The Hawks have warned that people who disseminate fake news could face criminal charges. Photo: Pixabay
Cape Town - Fake news has been a part of human existence since the beginning, clinical and research psychologist Niel Victor said.

“Of course, the popularity of the name is unique to this age of knowledge, with wide access to information that is made available and distributed by individuals,” Victor said.

“In the past, knowledge had generally been managed and protected by the few - often some elite. This meant that (they) had the power to provide the perspective they wanted to people, and we started (referring to this) as propaganda, or as Orwell so eloquently put it in 1984 - (the view of) the ministry of information.”

Producers of fake news could rapidly alter their news to try and influence people to adopt a new perspective, and people could be susceptible to shifting their outlook and be attracted to other perspectives.

Hawks spokesperson Philani Nkwalase said those creating fake news often had a malicious motive for producing it. Criminal charges, as well as civil claims, could be laid against people who disseminated fake news that caused harm. “The perpetrator wants to create some sort of reaction when sending out fake news.”

Nkwalase said fake news could be created with the intention of extorting money from a person, which constituted fraud, or was generated to discredit an individual or group of people, or organisations and entities.

He said the Hawks had probed financial crimes related to fake news. “In our environment, we have seen numerous victims of investment Ponzi schemes, (and looked at) issues like the Bitcoin saga, to name a few. People may generate fake news to promote Ponzi schemes, to ensure that they catch the funds of a wide range of victims.”

He said while the Hawks only investigated certain cases involving fake news, there were serious implications for those who disseminated fake news that caused harm, such as defaming a person. Crimes such as defamation were investigated by the police once a charge had been laid.

Social media expert Emma Sadleir said in the present “post-truth era”, people needed to be held responsible for what they disseminated online. “All the same laws still apply on social media.”

Online content should always be carefully examined before it was shared, because the person who shared content that was harmful or offensive would be held responsible for it. “You can disassociate yourself from the news by sharing it and saying ‘I can’t believe this is being shared.’”

Victor said: “Given that this area (fake news) is a reflection of our zeitgeist - our time and place that we as a society operate in, one can start understanding that the motivations for creating fake news really go to the range of motivations that humans exhibit.

“Previously the vehicle you bought might have been a reflection of your inner needs and motivations.”

Now something a person wrote and posted might be a reflection of those motivations. “Remember that this is the case as the production and distribution of the knowledge is now in the individual’s hands and thus would reflect the individual’s motivation in the same way as... information from companies reflects their mission and vision.”

Victor said in the past the motivation for a person’s behaviour tended to be much more hidden, or at least limited to their sphere of influence. “In this brave new interconnected world, many more people can suddenly access your fake news, or vice versa, you can make it available to more people.“Fake news becomes the laboratory to explore the diverse motivations, needs and typical ways of interacting with others, in a relatively permissive environment. In summary, then, the motivations for creating fake news run the entire gambit of all motivations we have as human beings.

“This then also means that we will need to look at individual interactions to start understanding the motivation for the specific interaction of the person who wrote it, who distributed it, and who read it in interaction with others.”

Weekend Argus