Mr Sam Sole, an Investigative Journalist in South Africa, said the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ has presented a systematic threat, which is enough to engender a rethink of the boundaries of free speech and media.
He said it was unfortunate that technology could now be manipulated to achieve social and political outcomes, rendering the population fragile and confused.
“Technology makes the manipulation of populations possible in ways that undermine our basic understanding of the authenticity of the popular will of democracy itself. That is where the danger is,” he said.
Mr Sole, also Chief Executive of amaBhungane Centre of Investigative Journalism, said this at the ongoing 21st Highway Africa Annual Conference in Grahamstown, South Africa.
It is under the theme: “Media, Accountability and Local Governance,” which coincided with the South African Communicators confab.
The Conference is hosted by the Highway Africa in partnership with Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Barclays Bank, Telcom and MTN.
It is facilitating the continental debate on the interface of journalism, media, and information and communication technology (ICT) for development.
Mr Sole said the propensity for fake news to often play on people’s emotional responses, tended to solicit fear, anger or outrage and that called for a real rethinking.
“Technology can now automate this process, as we saw with Trump’s army of Twitter ‘bots’ during the US election,” he said.
He said the ubiquitous smart phone and the dominance of population connectedness via social media meant that surveillance of whole populations was now within reach.
The Ace Investigative Journalist said the scariest of the reality was that propaganda worked adding: “Research shows that repeated exposure to false information could propel people to believe that it is the truth.”
“We have our own example right here, where the so-called Gupta trolls – though the links to the Gupta family are not proven – have succeeded in embedding a White monopoly capital discourse – as an alternative narrative to the state capture narrative that has been used to frame the Gupta story,” he said.
“Unfortunately, we are only at the beginning of this revolution. Bots are currently quite easy to spot, but advances in artificial intelligence will change that,” he said.
Mr Sole said technology would make it easier to produce fake news that looked real mimicking politicians and the affluence in society.
He said the precise targeting of commercial and political speech at individual consumers, based on a sophisticated and automated analysis of their online persona, was already a reality, adding “This is only going to get more sophisticated and intrusive if we continue on the current laissez-faire trajectory.
“We will be deceiving ourselves if we don’t recognise this as a ‘systemic’ threat that must force us to rethink the boundaries of free speech and media, which is not commercially ‘free’ at all,” he said.