. The humiliation for the girl sadly did not end there. When we did a search a few days later on the girl in the news tab on Google, the top ten results were all from dodgy news sites. Stories clearly fabricated, suggesting in separate stories that the girl’s mother and father had sought to end their lives. Another story suggested her boyfriend was 60 years old and had also sought to end his life by throwing himself from a building. No evidence as to the veracity of these stories was given, and ordinary citizens would hopefully have been able to see through the pieces as dodgy news. But still it got worse, for even though the video had been removed, the sites used clickbait to suggest that users could still watch the full unedited video. In other words, they were enticing their audiences to participate in viewing child sexual abuse.

There are a number of responses to this story. The first is that we cannot escape the fact that the child is from an under resourced family and background, so she doesn’t have the legal advice, or in some case necessary support structures to help her respond to the humiliation and violation of her right to dignity and privacy. We know that there have been similar incidents where child sexual abuse imagery was created at a private school where those images were not widely shared, and that those involved had the means and ability to deal with the negative consequences. So it matters that an already vulnerable member of society is made even more vulnerable merely because of her lack of resources.

There are also clearly legal implications to these dodgy sites soliciting audiences to watch child sexual abuse imagery. Doing so is a clear violation of the Film and Publications Amendment Act. As a result we sought to try and engage with the sites. We found it was incredibly difficult to find any name, and in the end we engaged with the website host of the sites. We sent them take down notices, which after some time they instructed their clients to remove the offending articles. This is a mixed success. It is positive that the most offensive stories were removed, but there is no level of accountability, or any guarantee that it will not happen again, and certainly no guarantee of redress for the young girl. Instead we saw on some other sites stories of another young girl who they said they had sexual footage of.

The third response is to the fact that while we do not know the circumstances around the story, or who shared the video, we do know that these dodgy sites sought to benefit from the violation of a child’s rights to dignity and privacy in the most crass and offensive manner. So in addition to having to deal with the fallout of the actual video that was shared, she is forced to endure the humiliation of ongoing stories about her, about her family’s shame and how they allegedly sought to take their own lives. In essence we have a group of people who, for commercial gain, further humiliate and violate the rights of a child who has already had her dignity and privacy violated in the most offensive and public of ways. These dodgy sites traded and benefitted directly from the misery and trauma of a vulnerable child. While we were able to get some of the other stories that were clearly illegal taken down, the others still remain, to the shame of the sites that host them. It seems difficult to conceive how much lower those behind these sites could stoop, than making money from the humiliation of a vulnerable child. Not only is it degrading behaviour, it also undermines media freedom in a profound manner.

Yes our more credible media get things wrong, sometimes badly, but they can be identified, engaged and held accountable. So next time you click on a story from a credible news source on Facebook or Twitter, appreciate that they have great media freedom but they are also responsible for what they produce. You too can also play your part, spot fake news and let us know about it @mediamattersZA Maybe you want to learn more about general social media safety, try out our online game with your children or learn the right online lingo through our Hashplay. In addition to these actions, support our media, pay subscriptions, write to journalists when they do well and also when they let you down, and most importantly remind people who trash out media that they may have their faults but our democracy would be a millions times poorer without them. DM

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