A couple of months ago, I went to Mount Pleasant Post Office to renew my vehicle licence. Having managed to steadfastly ignore the determined efforts of the touts loitering outside, I made my way into the stuffy little hall.
I joined the relatively short queue and settled in, quietly observing the comings and goings of the people manning the counters; one with a swipe machine and another for cash only. As I fiddled with my mobile, the well-dressed, middle aged lady in front of me pulled hers out of her expensive-looking handbag and proceeded to fiddle as well.
I paid no mind, but when I eventually glanced up from my Twitter feed to check the progress at the front, I couldn’t help but catch what was on her screen — one of Zimbabwe’s more notorious tabloid-aggregating, click-baiting, gossip-mongering fake news websites!
Now, anyone who is on WhatsApp or Facebook knows Zimbabweans love a good yarn, whether they can verify it or not. We jump at the chance to consume and spread the most outrageous, salacious and far-fetched stories and theories, from the political nonsense of Jukwa characters, through the supernatural stylings of our veteran vernacular tabloid, to the gossip-mongering Facebook and WhatsApp groups.
Yes, we Zimbabweans do love our trash, and that’s what these fake news websites are cashing in on.
What is fake news?
Fake news is nothing new. But bogus stories can reach more people more quickly via social media than what good old-fashioned viral, chain emails could accomplish in years past.
There were obvious red flags that were clear tip-offs that a chain email wasn’t legitimate. Among them: an anonymous author; excessive exclamation points, capital letters and misspellings; entreaties that “This is NOT a hoax!”; and links to sourcing that does not support or completely contradicts the claims being made.
Those all still hold true, but fake stories — as in, completely made-up “news” — have grown more sophisticated, often presented on a site designed to look (sort of) like a legitimate news organisation.
Concern about the phenomenon led Facebook and Google to announce that they’ll crack down on fake news sites, restricting their ability to collect ad revenue. Perhaps that could dissipate the amount of horse manure online, though news consumers themselves are the best defence against the spread of misinformation.
Still, I find it’s easy to figure out what is real and what is imaginary; if you are genuinely concerned about the amount of nonsense floating around, here’s my advice on how to stop the spread. Be responsible. The internet can be a tool for great good, or it can inflict great harm. The lure of instant fame and notoriety means that “viral” content can spread at the click of a button in your hands. You can limit the harm by vetting the stuff you choose to share. If you can’t verify it, sometimes it’s better not to share it. In fact, if the headline looks outrageous, it probably is — just clicking the link is giving advertising revenue to the offending website.
Choose your news sources: A major problem in Zimbabwe is that traditional media has lost a lot of credibility; people are turning to new media for a new perspective on our reality. Unfortunately, this has led to the proliferation of a rash of websites with specific intent to attract and mislead consumers with outrageous content.
Another reason people choose low-quality content is that it is free. That is another reason why fake news sites make money: it costs nothing to produce, unlike the money needed to pay reporters and provide them with cars and equipment to chase a story (although, sometimes they also get it incredibly wrong).
If we support real journalism, allowing the spread of real, actual news, this may help in reducing the noise. Take out a subscription to a newspaper of your (careful) choice, or donate. Democracy needs journalism to function.
Flag fake news & help spread the truth: It sucks to be the party pooper, pointing out that a juicy bit of information is untrue. But we need everyone’s help to counter the spread of junk news. Research has suggested that fake stories travel much further than the articles that debunk them – let’s change that.
It does not take much effort to be the first in your WhatsApp group to say “No, that’s rubbish!” or “Well, actually.” It just takes a comment in a Facebook group to flag something as complete nonsense, because maybe someone else will also stop and think before sharing something they know is completely outrageous, but would do so anyway just for the kikiki.
If you have the time, check out initiatives like Africa Check on the internet, and support them if you can. You can also use Snopes.com to check the more outrageous international stories, and you too may have the honour to tell your overseas uncle to stop spreading lies on WhatsApp.
Trust me, you’ll enjoy THAT more than you expect.