The growth of fake news and the speed at which it is spreading is a threat to democracy.This is what Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP), said in his address to the global editors of The Conversation, an online publication that collaborates with academics to bring their work to a wider readership.
The university and the publication jointly hosted a panel discussion at UP’s Future Africa campus on ‘The role of science in the era of fake news and fallacies’. Panelists at the event included academics from the University of Johannesburg, the University of Witwatersrand and UP; the CEO of the National Research Foundation, Dr Molapo Qhobela, was also in attendance.
Started in Australia in 2011 by Andrew Jaspan, The Conversation produces articles on academic research that is more accesible to readers, and allows other media houses to publish the pieces. The Conversation Africa was launched in South Africa in 2015, with Caroline Southey as its editor; there are also editions in Canada, Spain and Indonesia among others.
The attraction of fake news is its apparent simplicity, Prof Kupe said, adding that it has a ring of truth around its claims, even when they are outlandish. “Its ability to reinforce stereotypes, including prejudices, makes a bad situation even worse. No wonder all around the world, xenophobia, religious intolerance and extreme right-wing nationalism are on the march again.”
For Prof Kupe, one reason for the growth of fake news and its increasing influence is the loss of confidence in public institutions, including media institutions, and in the profession of journalism during a time of economic hardship, fracturing social cohesion, poverty, unemployment and widening inequality.
“In this context, fakery has risen to fill the vacuum, driven by individuals and political organisations positioning themselves as messiahs with instant solutions to multiple social crises and speaking a populist language of failed institutions and elites who are out of touch with the public. In their discourse, knowledge institutions, science, facts, evidence, experts and reason or rationality are thrown out the window as the sophistry of the elite. Ironically, these individuals are often members of the elite themselves.”
Meanwhile, social media has made it easier to produce and disseminate fake news, as there is seemingly less need to fact-check information on this platform.
A signifcant area in which fake news or information has had a harmful effect is in health campaigns, and has in fact reversed the gains made, Prof Kupe said. This is in a world of ever-increasing lifestyle diseases and health epidemics, from HIV/AIDS to Ebola. “In the global context, including South Africa and the rest of Africa, the problem of superstition as opposed to indigenous knowledge systems and relatively lower levels of education among the majority of the population is being reinforced by fake news.”
Over the past few decades, the distance between knowledge and public institutions, and the general public has grown into a form of alienation, Prof Kupe said. “This alienation is in part [due to] the growth of specialisation in knowledge institutions and their inability to sustain and develop discourses that are accessible to different publics.”
He indicated that science and investigative journalism have declined in South African newsrooms at a time when they are needed most. He praised The Conversation for taking science to the public and stressed that all newsrooms should have a research, science and knowledge department similar to that of The Conversation, as well as an investigations unit.
“A powerful way of strengthening the role of science in countering fake news is to promote new ways of producing knowledge to address complex enduring and emerging societal challenges. Scientists and knowledge institutions need to increasingly relate closely to platforms like The Conversation or learn the ability to communicate knowledge in ways that the general public can understand and relate to because it resonates with their lives.”
“We scientists should be clever in the way we communicate our messages,” said panelist Professor Tiaan de Jager, UP’s Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. “We could use drama and music in rural communities to communicate effectively – there are creative approaches to share the correct facts with your audience.” He added that it is important for scientists to build relationships with journalists.
Professor Mercy Mpinganjira of the University of Johannesburg’s School of Consumer Intelligence and Information Systems said scientists might not be trained to engage with the media but that the communications offices of universities could help them package scientific information in a way that is accessible to the public.