It is now a cliché that there are floods of false social media reports (or claims, or posts, or videos, or recordings) about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
My personal favourite? The video in which a Ukrainian pilot nicknamed “The Ghost of Kyiv” in a MIG-29 shoots down a Russian SU-35. Turns out the footage is from a video game.
There’s much concern – and rightly so – about how this flood of fake/false/mis- and disinformation is affecting people and their understanding of events. But we might be able to hold back the flood if we followed Moodie’s Second Law*:
The more serious an issue is (a war, a pandemic), the more likely it is that anything you see about it on social media is nonsense.
If people would use that sceptical eye when they read the latest WhatsApp (yes, that is social media too) from their ditsy friend, we would be making progress.
But it’s also possible that a reputable-seeming news article might be fake news.
So, how can you tell if a news source can be trusted?
First of all, understand that no given news website will always be giving you an absolutely impeccable, completely accurate account of events.
That’s impossible because news publications are run by fallible humans, working to deadlines, often trying to encapsulate events that are changing all the time. (Read, for instance, this excellent account of a journalist’s continuing learning curve in coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic).
Rather, readers should look for publications that have a track record of getting things right most of the time, and for apologising and correcting things when they get it wrong. You are looking for “good enough”.
Is there one simple way to tell if a news website is “good enough”?
Fake news sites (and the articles they carry) are often hard to tell from the real thing. Journalists and other news-literate people can usually cast their eye over an article or a news website and get an instant, instinctive sense of whether it is genuine or not.
I’ve been working at trying to make this process conscious. Based on that, I’ve drawn up a list of steps to follow next time you see something that strikes you as odd.
This is a cumulative list: you work from one item to the next.
Step No 1: Does the news item seem reasonable to you?
This is the first, common-sense item. If the news report seems odd to you, then it probably is. So do a Google search to see if it is being reported by more than one news outlet. Or ask someone you trust.
Two recent examples:
One: The news on Twitter that RyanAir was asking people a set of questions in Afrikaans seemed ridiculous. A Google search on “RyanAir Afrikaans test” turned up an Associated Press article, carried on the NPR website. AP is a reliable news agency, so this was indeed true (though still ridiculous).
Two: My son saw on Instagram that the use of face masks had been dropped in South Africa. It seemed to him to have come out of the blue, so he asked me if I had seen anything about it on new sites, and I had. This story confirmed the news, along with others on various news sites.
Step No 2: Is this a source that has a track record of reliability?
Reliable news sites are usually the websites of your country’s local or national news publications, or the websites of big media houses. Sadly, there’s no instant way to know which publications and media houses these might be; this is usually something you learn over time.
One quick starting point is a simple one: ask yourself if you have ever heard of this publication? If not, a quick Google search on the publication’s name should give you an idea of who or what they are.
One thing to understand: many news publications source their news from news agencies (as in the example above about the RyanAir test). These are companies which gather news, write it up and then sell those reports to multiple other publications. Some of the big, trusted names here are: AP, Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP) and Bloomberg. (There’s more detail on this at the bottom of this article.)
If you know the publication, and you trust it, there’s no need to go any further down the road of truth-checking . But if you are still in doubt, here are some other things to look for.
Step No 3: What does the site say about itself?
Whether you are looking at the site/article on a PC or on your phone, scroll to the bottom and look at the “footer” (or look in the main site menu). Ask yourself:
• Does it have an “About Us”?
• Does it have a “Contact Us”? Is there a physical address?
• In either of those two places, does it have a link for corrections or complaints?
An example on the BBC site:
The presence (or absence) of these items on a news site is important because they are the ways in which a publication demonstrates its willingness to be in touch with its readers, and its willingness to submit to legal and human rules of conduct.
There are fake news sites which do carry these things, so their presence doesn’t mean the article passes muster. But if they aren’t there, this is a big red flag that you should ignore what you are seeing.
Step No 4: Are there links in the article to the sources of the information?
If all of the above check out and you are still doubtful, cast your eye over the text of the article. If it has links to background sources, that’s a good sign.
If not, you’re probably in dodgy territory, and should move on.
Step No 5: Do the pictures have credits?
Another sign of a reputable news site is a commitment to saying where it obtained its pictures. Dodgy sites, on the other hand, will simply use pictures without crediting the source. (An example is my link to the sources of the main picture of this article, carried at the bottom of the page.)
Step No 6: Is there any sign that the site is governed by the media regulatory bodies in the country where they work?
This information will usually be in the footer (or in the main site menu), and will vary from country to country. Here’s how it works in South Africa.
The media is regulated by two overarching bodies, each of which have codes of conduct.
These bodies can impose fines (in the case of the BCCSA) or, in the case of the Press Council, demand apologies.
Almost all the country’s major players are part of this regulatory framework, with one important exception: Independent Media withdrew from the Press Council and has its own internal mechanism for dealing with complaints.
If it’s a big and important issue, disbelieve everything you see on social media unless you are willing to click through to the source and cast an eye over it, using the steps outlined above. The same applies to news articles that may appear in feeds on your phone.
But if it is joke, or a pretty picture, from your ditsy friend, smile and share. Moodie’s Second Law is not in play.
* (Moodie’s First Law: There can never be too many roast potatoes).
The big South African news houses (list is not exhaustive)
Media24: the traditional Afrikaans-speaking media house, with publications under the Media24 name. Rapport, Die Burger. News24.
All their publications are listed here (use the link at the top that says Brands)
Arena Holdings: The Sunday Times, City Press, TimesLive.
All their publications are listed here (use the Load More link at the bottom of the page to keep seeing more brands)
The SABC: All the big radio and television platforms (Note: The SACS is the state-run broadcaster, their political news needs to looked at with that in mind. But they do a sterling job of covering regions that otherwise would never make the news agenda).
All their platforms are listed here (use the link at the top of the page that says Brands)
Independent Media: the traditional English-speaking media house. The Star, The Mercury, The Cape Times, The Sunday Tribune. And IOL. Note: I list this media house with reservation – the recent Tembisa saga was a report from the Pretoria News, which is part of their stable. And I have already noted their withdrawal from the Press Council. So reports by the “Indy” are to be treated with caution, in spite of the fact that many of its titles used to be among the most respected in the country. All their publications are listed here (and hit the link at the top that says Our Brands)
Other media players
Caxton Local Media: A host of community newspapers, some magazines and the Citizen
Their publications are mentioned here (use the Solutions link at the top of the page)
Primedia: 94.7, 702, KFM and CapeTalk; EyeWitness News
All their platforms are listed here
eMedia Holdings: eNCA, e.tv, Open News, YFM
All their platforms are listed here
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Main picture: ROBIN WORRALL, Unsplash