Melanie Verwoerd: The very real dangers of social media – Why we should rather delete than forward

Having to deal with political and other news daily, I'm painfully aware of the frequency of fake news on social media. The problem is that people seem to trust these "reports" more than the mainstream media, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

On Friday, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng warned judges against being influenced by popular views on social media.

I have to admit I was rather troubled by the idea that judges are even looking at social media. I have previously written about my concerns around social media. It is clear to me that even though it can be a useful tool to disseminate information and connect with people, it is far too often used to spread misinformation and hatred.

A good example of this happened last week on one of the WhatsApp groups of senior opinion formers with political backgrounds that I am part of. Someone on the group posted a video of a white guy (it is important for the purposes of the story to mention his race) talking about Trevor Manual and Cyril Ramaphosa. In the video he alleges that Manual and Ramaphosa had corrupt dealings with, among others, the government pension fund. He also raises questions about the manner in which Ramaphosa became wealthy – clearly implying that corruption was involved.

At closer inspection it became apparent that the man was reading a script, and that the video was cut short before the end of the recording.

Needless to say when this video was posted on more than one WhatsApp group it caused outrage. One person asked: "Can someone tell us why is everyone so concerned about how blacks became wealthy and less concerned about whites?" Another raised the point that "the implication is that whites got rich through hard work and blacks through connections", etc.

I was also infuriated by the man's accusations which contained a number of inaccuracies and, more importantly, smacked of white arrogance and colonial entitlement. 

However, a few days later I was researching something unrelated on the website blackopinion.co.za. I started to read an article by Phapano Phasha, an ANC member from the Brian Bunting Branch, in which she argued that the terms of reference for the PIC inquiry should be extended.

When I got to the second paragraph, the piece seemed suddenly familiar. I checked and sure enough, it was Phasha's article that the guy on the video had been reading aloud. Now, I don't know why he decided to read it on camera and distribute it. It could possibly have been because it confirmed his racial biases, but it is also possible that he did not agree with it. Because the video was truncated we will never know.

The point is that many who viewed it felt that it simply confirmed to them that this was how most whites think. From the responses it was clear that it caused a lot of pain and anger. As it turned out – in this instance at least – unnecessarily so.  

Many videos and WhatsApps have also been shared with me by white South Africans in which some unknown African person promotes the killing of whites in general, or farmers specifically. This causes equal fear, anger and retaliatory actions.

I also get videos accusing foreign nationals – especially Chinese nationals – of trying to poison Africans with contaminated food. One such recently distributed video originated in Kenya. The video had script superimposed on it suggesting that Chinese people should be kept out of Africa because they were killing Africans through contaminated food. The video itself was an edited news report about contaminated sugar which made no reference to China or any other nation – only that it was imported.

When I googled the story, it became clear that: a) it was a very old story, b) the sugar shown in the news report came from Brazil, and c) the Kenyan health department had denied that the sugar was dangerous. Yet, 18 months later the "contaminated" video was still circulating and had now reached South Africa where it caused fear and anger on social media.

I will never be able to understand the attraction of sending videos that shock, scare or provoke hatred. As someone who deals with political and other news matters on a daily basis, I'm painfully aware of the frequency of fake news on social media. The problem is that people seem to trust these "reports" more so than the mainstream media, even though logic would (or should!) often dictate that something is off.

This weekend, for example, photos of the alleged application for DA membership of a well-known political analyst started circulating on social media. Closer inspection of the form showed an ID number starting with 20, which would make the analyst almost 100 years old. Either there is something wrong with his ID number or the story is false.

I have a few simple rules when it comes to social media stories:

1) If it sounds far-fetched – it most probably is. Delete it.

2) Check first if the story appears in the mainstream media. If there is any truth in a story, the various news websites in this country will almost always report on it within minutes. If a simple Google search delivers nothing it is most likely false. Delete it.

3) If a video or written piece promotes violence or invokes hatred – DO NOT forward it. It is against the law – even to post it on groups. Equally so if it is potentially libellous. The law makes it clear that by forwarding something defamatory or something that can be construed as hate speech, the forwarder might also fall foul of the law.

Most importantly, before we press the send button we need to ask ourselves what will be achieved by forwarding the message or video. If it will only create or perpetuate more fear, anger or violence, the wise decision would be to press delete. Daily life in our country has enough violence and hatred as it is. We don't need the exaggerations of social media's echo chambers to make it worse.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

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