Be wary of fake news

The openness of the Internet has meant that online media sites and pages do not have to adhere to media ethics and standards and many take advantage of this to peddle dishonest information or fake news

The openness of the Internet has meant that online media sites and pages do not have to adhere to media ethics and standards and many take advantage of this to peddle dishonest information or fake news

Christopher Farai Charamba Correspondent
The 21st Century has spoilt the human race as information is widely and readily available and can be accessed at the click of a button.

In time gone by, one had to make their way to a library or conduct extensive research and experiments to locate certain knowledge. Even the manner in which people consume media has changed with modern technology.

No longer must one wait for the 8pm news or the morning paper to find out what has transpired in the nation. Today you can be updated in real time about any event happening in any part of the globe.

Technology and innovation mean that anyone with a smart phone can pretty much do the work that media institutions traditionally employed hundreds of people to complete; from publishing articles to filming and editing video footage.

In an era where one can earn quite a substantial amount of money through online ads, views and clicks, there has been an increase in clickbait worthy content that captures the attention of the individual surfing the web but is devoid of fact or substantial information.

The openness of the Internet has meant that online media sites and pages do not have to adhere to media ethics and standards and many take advantage of this to peddle dishonest information or fake news.

Fake news — a term which of late has been popularised by US President Donald J. Trump in his attempts to dismiss mainstream media reports about him — are media reports that are simply untrue.

The internet is awash with thousands of such articles and people the world over have been fooled into believing these to be true.

Zimbabwe, unfortunately, is no exception.

On Tuesday, WhatsApp groups were ablaze with a report that the RBZ was to introduce higher denominations of bond notes and that the RBZ governor was fuming at “Government agencies,” particularly the police for not banking their income.

This particular message even carried a hyper-link to The Herald website where the story was alleged to be found but did not exist.

The news was fake and those of us with a discerning eye were able to spot this as soon as we read the message. But many people were not so quick to dismiss this report.

Perhaps their mistrust of the RBZ made the news plausible and as such they were ready to take the news to be true.

Other individuals were uncertain and sought confirmation from other sources though they too suspected that it could be true.

The RBZ was forced to release a statement that dismissed the fake news and reassured the public that they do not have plans to release higher denominations of bond notes and that the RBZ Governor Dr John Mangudya had not held any Press conference to that effect.

Fake news can be detrimental and cause mass panic in society.

The crisis of fake news, particularly on the internet and via WhatsApp groups, is a growing one and people need to be more inquisitive of information they receive.

Fake celebrity deaths, misinformation about government policy and programmes, stories from other parts of the world retold in a local context and other hoaxes are all examples of fake news.

Unfortunately, the proliferation of fake news is difficult to police as anyone with a mild Internet connection and the ability to string a few sentences together can peddle it.

The onus is therefore on the consumer to be diligent enough to question the information they are receiving rather than take it at face value.

More often than not, fake news is easy to sell because it plays on people’s doubts and fears or contains some verifiable facts, giving credence to the saying “the best lies carry an element of truth.” But there are ways in which one can tell if news is true or fake.

The first is to check the source. If the news is coming via a forwarded message on WhatsApp with no links to verified news sources, then it is likely fake or one should check with other sources before believing it.

There are also a number of websites which are notorious for publishing fake news.

In Zimbabwe websites such as Zimbabwe-Today, Zimbo-Today, ZimEye and SouthernDaily are highly questionable sources of information and therefore their articles should be taken with more than just a pinch of salt.

Checking the author by googling their name is also a quick way to verify the source of information.

Another way to confirm the veracity of information is to cross-reference with other bona fide media outlets.

If the mainstream media is not carrying the same report then it could possibly be untrue.

A quick Google search or a scan of credible news websites can help you authenticate the information you would have received.

Fake news tends to be badly written or contain numerous grammatical errors.

While some might accuse a number of news agencies of the same, it is prudent for one to check the language and grammar of a news article for potential warning signs to it being fake.

An additional way for one to root out fake news is to check the date. Some sites tend to republish news stories from different countries that would have taken place some years back.

The publisher then changes the names and a few details to contextualise the content. Checking the date and also googling the story itself could help confirm the reliability of the article.

A reverse image search on Google can also assist in identifying the source of an image.

Some people are in the habit of pushing their fake news using images from different places and times. An example of this is an image of a badly damaged road which was said to be a street in Harare.

A reverse image search revealed that the picture was actually from a war torn country in central Africa. Google and Facebook have of late moved to take action against fake news.

The search engine and social media site have come under fire as their platforms harbour a large number of fake news.

Search engine Google earlier this year rolled out a new tool which highlights articles in its search and news results that have been fact-checked by third-party organisations such Politifact and Snopes that work to assess the veracity of statements made by public officials and news organisations.

A Google blog post says, “For the first time, when you conduct a search on Google that returns an authoritative result containing fact checks for one or more public claims, you will see that information clearly on the search results page. The snippet will display information on the claim, who made the claim, and the fact check of that particular claim.”

Facebook is also rolling out a third party tool that alerts users to “disputed content” on their page. The social media site also uses sites like Politifact and Associated Press to verify the posts and reduce the spread of misinformation on the platform. Such initiatives from two of the largest websites are important and necessary and will go a long way to battling fake news. But readers and consumers of media products should also be on the lookout for fake news, the surest way being to question everything.

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