Donald Trump: Picture: Susan Walsh/ AP

Lies, misinformation and propaganda aren’t new concepts in the world of news media. But, of late, there seems to be an amplified level of dishonesty disseminated through both conventional media and social media.

US president Donald Trump has famously taken to using the term “fake news” in an attempt to discredit information he doesn’t agree. Closer to home, the Gupta’s have been on the receiving end of scathing news reports over the years and they too have cried wolf about being the targets of misinformation and some sort of alleged white monopoly capitalist conspiracy.

As part of the National Arts Festival’s Think! Fest – a series of discussions and lectures on a range of topics – the Fake NewsDebate saw several established panellists sit together to debate and explore the phenomenon of “fake news” and unpack the crisis of misinformation prevalent in todays society.

Chaired by Anthea Garman, the debate panel included former Mail & Guardian and Huff Post SA editor-in-chief, Verashni Pillay and Editor of News24, Adriaan Basson.

Basson opened the debate with some background with regards to the recent expose leaks which were unearthed by the amaBhugane investigative unit and disseminated through a joint operation with News24 and Daily Maverick. 

He spoke about how since the information was leaked to the public, he and some of his colleagues have received threats at their homes. 

He then moved on to discussing Donald Trump journey to the White House and the coinciding rise of far-right American news, opinion and commentary website, Breitbart. Breitbart has grown exponentially over the past two years and is viewed by many as a key role player Donald Trump’s victory in the US elections.

He also engaged of the various types of misinformation and how “twitter bots” are unleashed to flood our timelines with misinformation.


Panelist Thandi Smith, who’s the head of the Policy Unit at MMA, weighed in by explaining how she deals with misinformation and how it is the media’s responsibility to regain the public’s trust. 

Kayla Roux, who’s a Digital Media lecturer at Rhodes University, revelaed how her students have told her that they sometimes Tweet, like and share stories they haven’t read merely based on the headline.  She also explained how Facebook’s algorithm directs imbalanced and biased content to your timeline and how this can place one in an echo chamber.

This algorithm, she explained, looks at what pages you like, what groups you’re in (as well as other engagements you have via the social network) and uses this information to filter what you see. Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss in the US election is often attributed to this “bubble” as many of us were subjected to an echo chamber that excluded views other than our own. To counter this problem, Roux subscribes to various groups, each with opposing views, in order to allow for a wide pool of information from which to draw from.

Mark Oppenheimer, who’s a practicing advocate and writer, discussed the concept of “alternative facts”. The term was famously coined by Trump’s counsellor, Kellyane Conway after White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer made false claims that Donald Trump's presidential inauguration attendance numbers where the highest ever. 

He interrogated this notion and explained how the value of truthful reporting has been reduced by such an open and unapologetic spread of  misinformation. Pillay weighed in on this in her comments on state capture and shared her disbelief and horror at how the Gupta’s own a news channel. 

An important takeaway from the debate is how in this overflow of information, more stringent regulatory systems are vital in order to regain the media’s integrity and moderate the threat of fake news.