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The fallout of the 2016 US presidential election has left many Democrats and progressives wondering what went wrong.

Despite the blatantly-obvious reasons for the result, the blame was first placed on the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its director, James Comey, whereafter it shifted to the Electoral College, and has now been put on so-called ‘fake news’ websites.

An American professor, Melissa Zimdarsof at Merrimack College in the state of Maine, has published a list of websites that she considers “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources.” Not only was this list blindly shared as gospel by most mainstream media sources such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today, but the criteria for either being added or kept off of the list by the assistant communications professor was never revealed or analysed. Many of these sites that were added are legitimate news sources who subscribe to high journalistics standards, such as The Daily Wire. Many have now criticised this list for trying to censor right-leaning news in the US. This should, however, not come as a surprise, considering that YouTube has filtered many right-leaning videos and Twitter has banned various users who supported Donald Trump, yet many ISIS affiliates remain free to tweet their 140 character messages.

The debate surrounding fake news sites has also arrived at our sunny South African shores. We have all seen our Facebook feeds littered with obvious fake news. If many of these sites were to be believed, every single famous person in South Africa is under investigation by the previously-named National Intelligence, currently referred to as the domestic branch of the State Security Agency.

As has happened in the US, we need to be careful in South Africa not to lump alternative media sources into the same category as blatant unchecked and fake news. Alternative media, such as the Rational Standard, play an extremely important role in South African society and must be seen for what it is. Alternative media tries to give a voice to what is not said and written about in mainstream media.

Many people believe that these fake news sites pose a threat to the people of South Africa, and, come election time, a threat to our electorate. This fear is, however, extremely dangerous to freedom of expression throughout the world, and particularly in our country.

To censor in the name of what is subjectively seen as ‘legitimate’ news, is problematic. Having others decide what you should or should not read is a serious threat to your right to receive and impart information and ideas, and a threat to each individual’s freedom of expression. One of the bedrocks of liberty and one of the principles that our Constitution protects, is the free flow of ideas provided by freedom of expression and freedom of the media and press. This should never be threatened in any way, shape, or form.

The effects of social media on democratic societies is a topic worthy of discussion, but to try and come up with ways to curate news in a democratic society goes against the very notion of a free democracy.

But people aren’t able to determine the legitimacy of news by themselves, you say? Well, why not take away people’s votes who do not vote for the right candidate, while you are at it?

To imply that South Africans aren’t able to determine whether news is fake or not, is truly condescending. As South Africans, we have the responsibility to discern what is and what is not false reporting. Furthermore, in a time where the information is so easily accessible it is surely just as easy to find reliable and fact-based news as it is to find the odd fake news website here and there?

When in doubt of freedom of expression, we have to trust our citizens. Let the people decide whether news is fake or not, otherwise, we tread a dangerous Orwellian path.

  • jayceevanrooyen

    Certainly nobody wants to see incitement and discord spread in society caused by false and malicious messages but to curtail this within a democratic system and ensure that these steps are not tainted with prejudiced interests, especially representing the leftist liberals, would require wisdom that has never been demonstrated to exist. To quote the heading of an article in RS by Johan van der Merwe: It would be a road to hell paved with good intentions. One small example: If a politician gets up in parliament and tells a lie [it happens so often] and somebody repeats this statement on social media, then what?

  • Harald Sitta

    Dear DE, Thank you for the balanced analysis. Sure, a lot of crap is disseminated in social media.BUT even fake news sites cannot be even as fake, as biased, as partisan, as superficial, as demagogic as the ‘classic’ media had become. You do not see good old recherche any more, just jargon and phrases and copying news from other sources without checking. it is a mess. Byt he way, due to the quick response and reaction possibilities within the social media an informed reader can immediately correct nonsense and he is not forced to wait until his letter to the editor is published or maybe not.

    • Vicky

      I hear the SA papers are still looking for WMDs in Iraq.

    • Steven van Staden

      “Due to the quick response and reaction possibilities within the social media an informed reader can immediately correct nonsense and he is not forced to wait until his letter to the editor is published or not.” I think this is an important point. Even if the reader is not informed, if there is an open comment section attached to news reports, editorials, analysis, information, opinions and so on, the reader is able to access those that do not necessarily tow the official line of the publication but which might authoritatively or convincingly challenge it or at least offer a different perspective.

      It seems to me that that is good reason to be wary of those which do not permit comments, or which require that they be in the form of a ‘letter to the editor’ which, as you say, may not be published, simply because it contains opposing opinion or introduces an argument that dilutes the official one. Obviously no reputable site will want to allow real hate speech, for which we certainly do not need the silencing Bill that the ANC has put forward.

      Thanks to Daniel for looking into this important issue.

  • Rory Short

    Absolutely!

  • Vicky

    On my fake news list:
    1) News24/Netwerk24
    2) Huffington Post
    3) Mail and Guardian
    4) Guardian
    5) New York Times
    6) BBC/CNN/Sky News
    7) Comedy Central

    Please avoid.