12/03/2017 14:49 SAST | Updated 13/03/2017 07:27 SAST

Inventor Of The Web Slams Fake News

Threats to the vision of an open internet including fake news must be tackled but centralised regulation must be avoided, says founder of the World Wide Web Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

On the 28th birthday of the World Wide Web, its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee says he is "increasingly worried" about the spread of fake news while cautioning against "government over-reach" in online surveillance.

While the web has in many ways lived up to his original vision of a transparent platform to share information across boundaries, he says it has been "a recurring battle to keep it open". In a statement released on Sunday, Berners-Lee said gatekeepers of information including Google and Facebook have a responsibility to push back against the spread of misinformation. The creation of central bodies to distinguish between fact and fiction, however, must be avoided, he said.

State Security Minister David Mahlobo meanwhile has said government is considering regulating social media platforms in South Africa to counter "false narratives". This proposal will need to be discussed with various bodies and forums as it could be seen to be "interfering with human rights", he said according to News24.

In a response to Mahlobo's comments, the Right2Know Campaign said intended regulation of social media is "a clear move by state securocrats to try clamp down on freedom of expression and increase their powers to censor the internet".

A media panel discussing the proliferation of fake news at the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (IAJ) last week also slammed the proposals, suggesting alternative strategies to combat the spread of both deliberately and unintentionally false information.

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said: "Those attempting to regulate social media may not be targeting fake news at all", saying instead that further liberalisation of media will be more effective. "My suspicion with Mahlobo is that he is concerned about people in rural areas accessing credible journalism," he said. Mathekga also called instead for greater diversity in media production, ownership and perspectives with the intended effect of improving people's access to, and trust in, journalism.

The majority of citizens since apartheid have not accessed journalism produced by "elite media" houses in metropolitan areas and this must be improved before "fake news" can be properly eliminated, Mathekga said. "People don't have access to truth and already they must deal with 'post-truth'," he said.

The Huffington Post South Africa's news editor, Deshnee Subramany, said improving the credibility of journalism is integral to rebuilding lost trust in media.

"Going back to the basics must be prioritised," she said. "Many journalists, including some seniors, do not properly verify their sources because they aim to publish quickly." Journalists need to be equipped with new skills to verify digital content, including reverse image searches, but ensuring the basics of quality reporting and fact-checking are observed is paramount, she said.

Mathekga added that the crisis of credibility caused by the spread of fake news could be used as an opportunity for journalists to reflect critically on their work. "Let us use this crisis to reflect on how newsrooms may re-earn their legitimacy," he said.