Who decides what is true or not? - Businesslive

20 April 2020 - Ceding ground to faceless functionaries, and the silence that comes with the fear of being judged by anonymous accusers, defines the inestimably more difficult reality of living without freedom.

Michael Morris

I didn’t know until a few days ago that “411" is internet slang for information. I also knew little about real411.org, and the ill-defined category of “crime” it calls “digital offences”.

The one-year-old site was launched ahead of 2019’s elections as “a digital anti-disinformation platform that will publish facts that the public can use to report dodgy data”, according to a 2019 report, established as a partnership between the Electoral Commission of SA and Media Monitoring Africa, the SA National Editors’ Forum and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Real411.org has now joined forces with the national Covid-19 effort to counter risks associated with what it describes as “a perfect scenario for the spread of mis- and disinformation”. In the coronavirus battle, the site says that “not only is it easy to see how fears could be stoked, but we can also see how easy it is for gaps and lapses in communication to be exploited”. The “truth”, then, is important, which is presumably why we are being presented with this new category of crime: “digital offences”.

“The always-on social media world of bots, likes and shares has become the new battlefield of what’s real and not real in the news and information we read,” the website explains. “What appears to be truth can sometimes be propaganda being peddled to sway public opinion with the intent to cause harm. This is called digital disinformation. Digital disinformation is false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm.”

Penalties for breaches range from “content that is disinformation [being] referred to platforms for removal”, “counter narratives quickly [being] issued [and] mis/disinformation flagged on social media”, and “cases [possibly being] escalated to the SAPS for further action under regulations”.

From the heart of this effort to assert “truth” wells the question: who says? Who says one thing is the truth and another a lie? Who says any given published item is “false, inaccurate or misleading”, or is “designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm”? And who is accountable for these decisions? Are they argued over, and, if so, who hears the argument?

Added to the faceless and unnamed adjudicators of the “digital complaints committee” is the sinister spectacle of “the spotters network” of anonymous public volunteers who are thanked for their “active participation in the drive to combat digital offences and to strive for an online space free from disinformation, hate speech, harassment and incitement”.

In a surely muddled conception of what makes a free society, volunteer “spotters” are told that "[these digital] offences potentially undermine SA’s emerging democracy, reversing the minimal yet significant democratic gains thus far” and that “by becoming part of the network you are committing to join a group of people who want to be part of the solution by actively engaging in building an independent and credible media”.

Lies, propaganda, hateful sentiments and threats to people are indeed perils, in any society. But in a democracy openness, free speech, vigorous public argument and the rule of law are the most reliable defences. Journalists ought to fight furiously for their independence and right to test facts and say what they think, and for their readers’ right to decide for themselves what is true or not.

Conditions in which “what appears to be truth can sometimes be propaganda being peddled to sway public opinion with the intent to cause harm” is surely the ordinary terrain of journalism and public debate. This — for those with the stamina and insight for it — defines the difficult reality of living in freedom.

Ceding ground to faceless functionaries, and the silence that comes with the fear of being judged by anonymous accusers, defines the inestimably more difficult reality of living without freedom.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations.

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2020-04-19-michael-morris-who-decides-what-is-true-or-not/

© 2018 South African Institute of Race Relations
CMS Website by Juizi

Terms & Conditions | Privacy Policy | Accuracy Guarantee | Sponsors & Donors