POLITICS

SATIRE: 'Donald Trump Praises Jacob Zuma as "The Best, Ever"'

We might be able to spot fake news, but beware of manipulation and propaganda.

24/01/2017 11:57 SAST | Updated 14/02/2017 20:12 SAST

NEWSMAKER: FAKE NEWS

You probably clicked on this article thanks to the inflammatory headline. And that's exactly how fake news works.

Fake news in South Africa has dominated the news lately and so we're picking it as our newsmaker for the week, as part of our new regular feature.

South Africa's news landscape is no stranger to manipulation of news and propaganda to promote sectarian and political interests.

Before 1994, the biggest effort was the government's project to manipulate international opinion by buying an American broadsheet, the Washington Star, as well other magazines. Locally, it funded businessperson Louis Luyt to launch the right-wing and National Party-supporting newspaper Citizen.

In more recent times, the African National Congress (ANC), and more specifically, certain factions within the party, has become quite adept in co-opting journalists by giving them exclusive access to inside information hoping that this might help establish storylines and narratives to advance their agenda.

(Read Margaret Sullivan's piece about the death of traditional access journalism in the Washington Post. She's the former ombudsman at the New York Times. There's a solid lesson in there for local journalists.)

The run-up to the ANC's momentous Polokwane Conference in 2007 was a dirty one, and many political journalists allowed themselves to become part of the political process, writing in support of one or the other faction. Leadership contests in the Democratic Alliance (DA) have also become battlegrounds as journalists involved themselves where they shouldn't have.

Over the weekend, NBC News' Chuck Todd was involved in a standoff with President Donald Trump's senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, that described "falsehoods" peddled by the White House's new press secretary about crowd sizes at last week's inauguration as "alternative facts". It was quite something.

Media manipulation locally has over the last six months to a year been taken to a new level of sophistication and cynicism. The proliferation of websites, that look like the real thing and parasite off actual news sources, are increasingly being cited by readers and shared on social media.

Even more sinister is the involvement of so-called paid Twitter to harass and badger and scream. Paid Twitter –- hundreds of Twitter accounts managed by a few handlers through the use of TweetDeck or Hootsuite –- pounces on anyone not agreeing with a particular narrative.

In South Africa's case, paid Twitter seems to shred any opposition to the Guptas, which characterises criticism of this powerful and politically connected family as malice or opposition to transformation and racism. Paid Twitter has accomplices as well, with the Gupta-owned media outlets, the newspaper "The New Age" and news channel ANN7, seemingly working hand-in-glove in shaping their story.

Further afield, the conservative trade union Solidarity has also entered the battlefield of ideas (to paraphrase ANC policy) and established its own media empire, running an "independent" news website (the second largest Afrikaans news site in the country), publishing a magazine, running its own radio station (Pretoria FM) and syndicating news with its worldview to tens of community radio stations across the country.

Fake news is easy to spot -– like you did as soon as you started reading this article. However it is manipulation and propaganda that may prove to be the slow poison we must all we wary of.