Fake News on #BlackMonday

(From Pixabay)

Written by: Edmund Burke (pen-name)

“… fake but accurate…”­The New York Times

“The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.” – Evan Thomas (Newsweek)

About ten years ago, Newsweek published a string of articles in which they appeared to support what turned out to be a completely false rape claim. The story at the time was that three white, male lacrosse players from Duke University raped a black woman.

The races and genders of the parties involved are mentioned here only because of how Newsweek editor Evan Thomas later rationalised the incorrect reporting. When asked about what happened, he stated:

“The narrative was properly about race, sex and class… We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place… We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.” (emphasis added)

Today, this would be referred to as an example of fake news – a term which, ironically, was popularised by large, established media houses to discredit information originating from sources that they do not oversee or control.

Thomas’ quote reveals two simple but crucial insights:

  • Journalists craft narratives around events.
  • At least to some extent, journalists are aware that they are doing so.

It is with this context that we turn to Black Monday. For those not up to speed, ‘Black Monday’ refers to a day of protest that was organised to bring attention to the relatively high murder rate amongst South African farmers.

Besides the traffic jams and delays, much of the South African media establishment seemed to be fixated on one particular detail, namely, the former South African flag. The reason for this fixation is simple: there is a contemporary narrative at play, according to which Afrikaner farmers are a bunch of old racists that yearn for the days of apartheid. Any farmers seen sporting the former South African flag are taken to be evidence in support of this narrative.

And so a prominent South African journalist, Nickolaus Bauer, shared two photographs on Twitter. The first depicted a middle-aged couple wearing t-shirts with a design based on (and prominently featuring) the former South African flag. The second depicted a man holding a burning (current) South African flag. In addition to these images, Bauer added this comment:

“Regardless of #Farmurder numbers,highly doubt you’ll EVER enjoy any sympathy in democratic SA if you wear old flag&burn new one”

Bauertweet1The tweet in itself was not particularly interesting – not until it turned out that those photos were, in fact, taken several years ago, and were not at all related to the Black Monday protest. Bauer followed up with another tweet, stating:

“These images did not come from today’s march. I have severely erred in sharing them. However, the message remains relevant.”

Bauertweet2If we pick Bauer’s second tweet apart, we see a beautiful parallel to Evan Thomas’ telling remarks:

“These images did not come from today’s march. I have severely erred in sharing them.” (Thomas: We just got the facts wrong).

“However, the message remains relevant.” (Emphasis added; Thomas: The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.)

In the Duke lacrosse case, the mistake that the Newsweek journalists made was to jump on the rape allegation, because it fit their pre-conceived notion of what had happened. The story confirmed what they already ‘knew’ to be true. Absent more information, it is difficult to see how this Black Monday analogue is any different.

As one of the cardinal spheres of power in society – the others being government, universities, and the entertainment media – the news media are particularly influential in how people understand, interpret, relay, and remember information and events. This is certainly relevant to the Black Monday protest.

What this incident points to is the fact that journalists – as ‘objective’ and ‘trustworthy’ as they may try to appear – have their own views and biases. These influence what they choose to report, and how they choose to report it. This is how, despite years of experience, even a lauded South African journalist can become a primary purveyor of fake news.