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Fake news: A weapon of mass deception

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On Sunday, M-Net's flagship actuality programme, Carte Blanche, aired a fascinating story about "The Anatomy of Fake News." Not "fake news" as in when U.S. President, Donald Trump, refused to answer some tough questions from CNN and shut their reporter down by saying "You are fake news."

Let's discuss: Why we fall for fake news, and what you can do to recognize websites that spread fake news.

Did you know that Twitter is currently considered to be the "most influential" news source in South Africa? Guess where you find the most fake news reports. Facebook isn't far behind Twitter, and according to Carte Blanche South African Internet users are not only flooded by fake news stories, but they are also targets themselves, and there are definite syndicates operating locally to influence public view with the spread of misinformation.

Fake news can target any segment of human interest; from politics to celebrity news and even gaming. So how do you navigate through these murky waters of deception, lies, and half-truths? Since the rise of fake news last year, I had to quickly implement a few non-negotiable guidelines to prevent us from reporting fake news - all very simple things that we should be following in any case.

Things like verifying news against a source you trust, and my favourite - don't like or share something you've not spend the time reading first. It's a pitfall of 'living' on the Internet - we scan through so many articles, tweets, Instagram, and Facebook posts that we've forgotten how to properly read things. As in apply your mind, give attention and put some thought into it. The Internet bombards us with information, and we've become lazy. We press like or share if the title agrees with our bias and/or if the photo seems cool. It's called "wilful blindness" and if we're honest, then we'd have to admit that we've all done it. Often.

Someone, somewhere grasp the above and decided to exploit it, and fake news became the norm. "We live in a post-truth era where lies have become a new norm, " explains Xolani Dube, a researcher at the Zubera Institute in KwaZulu-Natal. "It's a war. An information war." According to William Bird, CEO of Media Monitoring Africa, there are two reasons why people use fake news.

  • As clickbait to make money
  • As a tool to misinform & influence

Clickbait news is something gamers know all too well. It usually includes a title that entices you to click on the link, but the content either doesn't match the title, or the story is downright silly. Your click boosted the numbers for the site and encouraged investors to keep on supporting the website.

During the U.S. presidential race, we saw a lot of fake news, it was like a flood of stories that pushed public opinion in a specific direction. I saw so many friends talk about this or that story, propagating it as truth when they've not even bothered checking the facts of a thing. It's a disease of the times we live in - we don't have time to sit down and read. Fake news is extremely dangerous because it's such an effective tool for mass manipulation. Within a few minutes news can spread across the world and all it needs is for people to like or share.

According to Fryer, South Africa is home to thousands of fake Internet news sites. The culprits take a trusted website name, like News 24, and swap one thing in the name to make it appear legit. These websites mix real news with fake news, and that's one of the reasons why it's so difficult to spot it at first glance. Carte Blanche took one such false news website and found that it was linked to over 20 websites which it uses to gather legit news from - while the featured article sports a clickbait title that is used to lure readers.

We owe it to ourselves to take a step back, and either distance ourselves from spreading news, or take the time to check a source and read the news before spreading it. Digital Forensic Investigator, Peter Fryer, tells Carte Blanche that a recent survey by Stanford University found that 82 percent of people who read news can't discern if what they're reading is fake or real news!

Hillary Clinton was a target of fake news during the presidential campaign, and the result had a serious real-life impact. A social media analyst explains to Carte Blanche how she was vilified during the campaign. "The perception of her is in a different place to where it was even though people knew much of that was fake." I hope someone takes that first step to sue over a false news story.

Huffington Post SA Editor-at-large, Ferial Haffajee tells Carte Blanche that Twitter is SA's "biggest source of news information," and that "fake news "Twitter is now the most influential media in South Africa," with fake news often used as a tool to influence public opinion. Haffajee herself became a target of fake news after she published news about the State Capture. 

Fake news is a very real threat; a tool for propaganda and manipulating public opinion. The Internet is also a huge business and clickbait to draw hits and therefore boost stats and revenue are real. Each Internet user has a responsibility to check facts before they spread fake news. Here are a few of the most important tips from Carte Blanche on how to recognize fake news - do yourself a favour and read the article - Anatomy of Fake News.

  • Is the site secure?
  • Check the web address.
  • Google the website’s name.
  • Check the headlines.
  • Check the sources.
  • Visit their social pages.

Have you ever been duped by fake news and do you think it's a real threat, or a big whoa about nothing?

Han: Twitter / MWEB GameZone: Instagram | Twitter | Facebook | YouTube

"82 percent of people who read news can't discern if what they're reading is fake or real"

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