Fake News: a threat to democracy and democratic institutions

24 August 2022 - “Fake News” – the deliberate propagation of false information – poses a threat to democracies and open societies across the world. What can be done about it is, however, a difficult question. This was the message of a webinar last week hosted jointly by the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of Free State and the Institute of Race Relations.

“Fake News” – the deliberate propagation of false information – poses a threat to democracies and open societies across the world. What can be done about it is, however, a difficult question. This was the message of a webinar last week hosted jointly by the Department of Political Studies and Governance at the University of Free State and the Institute of Race Relations.

Under the theme Misinforming the Public – Misdirecting Democracy: Fake News and its Consequences for Contemporary Politics, the event brought together experts from academia, the media world and think tanks.

William Bird of Media Monitoring Africa discussed various forms of false information and the dire consequences for societies of allowing it to exist unchecked. He noted that while the phenomenon was not new, modern technology had given it an unprecedented reach. Those invested in democracies and healthy societies needed to take this threat seriously. He went on to detail MMA’s Real411 platform, which encouraged reporting of suspect news by media consumers, and its subsequent vetting.

Terence Corrigan, project manager at the Institute of Race Relations, argued that fake news was essentially about narrative. It represented a new iteration of the instrumentalisation of information to achieve a political purpose. It played not only off technological advancements, but socio-cultural and political dynamics: stress and uncertainty weighing on individuals, deep divisions in societies, geopolitical competition, mistrust of institutions as well as an impulse towards entertainment qualities in news media.

Prof Nyasha Mboti, Academic Head of the Department of Communication Science at the University of Free State, spoke about how the term “fake news” might be misleading as there was no agreed universal definition of the phenomenon, and causality could not be proved on its effects. He also spoke about how a different positionality on events helped frame their representation in media coverage. Was an event a riot or an uprising, for example? Did platforms disallow particular forms of engagement in pursuit of one goal, but not another? He suggested that it was necessary to move beyond moral panic and to look at possible solutions, such as proper media literacy training, and an appropriate public policy environment that focused on media concentration and the disproportionate power of algorithms.

Sharon Salomon, editor of Newsi, drew attention to the use of the words “disinformation” and “misinformation” as propaganda tools designed to euphemise the notion of truth. Focusing on how powerful interests employed propaganda to stoke fear as a means of manipulation, she went on to propose some guidelines to discern whether one was being lied to or brainwashed.

An energetic discussion – marked by some points of agreement and others of dispute among the panellists and audience – wrestled with both conceptual issues and substantive ones, illuminating an issue that has featured strongly in public debate for some years, and is likely to do so for many years to come.

View the webinar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmFEdtKfnE0.

For further information contact:            

Dr Alta Grobbelaar, Department of Political Studies and Governance, University of Free State

051 401 2364

GrobbelaarA1@ufs.ac.za

 

Terence Corrigan, Institute of Race Relations

0664704456

terence@irr.org.za

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