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.