media update’s Christine Beukes puts ‘fake news’ under the microscope and uncovers who’s to blame for the spread of misinformation — if anyone.

When it comes to fake news, fingers are pointed in all directions, often making it difficult to pinpoint exactly where the news originated. But detecting the source is not the only problem; fake news spreads because many people struggle to identify what’s considered to be true or false.

However, that doesn’t stop anyone from putting the blame on the media. A study by the Pew Research Center found that “53% of [American] survey respondents said the greatest responsibility comes from the news media”.

And it’s not just news media that’s taking the heat.

Fingers are pointing at journalists

According to a NiemanLab article written by Laura Owen, “79% of Americans think ‘steps should be taken to restrict made-up news and information intended to mislead’ — a statistic that is frightening for journalists, considering that Republicans are more likely to think fake news is a big problem — and to blame journalists for it.”

The concern with this stat is that, even though journalists actually do make an effort to fact check their work, they are still blamed for what goes on in the media.

This is because people often forget that almost all organisations and publishers have put ethical codes of practice in place, which aim to prevent the spread of fake news — and professional journalists adhere to these codes.

Here are five organisations (just to name a few) that stand by strict ethical codes of practice in South Africa:

1. The Press Council of South Africa
2. Society of Professional Journalists
3. Ethical Journalism Network
4. SA Union of Journalists
5. The Independent Media Press Code

Even though these codes are more of a guideline than a legal requirement, journalists are aware that if they put out fake news, their reputation and career are at stake (and why would they want to take that risk?).

Not to mention, fake news puts the reputation of the news organisation that the journalist works for at risk, and we all know that trust and reliability are two very important factors that come into play when it comes to keeping audiences happy.

This is why, despite all the blame and naysayers, many companies are actually fighting the good fight against fake news.

Take start-up company NewsGuard, for instance. The American company actively “engages a team of 25 trained journalists to determine whether a publication is a reliable news source”.

“Using nine weighted criteria — including ‘does not repeatedly publish false content,’ ‘regularly corrects or clarifies errors’ and ‘clearly labels advertising’ — NewsGuard’s journalists regularly analyse and rate more than 2 000 of the biggest news and information websites,” says Rani Molla in an article for Vox.

How awesome is that?

Social media is also taking a hit

“... With more than 2.4 billion Internet users, nearly 64.5% [of them] receive breaking news from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram instead of traditional media,” says Nicole Martin in an article for Forbes.

And considering that a majority of people get their news from these social platforms, you would expect to see quite a bit of fake news. This is because “the Internet has enabled a whole new way to publish, share and consume information and news with very little regulation or editorial standards”.

That’s also why “a majority [of Americans] (57%) say they expect the news they see on social media to be largely inaccurate,” says Owen.

Easily shared, easily spread — fake news is prominent on social media because it’s able to spread like wildfire, which brings to question: Should more efforts be put in place to prevent the spread on social media? The answer to that question is, well ... complicated.

Many platforms have been trying to battle the spread of misinformation with the inclusion of (Facebook), the reduction of bots and fake followers (Twitter) and algorithm changes (YouTube). However, these platforms produce millions upon millions of posts each day, which makes it incredibly difficult to pinpoint and fact check each and every one.

According to Niam Yaraghi in an article for BROOKINGS, “As social media practically becomes news media, their level of responsibility over the content [that] they distribute should increase accordingly.”

So basically, yes, the platforms should definitely be doing more.

HOWEVER: “The sheer volume of content shared on social media makes it impossible to establish a comprehensive editorial system. Take Twitter as an example: It is estimated that 500 million tweets are sent per day. Assuming that each tweet contains 20 words on average, the volume of content published on Twitter in one single day will be equivalent to that of the New York Times in 182 years.”

So what’s the solution to this problem? Yaraghi suggests the following: “Social media companies should convene groups of experts in various domains to constantly monitor the major topics in which fake news or hate speech may cause serious harm.”

So who’s the real culprit?

The culprit is you. And your friends, your family, the media, social media, technology … it’s all of it. Yes, the culprit is, and can be, anyone and everyone.

Fake news isn’t a phenomenon that can be stopped by an organisation or algorithms — although they certainly can help. It’s something that needs to be stopped as soon as it is spotted.

And this shouldn’t be a responsibility that solely lies on the heads of publishers, organisations and social media platforms — it’s a team effort.

So flag those inappropriate posts, report fake articles and be a part of the solution.

For tips on how to prevent the spread of misinformation, check out this video by professional fact checker Maarten Schenk:


What measures do YOU think the media should take to prevent the spread of misinformation? Let us know in the comments section below.

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If you find yourself struggling to identify what’s true and what’s false, you can learn all about Five types of fake news and how to spot them right here.
*Images courtesy of Vecteezy