It may only have gained popularity in recent months, driven largely by its use by a certain orange haired president but it isn’t actually 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).
There are two main reasons why we need to be careful about the term “fake news”:
For these reasons, while fake news sounds like an easy concept, our reality means what's true and what isn't is often hard to determine.
There are generally two kinds of fake/false/dodgy news. The first is “news” as click bait to drive traffic to a fake/dodgy news site and where the content is still misleading and or doesn't subscribe to common standards of journalism. The second is fake/false/dodgy news done as part of a deliberate strategy to misinform and shift public discourse, or what we think and talk about. Both kinds undermine media freedom and our democracy as they seek to mislead and disempower us from being able to be informed and to participate meaningfully in society.
The other problem with the term fake news is that there is often a good deal of truth to the stories. In many instances fake/false/dodgy news stories can spread fast because they have to have elements that make them believable.
One of the earliest examples in South Africa was a “breaking” story around five years ago on a dodgy website that announced that Nelson Mandela had died. The story spread rapidly and was taken up by many – largely because at the time Mandela had been in hospital, so the authors used the accurate knowledge that Mandela had been ill to help make it seem more believable that he had passed when in fact he only passed away some years later.
It gets worse, not only is our own news in South Africa simply unbelievable, but if you play around with our Churnalism tool on this site you will also find that in many instances stories from sites that are known for dodgy content, have copied a lot of content from more credible media sites. Sometimes they will copy the whole story, or sometimes use just a portion of it. In any event it means that instead of being able to say the site is fake or the stories are fake we prefer to call them dodgy. The benefit is that the term indicates that the news, for a variety of reasons should not be trusted.
So you might think, well what’s the harm in sharing dodgy news? I might also have been duped. There are a few problems with dodgy news.
It makes the world a more undemocratic place and rewards scumbags: The first is that dodgy news only really becomes dodgy news when it gets shared until then it is some nonsense on the internet somewhere. So by sharing it you help either a salacious doorknob to make money from deceiving you, or you help an evil doorknob spread misinformation. If you are ok with those things, well perhaps you should think about starting your own dictatorship or political party in a new country. If like most people you don’t want to help these people, then you need to avoid sharing.
The second problem with sharing dodgy news is that it also reflects badly on you. Sharing dodgy news can have a seriously negative impact on a person or group's reputation and your own credibility. So you need to be careful about sharing dodgy news as your friends, colleagues and family will all look to you when they look like fools for sharing something that is clearly dodgy. So unless you like being the village idiot in your group you need help avoid sharing dodgy news.
One of the critical defaults for us at MMA has always been that one of the most powerful tools an active citizen has is their ability to critically engage. Media monitoring the way we have been doing it for 24 years and in our children’s programme for 14, is about giving you your own in built crap detector. Asking questions, thinking and seeking alternatives will help you protect yourself from those seeking to misinform you.
If you haven’t learned the joy of critical media monitoring don’t worry, the tips below will still help you spot dodgy news.
The short answer is many people are doing many things to help combat dodgy news. Big brands like Facebook, Google and Twitter are trying new tools. We are also working on a plan and we have already partnered with the Press Council and have support from three of our biggest media houses, with more to come in the next few weeks.
Our response to dodgy news is to highlight the positive by asking, what constitutes trustworthy or credible news? We are working on a range of criteria (and would love to hear any suggestions you might have) to begin with, credible media are those media:
Practically we have a three pronged approach because even if we help identify credible media with tips, we need tools to make your life easier. We have one now ready for use:
Know your dope from your dodgy: If you care about sharing news that is credible, you need to download this extension to help you identify if the site you are browsing contains credible or dodgy news. Assist us by identifying more credible and more dodgy sites. Developed by Media Monitoring Africa, an independent non-profit organisation that promotes media freedom, media quality and ethical journalism.