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Could common ‘fake news’ be traditional media’s canary in the coal mine?


Vanessa Clark is a freelance technology journalist based in Cape Town. She is currently working towards an MA in Media Theory and Practice, researching fake news, at the University of Cape Towns Centre for Film and Media Studies. She presented her initial research findings at the annual conference of the South African Communication Association (Sacomm), held in conjunction with Highway Africa in August and September 2017

When referring to “fake news”, there is a strong argument for stopping using the label “news” at all given the implied endorsement the word gives the content. However, instead of closing ranks and distancing themselves from the phenomenon, traditional media could interrogate the content of common or garden “fake news” to find out why it so often appeals to readers.

Fake news”, possibly the most ironic of all the oxymorons, has definitely achieved the status of a thing. It graduated into the Associated Press Stylebook in May 2017, and a Google search throws up almost 160-million results. And 26-million of these are news items: so fake news is now also real news.

Today, the phrase is a put-down in an argument, a way to dismiss something you don’t agree with, and, sometimes, almost indistinguishable from real, or true, news. And, so far, efforts to combat its spread have had, at best, limited success.

For the purpose of this article, and the research I am doing, let’s set aside fake news that is obviously propaganda for the moment. The type of politically motivated stuff spread in the run up to the US elections last year, and, closer to home, paid Twitter and the hijacking of legitimate discussions for nefarious, divisive or unclear ends. Fake news is a spectrum, and for now, let’s stay with what I am going to call “common, garden variety fake news”. Articles such as “South Africa To Introduce Hour Sex Breaks at Work” or “Funny man Kevin Hart robbed, beaten up in South Africa” which appeared on “fake news” sites Mzansi LIVE and Live Monitor respectively.

The spread of this “news” is pretty counterintuitive, given we are being bombarded with more information than ever before. Facebook says that every day 800-million people like, and 175-million people love something on the site. And according to Internet Live Stats, every second, we send 7,765 tweets and 2.6-million emails, search 62,656 times on Google, and watch 70,877 YouTube videos. Anyone working in media or marketing knows what it feels like to try and cut through the clutter to have your message land with its intended audience. Yet, fake news seems to be thriving.

So what makes common, garden variety fake news stand out in this digital deluge?

A point of departure for understanding the appeal of fake news a bit better could be through an examination of the similarities it shares with tabloids. Things like the language, concerns, categories and tropes fake news uses feel familiar. And studies into tabloids and their readers showed that in a newly democratic society, tabloids filled a vacuum created by the disappearance of the alternative media and mainstream media’s focus on a middle-class readership. By contrast, tabloids focused on the poor and working class, speaking in their language and telling the stories of their communities.

So let’s, for the moment, consider that there may be more to fake news than meets the eye and the reasons it resonates with its readers might tell us something useful about the “traditional” media.

An analysis of a narrative arc that appeared in one of South Africa’s most popular fake news sites in March this year hints at some of the reasons for its appeal. Collectively, the stories that form this arc generated tens of thousands of Facebook shares, according to the counter on the site. And the site, Mzansi LIVE, has an Alexa ranking of 3,893 in South Africa, which places it on a par with, or even outperforming, some niche online media outlets.

The stories in the arc met few of the standards of traditional news reporting: no set style; no consistency and little accuracy in spelling and grammar; non sequiturs; no objectivity; and few direct quotes. Sources are simply fabricated or omitted, and articles rely heavily on phrases such as “it is reported” and “it is understood”.

What is interesting, however, is that, underneath the scandal and sensationalism of the stories, there are indications of anxiety about the world, including technology; sugar daddies/blessers; cities; the middle class; and young, sexually active women and girls. Compared to badly localised copies of international fake news that have been circulating for years, these stories appear to be original, inventive, and cleverly weave in the truth. They also work as a set, building a sense of drama and anticipation, for instance through the use of “breaking” in headlines.

While additional research is needed, I would suggest that something else is going on here than the usual deliberate misinformation, entertainment, and scandal to drive clicks and shares. This goes beyond superficial “click bait” techniques, which the mainstream media has increasingly borrowed to attract attention online. Instead, successful fake news purveyors may have locked on to themes that resonate with its readers, and so cut through the digital clutter.

And this can possibly teach us something. Perhaps the mainstream media’s angst over fake news is analogous with the angst it experienced with the launch of tabloid media in South Africa in the early 2000s. Herman Wasserman writes in the book Tabloid Journalism in South Africa: “Readers trust the tabloids to provide them with detailed news that keeps them informed, but also makes them feel connected to a larger society.” Readers were getting something from tabloids that the mainstream media weren’t providing them with. And this meaning-making was not contradicted by the expectation of only a certain level of truthfulness from tabloids. Hence, for tabloid readers, untrue news does not always imply meaningless news.

Now I’m not suggesting that fake news sites should be brought into the fold in the same way tabloids were, when their editors were begrudgingly admitted to the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef) in 2005. Indeed there is a strong argument for stopping using the label “news” at all, given the implied endorsement the word gives the content.

But I am suggesting that, when considering their ongoing role in society, traditional media interrogate the fake news content that is resonating with readers instead of closing ranks and distancing themselves from the phenomenon, which seems to the current response. One of the reasons this could be dangerous, is that it sets the tone for proposed remedies to fake news. The current obsession with media literacy and fact-checking as a silver bullet cure-all is the inevitable, ineffective outcome of this point of view.

As we ride out the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the media, like all industries and organisations around the world, are at a unique moment in time where they can reposition themselves for success and meaning in the digital age. And possibly fake news, with its ability to cut through digital clutter, has some lessons to share in terms of what really resonates with today’s online audience. DM


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