Fake news is an increasingly pervasive problem in today’s society, and its effects can be devastating. From impacting the outcome of elections to spreading false and damaging information, the effects of fake news can be far-reaching. Another way in which fake news can decay our society is by damaging our trust in the media. Fake news stories can often appear to have come from credible news sources, leading people to believe that the story is factual when it is not. This can lead to a distrust of the media and a lack of faith in the accuracy of news stories

One of the biggest issues with fake news is that it can spread quickly and easily. Social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter have made it easy for false information to reach thousands, if not millions, of people in a short amount of time. This can be especially dangerous when it comes to political issues, as fake news can sway the opinions of voters and influence the outcome of elections. Throughout the vote count in 2020 for the US election, Trump spread speculative rumours about Biden to discredit the vote counting.

Fake News and COVID-19

While fake news has always haunted public figures and big companies to either increase followers, mislead, dupe or cause panic to those concerned, no event has ever provided more fertile ground than the time of COVID-19 in South Africa specifically.” Governments across the globe, including the South African government, had to tackle the issue of fake news to counter-fight distributors of fake news. Apart from the most vulnerable, we are all exposed to this problem. As it is not only a problem of a poorly informed individual, but of how the system, internet, and media work these days. Political leaders had to be stern in warning the public to verify news before sharing it. This followed the sharing of alarming fake news material in the form of voice clips, e-mails, videos, screenshots, and photos about the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these fake news materials were centered around discouraging fellow citizens from vaccinating. A barrage of material was disseminated with so-called doctors and “experts” claiming the fatal side effects of vaccinations.

“Anyone who fabricates or spreads fake news about the Coronavirus COVID-19 is liable for prosecution” read newsagents and the South African government statement, which further invited citizens to report peddlers of fake news on a platform called www.real411.org.za.

The Evolution of Fake News

While the fake news phenomenon is not news with old terms like propaganda, it seems its contemporary outbreak comes from the ease with which technology offers. The evolution of the fake news mania thankfully comes with an array of recourse spawning action that can be taken by anyone who has been directly affected personally, financially, and emotionally by its distribution. Twitter for one, has the authority to suspend accounts of trollers, roasters, cyber-bullies, hecklers, and boxers. Most of these trollers target public figures and usually unleash social media onslaught that taints, deprecates, and destroys their brands. Some of the offenders do not only get away with just an account suspension; some are dragged to court and ordered to issue a public apology or slapped with a fine, depending on the content and category of the offenses.

Fake News vs Crimen Injuria

Xenophobia is one of the seven-headed frenzies that has been ignited through the use of social media and WhatsApp messaging. From time immemorial, foreigners have been incited and responded to threatening messages sent and shared via the communication tool. While the act is juvenile and libelous, it takes a darker turn when shared. But until a clear message is announced, victims remain their saviours. Take, for instance, the recent case of Free State speaker Zanele Sifuba. It was the kind of material that could have caused a catastrophe but was doused by experts calling the sharing of information a criminal act. Recourse depends on how the reported case is categorized.

On paper, crimen injuria and defamation of character seem identical in how they are viewed but one has financial recourse and is applied from the evidence presented and other circumstances recognized by law. It is facts that help the police categorize your case and determine whether yours is a public apology or a fine from the respondent. The most important thing is to prove how negatively fake news or trolling will have or had in your life, dignity, and source of income.

Fake News Job Scams

Fake news is never without mass decay. The most recent misinformation shared via WhatsApp and titled: ‘Sassa is hiring, apply now x 100 posts, job recruitment 2023’ left many unemployed people devasted when the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) announced that the announcement was a scam.

The laws in place and the successful lawsuits are far from efficacious. Many online news portals still enjoy the revenue from fake news advertising agencies which begs the question: “Who is the top dog between corporate and the government?” Right at the bottom of most online newspapers are advertisement links made to look very much like news and in turn dupe readers into thinking the content is credible.

General tips

Fake news can be identified by its overly sensationalized language, lack of author credentials, and the presence of exaggerated headlines. Fake news stories also often contain biased information, false quotes, and unsupported claims. Additionally, fake news stories often cite unreliable sources, lack evidence to back up the claims, and contain factual inaccuracies. Fake news stories are also often shared widely on social media, which can help to spread false information.

Take time to fact-check before you share. Check multiple reliable sources and be wary of any article that uses bias. Let us understand disinformation and ask for reliable information to improve our communities. Be mindful that your freedom of expression could harm others. The time is now to verify all information.

Finally, fake news can damage our public discourse. When false information is circulated, it can be difficult to determine what is true and what is false. This can lead to arguments, causing confusion, leading to the spread of conspiracy theories and rumours that can create further divisions within the public. Ultimately, fake news can lead to a breakdown of trust in institutions, and the media which can have serious implications for our public discourse. Before spreading a rumour, remember many died because they heard of a rumour, and the accompanying consequences can be detrimental to society. Could disinformation be a crime or a weapon against humanity? We need to reflect and ask questions as a society.