June 6, 2017

Fake news and false impressions

The steady publication of the Zuptagate emails over the past 2 weeks has given South Africans interesting insights into what seems to happen behind the scenes of politics and some big businesses.

Some of the information that has emerged has also given us startling insight into the way information can be manipulated. Of course, we have seen this recently in Donald Trump’s alternate universe and don’t forget that the National Party government used (abused?) the manipulation of information and its dissemination with great zeal in the 1970s; that is how the Citizen was born.  The book “God, Spies and    Lies” by John Matisonn is a fascinating read on this subject.

Of course, in the 1970s, the only source of information to the public was newspapers, radio and the infant television. Radio and television were controlled by the SABC and therefore by the government (some things never change!). Newspapers had a critically important role in informing people, but there was a time lag from the happening of an event to Joe Public reading about it. Reporters covered the story, wrote the copy, had it edited, the edition had to be published and only then did it hit the streets.

There was also far greater opportunity to distort facts through press releases and press conferences, at a time when there were not many opportunities for eye-witnesses to contradict the official version.

The age of smartphones, universal connectivity and social media has changed the information landscape considerably. Everyone with a smartphone and a Twitter or Facebook account can disseminate information. It is not so easy to plausibly distribute false information when it is quick and easy to counter it with the facts. But there are 2 sides to this coin. Today’s news sites are abuzz with the role Bell Pottinger may have played in setting the stage for Pravin Gordhan’s axing from the cabinet and the “Radical Economic Transformation” and “White Monopoly Capital” rhetoric that has recently emerged.

So far, the “Radical Economic Transformation” remains rhetoric with no firm plan and the myth of “White Monopoly Capital” has been debunked by senior and respected members of the ruling party, including Trevor Manuel, arguably one of the most astute ministers of finance that we have ever had.

The point is that it is frighteningly easily for an expedient concept, that has the capacity to cause deep division and conflict in an already fragile society, can be conceived in a boardroom 13 000 km away and then spread like wildfire. Fortunately, there are many across the spectrum who see past the smoke and mirrors and who counter the propaganda.

But in this information age, we have a responsibility to not simply accept what we read on twitter, Facebook or even mainstream news media as gospel, but to carefully analyse everything that may influence our opinions or actions.

I hope that there are enough of us who will exercise this responsibility.

Author: Robin Twaddle

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