Time was when “news” was easy to define. The term referred to something that had happened; where “it” happened was made known; and sometimes, how it occurred was also explained. As were its consequences and if possible, why it happened.
Good newsmen and women spent hours assiduously making sure the fullest possible answers were given to all the aspects of the questions surrounding the occurrence.
Not anymore. These days, reporters, news editors and sub-editors and, indeed, editors, do not demonstrate – in some of the output of their news organisations – that they are curious human beings and that they want to answer the questions of their consumers, before the questions are asked.
Some of the unanswered questions relate to technical issues, of course, and can be laid at the door of the general lack of knowledge that journalists tend to display when they cover scientific and technological matters. But journalists have also been ignoring a far more insidious practice – the emergence of views – and often views formed from, or made to represent, distorted facts – as “news”.
Facebook and Twitter have been fingered as the vehicles most often used for the propagation of such non-news “news”. Donald Trump, in particular, has extended the phenomenon to cover what he considers the disagreeable output of respectable organisations like CNN and NBC. He often accuses these giants, in the Tweets of his own that have become his main way of communicating with the public, of disseminating “fake news”. A member of Trump’s communications team went as far as to claim that a Trump distortion of events was only his way of presenting “alternative facts!”
“Alternative facts”? Something can either be black or white, not alternatively black and white! But because trump is President of the United States, his “alternative facts” receive a great deal of coverage in the media, and not only in the media that support him. Fortunately, some journalists on The New York Times and the Washington Post have realised how harmful Trump’s distortions of fact are, and have started regularly “fact-checking” most of the important statements made by Trump. They have discovered that Trump’s “facts” are usually outright lies – and despite the high office he holds, they have not hesitated in labelling him a “liar”.
In our own country, such practices have been detected in such “newspapers” as The Al Hajj and The Herald – among others.
Such newspapers report with authority about events that could not have taken place, or which, if they took place, could not conceivably have reached the ears of the “journalists” who write those articles.
Another place in Africa where “fake news” has made a strong appearance in recent months is South Africa. Observers of the South African scene will be no strangers to the fact that President Jacob Zuma has been reeling from scandal to scandal – relating to his using state funds to build himself a fine palace in his native district, and also, in facilitating the granting of lucrative contracts to an Indian family called the Guptas.
The Guptas appeared on the South African business scene with all the “aplomb” that can be expected of a bull in a china shop. They have been accused of entering into secret deals with Zuma and some members of Zuma’s family – to such an extent that some people believe the Guptas have “captured” the state of South Africa itself!
The nature of this “state capture” is given variously as making sure that certain Ministers (who stand in the way of the Guptas) are removed from office, while those who would promote or protect the interests of the Guptas are given lucrative portfolios.
That the Guptas intended to make their “capture” of the South African state permanent was indicated by their readiness to invest large sums of money in entering the media scene in South Africa. (South Africa has very well-established newspapers and electronic media, and it takes a deep pocket to go there and try to compete with these media.) However, the Guptas did not seem to mind – they apparently had too much to protect to worry about the cost of doing so.
In fact, owning their own media was not enough for them – they also tried to penetrate the editorial strongholds of their rivals! To do this, they obtained the secret services of one of the most high-profile public relations firms in Britain, Bell Pottinger. The firm used YouTube videos as well as Facebook and Twitter accounts to malign the opponents of the Guptas, and to paint a picture of the Guptas as concerned individuals who wanted to save South Africa from the vestiges of “white monopoly capitalism.”
Unfortunately for the Guptas, whistle-blowers leaked a large quantity of emails that described in detail, the modus operandi of the Gupta business concerns. Among these were secret emails describing the methods for mounting a propaganda campaign on behalf of the Guptas – and President Zuma. So damaging has the disclosure of the emails been that Bell and Pottinger have been forced to issue a statement, apologising to the people of South Africa, and announcing that a member of their staff in South Africa had been dismissed and three others suspended.
One South African journalist commented:
“UK-based UK-based PR company and Gupta spin doctors, Bell Pottinger, have devastated progress for South Africa’s efforts in post-democratic race relations. This [is the view] of experts in various fields who said the company strategically used racial tension in South Africa as a platform to push an economic and political agenda…Bell Pottinger [used] black-ops social media campaigns to distract away from scandals surrounding the Gupta family and President Jacob Zuma. One of these campaigns is the ideology surrounding white monopoly capital.”
What a great disservice to South Africa by Bell Pottinger. South Africa’s is a sensitive society, which must watch its step because the old antagonisms that were expected to vanish in 1994 have not yet done so. What the Guptas have done in fact reminds one of the Muldergate scandal that rocked the apartheid regime in the 1960-70s. It threatens the Zuma presidency right up to its very roots.
By Cameron Duodu