Defamatory social media content was widely blamed for helping Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton. Photo: AFP
Defamatory social media content was widely blamed for helping Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton. Photo: AFP
Defamatory social media content was widely blamed for helping Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton. Photo: AFP
Defamatory social media content was widely blamed for helping Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton. Photo: AFP
JOHANNESBURG - The Duke Menell Media Exchange (MMX) conference, which went down over two days last week (August 11 and 12), brought together South African media houses, non-profit organisations, community and independent journalists, bloggers, new media content makers, tech developers, scholars and students. 

The annual gathering is a project of Duke University and is funded by Mary Menell Zients and Jeff Zients.

MMX exists to introduce the journalism community to practical tools and resources that will enhance their work. It is easily South Africa’s most significant networking platform for journalists - offering programming designed to support the media community and encourage collaboration. MMX’s organisers appear to be passionate advocates for press freedom and fierce proponents of independence and other democratic mores within the practice of journalism.

Complex issues

This year’s MMX event, themed Truth & Trust: Mapping Media’s New Terrain, sought to unpack the complex issues influencing journalism professionals operating in an increasingly globalised, digital-led context. There’s no doubt that the unwieldy democratisation potential of the internet has knocked mainstream media interests for a six.

While the industry scrambles to rework dated business models to ensure survival, it is subject to scrutiny into its questionable links to certain financial backers and powerful political entities that no doubt influence media agendas. It’s worth acknowledging the reality of how the public sphere is being redefined courtesy of the widespread adoption of digital tools and platforms.

The fact that pretty much anyone with an internet connection can now assume an agenda-setting role, commit to packaging personalised versions of the “truth”, and actively contribute to a news cycle that was once dominated by a privileged elite, is both exciting and terrifying.

While the internet promotes unprecedented inclusion, it has also provided many of us front row seats to a wide array of startlingly ingenious web-hacks that have been used to disseminate fake news and deploy weaponised information.

Given that backdrop, what is truth and who can we trust? As a non-journalist operating at the intersection of journalism and entrepreneurship, I consider it my responsibility to interrogate the values and norms which inform my practice within this shifting digital landscape.

Ethical considerations aside, like every other respectable news and media producer in the world - large or small, mainstream or otherwise - there are existential issues (regarding maintaining relevance and commercial viability) which motivate my desire to be both a truthful and trustworthy source of insight.

The opening keynote address at this year’s MMX was delivered by the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian and current deputy executive director for media at Human Rights Watch, Nicholas Dawes.

He painted a bleak picture of the state of the global mainstream media industry and seemed to take great delight in criticising nearly all of South Africa’s major news outlets and media houses for sporting unethical conduct and failing to take on corrupt politicians and business interests.

Loss of integrity

Dawes railed against the apparent loss of integrity that he believes has taken over mainstream journalism. I felt that he was inferring that during his tenure at the Mail & Guardian, he never once succumbed to this abhorrent pandemic as some of his contemporaries later would.

Going by Dawes’ presentation, only he, Julian Assange and perhaps the right-minded folks at The New York Times, are the last surviving specimens of journalistic uprightness left on the planet.

Now, it isn’t that I am not perturbed by the unsavoury influences and untrustworthy motives at play in large news and media concerns, however pure they purport to be.

My issue with some of Dawes’ assertions is that they reduce the complex state of play within the global news and media business to a binary good guy, bad guy debate. If only it were that simple.

The inconvenient truth is that there are many shades of grey to account for when explaining how, why and when “the media” seeks to champion “truth”.

And in accepting that pragmatic notion, it is then impossible not to question the motivation, validity and trustworthiness of every single journalist, PR professional, every news and media outlet, every human rights activist, every political party, every politician, every civil servant, every special-interest group - deep breath - every lobbyist, every start-up founder, every venture capitalist, every whistle-blower, every non-profit organisation, every corporation, every net neutrality proponent, every scholar, every educator, every educational institution, every public broadcaster, every parastatal, every charitable foundation, and every man, woman, boy and girl with access to the internet. No-one, and I mean no-one, gets a pass.

We ought to regard with suspicion individuals and organisations who project an air of infallible decency, and those who presume to promote their untainted neutrality without a sufficient dose of humility. For as long as power, influence and commercial gain have been diligently sought after, the media has always been susceptible to capture and has, in fact, always been complicit in producing or promoting questionable propaganda and even fake news in various guises.

In terms of fake news, however, there is admittedly an unofficial hierarchy of evil. Some forms of fake news are considered completely vulgar and damaging, while others are deemed less harmful, if not perfectly acceptable.

Think sensationalised tabloid news articles, editorialised PR ops and dodgy forms of native advertising, versus the defamatory social media content that was widely blamed for helping Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton in the US’s latest presidential race.

Civic watchdogs

Eric Mugendi is the Nairobi-based managing editor at PesaCheck.org, an East African fact-checking initiative launched by Code For Africa - a non-profit organisation which claims to be “a people-driven movement that aims to empower active citizenry and strengthen civic watchdogs”.

In an interview taped for AfricanTechRoundup.com a day before Kenya’s general election, I asked Eric to factor in on how fake news might have influenced voter sentiment in the lead-up to his country’s highly-contested polls. He gave me a sense of how pervasive doctored political text, images and videos were on Kenya’s social media scene and sombrely reflected on why their source was shrouded in mystery.

The unsettling reality is that many of the thousands of Kenyans who may have unwittingly shared fake news via their social media networks are probably completely oblivious to the fact that anyone in the world with web access, basic digital editing skills, a little creativity and a vested interest in certain political or economic outcomes, has the capacity to influence voter sentiment. Here’s the unfortunate truth - no one can be trusted.

-BUSINESS REPORT