At a time when fact-based reporting is increasingly being undermined by fake news, the BBC’s Dickens Olewe looks at the lessons for the media in Africa.
“ALERT: Don’t fall victim to fake news!”
This is the message that pops up when you visit South Africa’s Eyewitness News (EWN) website.
The warning advises readers to be more vigilant about the news they consume.
The message goes on to say that the publication is committed to providing news that is accurate, fair and balanced.
It then links to another page that gives tips on how to spot fake news, with a list of websites it has identified as purveyors of fake news in South Africa.
The publication also invites readers to send in fake stories they come across and those which they are unsure about.
EWN’s attempt to fight the spread of false news content is probably a first on the continent.
Katy Katopodis, EWN editor-in-chief, told the BBC that the publication felt it had a duty to protect the integrity of journalism by educating its audience.
“We have to be proactive to acknowledge the dangers of fake news and to offer our readers advice on how to spot a fake news story,” she says.
“At Eyewitness News we believe we need to counter the lies and the fake news with the truth and a reality check.
“We all have a responsibility to disseminate news that is factual and correct.”
EWN’s fake news guide was implemented last month amid allegations that the governing African National Congress (ANC) had planned to run a campaign to create and disseminate false information to discredit opponents ahead of last year’s local election in which it lost many seats.
AmaBhungane, an investigative journalism team, reported that a covert operation dubbed the War Room, was intended to “disempower Democratic Alliance and Economic Freedom Fighters parties” by using digital media and social media influencers.
The ANC has denied the allegations, with one official accused of being involved in the planning of the operation describing it as “fake news”.
The term fake news, which has been used a lot since last year’s US presidential elections, was meant to call attention to falsified news content that was widely shared on the internet, mostly on social media.
Trump ‘endorsed by the Pope’
An analysis by BuzzFeed released after the US elections found that top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined.
The top five stories under this study were positive spins to prop up the candidacy of Donald Trump, including one claiming that he was endorsed by the Pope.
“Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement,” the article’s headline read.
The other stories promoted conspiracy theories about his then challenger Hillary Clinton which some analysts say helped undermine her campaign.
The creation and distribution of misinformation is not new, the difference at the moment is that spreading false information has been incentivised.
Digital publishing platforms like Facebook and Google have built ecosystems that reward clicks on website links and one of the most effective ways to drive traffic to a website is to entice readers with sensational content.
The Macedonian teenagers became infamous after it was revealed they were behind several fake stories shared during the US election, mostly in support of Mr Trump, earned thousands of dollars by getting thousands of clicks on articles they shared on Facebook.
In Africa, several articles have managed to fool many and garnered a lot of clicks for their promoters. Here are a sample of some of the headlines:
- Eritrean men ordered to marry two wives or risk jail
- UK Announces Visa Free Entry For Nigeria And Other Commonwealth African Countries
- Trump says “Africans are lazy fools only good at eating, lovemaking and thuggery”
- Robert Mugabe says Zimbabweans are “honest people” but “stealing is in every Kenyan’s blood”.
The allure of getting clicks has seen some publishers take advantage of the interest fake stories generate.
Recently, Kenya’s sports website Game Yetu, owned by a mainstream publisher The Standard, lifted a story from Mzansi Live, a fake news website in South Africa with an unlikely claim – that Zimbabwe had sent its female footballers to Brazil to be impregnated by soccer legends there:
Game Yetu tried to keep editorial distance from the article by placing it under the rumours and gossip section of its website.
Ms Katopodis says she is concerned about mainstream publishers pursuing clickbait.
The South African paper editor says that it behoves credible newsrooms and journalists to fact-check stories and promote media literacy.
“I am inspired by how the banking sector has been educating its customers to deal with online scams – we should do the same.”
While there is nothing wrong with curating content to lure readers to read stories on your website, overselling and packaging of news items using misleading headlines does a lot to undermine publishers’ credibility.
With traditional revenue sources drying up and with viral content bringing in the money, for-profit media organisations are caught in a conundrum.
Huffington Post’s South Africa edition exemplified this.
It recently published a handy guide for spotting faking news which included this important advice: “Reputable media houses will have credible adverts on their pages. Fake news sites often have pornographic adverts. That should raise red flags.”
However, below the article it had a widget containing a series of fake news stories, including one of US President Donald Trump calling South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma “the best ever”.