Dr Colin Thakur, director of the KZN eSkills CoLab at the Durban University of Technology, said it was unacceptable that messages on Facebook and WhatsApp were being forwarded by users who did not bother to verify their origin or truth.
“We must punish the person and put them in jail for the weekend so people know there is a consequence to spreading fake news,” he said.
Thakur called on people not to believe everything they read because the more sensational a message, the more likely it was to be shared.
He said the burden of truth was on the person who made the post.
“If you want to be the first person, you must get the credit, but if you want to be the first idiot then you must face the consequences.”
He said WhatsApp’s recent decision to limit the number of times users can share messages will help to slow down the spread of fake news.
The Daily News spoke to Thakur after several social media messages warning parents about child abductions in KwaZulu-Natal went viral. These messages followed hot on the heels of the murder of 9-year-old Miguel Louw.
Police spokesperson Colonel Thembeka Mbele said none of the incidents had been reported to them and none of the families of the children allegedly kidnapped had confirmed the information.
“It has been noted that some of these video clips might be re-enactments because they are conveniently taken in a way that neither the location nor any other information can be ascertained.”
Mbele urged residents to verify any information and approach the police for assistance.
National police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo said police could arrest people for spreading fake news on charges of defeating the ends of justice, inciting public violence or even treason, in extreme cases.
Social media expert Gus Silber said there was an “epidemic” of fake news on Facebook and Twitter. Rather than criminalising the spreading of fake news, Silber encouraged people to be more critical of the information they post or share.
Vee Ganie, South Durban branch chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal Parents’ Association, said parents were in a “heightened state of panic and paranoia” as a result of the social media posts. He said although kidnappings and abductions did occur, it was not at the rate that people currently believed.
Ganie said there were several allegations of near abductions which were found to be false. He said a recent Facebook warning about the near abduction of two children in Chatsworth went viral after a woman saw a man talking to two pupils and posted a social media message about the incident.
The next day parents went to the police and discovered that the man was an Uber taxi driver who had been asking the children for directions. “Parents need to be vigilant and not panic or be paranoid. Parents must be responsible and know where their children are at all times,” said Ganie.
Sarah Findlay, programme co-ordinator at Media Monitoring Africa, said misinformation was easy to share and concrete steps should be taken to prevent this from doing the rounds. “A lot of people in South Africa feel uncertain and fragile, so it’s easy to stoke panic with one message.”
She said people deliberately spread misleading information for many reasons, including political and commercial gain, while in other cases it was not deliberate because a real news story could be taken and slightly altered without being obvious.
Findlay called on social media users to ensure their privacy settings were on, while Thakur said it was important to assess and evaluate all information that was read.