Black Wednesday calls us to frown upon fake news
By Gasant Abarder
Yup, there he is. Standing in the doorway of his home as I pull up into the driveway. It has become a Saturday morning ritual when I visit. My dad is about to tell me something profound as he always does around this time each week. A sensational titbit of news he’s just picked up off WhatsApp or Facebook. I know that look on his face. He can’t wait for me to open the car door.
The irony is that it isn’t even from his own WhatsApp or Facebook account. He has neither. It is gleaned second-hand from my mom’s social media.
“Salaam, Gasant,” he says. What follows next is not a “hello” or “how are you?” Instead, it’s an out of breath, “So, I hear people who smoke have less chance of getting the virus.”
Then he hesitates, as if doubting his own information, before adding, “Covid-19.”
“Ah interesting, dad,” I reply. “Where did you hear this?” And he predictably says, “From mom’s Facebook account.” Whoop, there it is!
It’s a common exchange. The information is even plausible. In my days as a newspaper editor he would ask me if I had read what was in the paper I had just put to bed a few hours earlier. I would indulge him as he would mangle the facts of the story after having only read the headline and the introduction.
My mom and dad have a tenuous relationship with the news and the facts. If I hadn’t been in the news business for most of my life this skit
would be quite comedic. I’m not being mean to my parents. Tragically, this represents the relationship most people have with the news.
Upon further probing, I find the information hadn’t even emanated from my mom’s Facebook account but rather the neighbourhood watch WhatsApp group. Oh boy!
This real-life exchange with my parents inspired me to start a new content platform recently that is dedicated to helping citizen content producers navigate the media space. They’re not even influencers, bloggers and vloggers but moms and dads who are armed with Facebook accounts and fake news.
Because if you have a Facebook account and you’re distributing information, that makes you a content producer. A dangerous one, at that. And that fake news can see you being sued, arrested or fired from your job. No disclaimer like “I post in my personal capacity” is going to help.
The traditional news outlets of radio, TV and newspapers have learnt the hard way during the Covid-19 lockdown just how dispensable they are to their audiences. If some of these had dipped their toes into digital before the pandemic, they are now drowning in the clamour to be relevant.
But how did we get here? A world where it is getting harder and harder to separate fiction from truth? Where clicks rather than credibility is the standard currency of success.
The media industry has been in trouble for a long time. But the inevitable death throes have been sped up by the disruption of Covid-19. The long play of investing resources into quality content and reaping the rewards over time is now no longer a viable option.
Those who seized the moment when the going was good for media houses are able to weather the storm because they have built their stock by building their reputations.
Think about it. You spot a breaking news post on Twitter from a source you’ve never heard of before. You only really start believing and retweeting when that same information is tweeted by the New York Times. Why? Because the New York Times has spent decades building its standing and profile in the hearts and minds of audiences.
But back to mom and dad. The superhighway of information they encounter is polluted with disinformation. They need voices of reason, credible purveyors of content and information to help them make informed decisions.
Think about that the next time you pick up a newspaper and grumble about the cover price.
Think about the extra work a journalist put in to get you a balanced, well-researched story instead of reporting a rumour as fact.
Think about how a reporter may have risked their lives with infection while covering the Covid-19 pandemic, or even worse reporting from conflict or war-torn regions.
Think about the legacy of the great investigative journalists who brought down scandal-ridden and corrupt governments and helped to shape the course of history.
Think about the code of conduct a journalist subscribes to that is a promise to bring news that is free, balanced, independent, fair, accurate and devoid of favour.
Media Freedom Day was once again commemorated on October 19. It is also known as Black Wednesday because of the apartheid government’s crackdown on the press on that day in 1977.
As we commemorate the day, the best gift we can give our democracy, which is increasingly on shaky grounds, is a free, independent and robust press. But in order to enjoy a free press we need to become discerning audiences. As consumers of news we have our part to play by turning our backs on those who peddle fake news and instead reunite with those who have earned our trust.
In the age of fake news, disinformation and propaganda can we afford not to?
* Abarder is former editor of the Cape Times, Cape Argus and was the inaugural Regional Executive Editor of Independent Media in the Western Cape. His debut book, Hack with a Grenade – an editor’s back stories of SA News, published by HSRC Press Best Red, is due for launch in December. Visit loudhousemedia.co.za for more media tips for citizen content producers.