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WATCH: Role of media under scrutiny at SAHRC hearings into July unrest

Looters going on the rampage at a shopping centre in Katlehong on the East Rand. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Looters going on the rampage at a shopping centre in Katlehong on the East Rand. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Published Mar 4, 2022

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Johannesburg - The role of the media came under scrutiny during the SA Human Rights Commission hearings in Sandton on Friday when Media Monitoring Africa Director William Bird explained how both the mainstream and social media played a role during the July unrest.

He explained the roles of mainstream media and social media and how they affected society and fuelled their actions.

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Asked about the media he said: "We try and strike a balance between freedom of expression with other rights and interest. This approach is particularly relevant, because the issue that we dealing with today around harmful speech, misinformation and how we deal with it and with online content, is such a difficult thing to deal with.

"When we look at combating disinformation. We have been doing a lot of work in the last four to five years and we have undertaken some strategic litigation looking at disinformation."

He described mass media as a traditional journalistic media, saying it was there to maintain journalistic principles and standards, as opposed to social media.

According to Bird: "Social media does not build community. It's not necessarily there to inform; it's there to sell us advertisements, fundamentally, whereas news media are there to help us understand what is going on."

On the constitution of traditional and social media, he said there was no solid difference in definition between misinformation and disinformation. Both implied intentionally spreading false information to deceive people.

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"Social media works on how easy you are to sell to audiences, so the algorithms that promote and go viral and the things that people view, tend to be things that resonate and (evoke) an emotional response," he said.

He also said with social media, the things that people know go viral are things that push buttons, things that they say; like “let's get rid of all foreigners”.

"It's very easy to use, stimulate and encourage emotion and social media deliberately feeds off that. The more you can get people angry, the more likely they are to share that.“

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When asked about the role of the media during the July unrest, he said they hadn’t concluded their work in this area. "We have not completed our analysis of that actually, but what we do know is that at the time it showed just how gutted our mainstream media are," he said.

"It was hours before we could get any of the violence actually verified on a legitimate credible mainstream media house. Not even the SABC, which is the biggest media house in the country, was able to say yes this is happening. They had to get out there (first)," he stated.

"Yes they can. I am not sure how they can in a way how the government is currently structured.

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“One of the advantages of a former president like (the US’s Donald) Trump, is that he was doing his own social media when he frequently posted the most outrageous offensive, sexist and racist stuff. But he was there and communicating better than most people," he added.

He told the commission that social media had power and it could turn things around.

The commission alerted the media that the next person to testify at their hearings would be President Cyril Ramaphosa on April 1. He is expected to give a clear indication of what happened during the unrest.

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Political Bureau

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