Tag: news

By Jean le Roux for Fake News Exposed

Some of South Africa’s biggest banks, insurance companies and car manufacturers have been caught advertising on fake news websites.

A News24 investigation of three months has found that big brands like Absa, Coronation, Cell C, Capitec, Mercedes Benz, Takealot and OUTsurance, who spend millions of rands promoting and marketing the credibility and integrity of their brands, have indirectly contributed to the fake news industry by buying programmatic advertising that landed up on dodgy websites.

Some of these websites, like HINNews – a Nigeria-based site that publishes a mix of fabricated stories and real news – have run stories about EFF leader Julius Malema dying of listeriosis and a new kidnapping ring “ripping” unborn babies from their mothers.

As the world is grappling with the scourge of fake news in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election in the United States and the support he received from Russian-run fake news operations to target potential Republican voters, South Africa has not been spared from the phenomenon.

“At Africa Check, we’ve seen false news stories stoke retribution, cause panic and misinform people about their health, which can have deadly consequences. It’s a real shame that reputable news brands aid the existence of these outlets, even if inadvertently. The sooner this gap is plugged, the better for society,” says Anim van Wyk, chief editor at Africa Check.

Association by advertising

Ismail Jooma, Head of Strategy at VML South Africa told News24 the creators of disinformation and fake news use rhetoric as a tool to divide.

“‘Disinformation’ websites are the modern era’s galvaniser of marginalised rhetoric, more often than not these websites pursue an agenda of racism, sexism and intolerance. If we had to remove the lens of moral subjectivity, purveyors of fake news aim to disunite at the very least.

A number of fake news sites that specialise in publishing fabricated news about South Africa make money through selling programmatic advertising spots to Google and other service providers.

News24 is publishing the results of our investigation into this phenomenon, including a blacklist of fake news websites, on a dedicated website titled Fake News Exposed.

Websites like HINNews are among several similar sites known for their clickbait headlines and fabricated stories, which are either copied from other online news sources or made up from scratch. Their articles show a fondness for the macabre and racially charged stories and are often widely shared on social media.

Companies whose brands appeared on these websites say they were unaware that they were inadvertently funding fake news and have instead blamed Google for allowing these sites to operate.

Google enables programmatic advertising, which is based on users’ browsing patterns on the internet. Advertising agencies buy adverts on behalf of clients and Google allocates these ads through a platform called Google Adsense, that uses algorithms to place adverts on websites. Website owners are then paid by Google Adsense.

In countries like Macedonia, running fake news websites that publish fabricated stories have become a full-scale industry and source of revenue for unemployed youngsters.

Companies condemn disinformation

Capitec, one of the local brands who’s advertising was found on a fake news website, condemned the phenomenon through their spokesperson Charl Nel. This sentiment was echoed by representatives from OUTsurance and Coronation. The full responses of companies caught on fake news websites by News24 can be found here.

These companies say they were unaware that a part of their advertising spend was finding its way to the owners of fake news site, while Google removed HINNews from its advertising network on September 21 after receiving queries from News24.

Nel said it was difficult for the bank to ascertain which news sites are fake and that it targets a market based on its readership. “We utilise various software for delivery of programmatic ads which are globally recognised (and) which optimises and creates lists as a brand watch. Capitec and our advertising partners also review websites on a monthly basis, however, it is very hard to decipher which websites are not legitimate as we target based on users.”

Nel condemned the use of fake news but repeated that it is hard to determine which sites are real and which are fake. “We are working hard to ensure these sites are blacklisted.”

OUTsurance’s head of client relations, Natasha Kawulesar, also denied the insurer’s knowledge or support of adverts on fake news websites and said the fake news website where it advertised was part of the Google Display Network (GDN), Google’s network of Adsense-approved websites. Google bans pornography, illegal downloads and similar websites from the GDN.

“We do not have the knowledge or capability to handle this function [digital advertising] ourselves and currently rely on our media and technology partners to handle this on their side,” said Kawulesar. “We place our trust in the publishers and media partners we deal with. We also have service level agreements in place to protect our brand and reputation. We confirm once again that we do not condone fake news or misinformation in any way, form or scale.”

Thato Mntambo, Manager: Corporate Communications at Mercedes-Benz South Africa also told News24 that the placement of their adverts was in the hands of Google.

“The unintended consequence of the pervasiveness of GDN [Google Display Network] is the difficulty to monitor the number of websites where our advertisements are displayed. We are conscious of the potential of incorrect placements and ameliorate the effects thereof through continuous monitoring of keywords and, in some cases, blacklisting keywords.”

Coronation Fund Managers, responding through their representative Tanya Schreuder of Dentsu Aegis Network, told News24 that the website on which their branding was found formed part of Google’s GDN list of websites.

“Under no circumstances would the Dentsu Aegis Network, as custodians of our clients’ brands, consciously support sites which are illegal, undesirable or dubious in any form. We take brand safety incredibly seriously and on behalf of all of our clients we undertake every effort to ensure that any online inventory we deploy is legitimate and of a quality that is contextually suitable.”

Google’s response

Google declined to comment on HINNews’s listing on the Google Display Network.

A spokesperson said: “Our publisher policies govern where Google ads may be placed. We don’t comment on individual sites but we enforce these policies vigorously and regularly review sites to ensure compliance. We also encourage people to let us know when they see sites that they have concerns about that may be in violation of our policies.”

Top tips for spotting fake news

Recent events in both South Africa and abroad have highlighted the problem of the spreading of false information disguised as news.

These fake news stories can cause a lot of damage to the reputations of people and companies alike, whilst diverting attention from more relevant news items.

University of KwaZulu-Natal media expert Professor Jean-Phillipe Wade said the inventing and sharing of such stories is merely “an ego boost”.

Wade called for a massive increase in media and literary studies to be taught at schools as “often people are genuinely taken with these stories and share them without consultation”. “With social media there is no requirement for editorial gate-keeping. Rumours spread far and wide and there’s no way of stopping it but we need to educate people on how to identify what is verified news,” Wade said.

He drew attention to politicians using fake news to boost their image and their political agenda.

Wade said internationally and nationally, politicians often spread fake news to “cover up their tracks”. He mentioned President Donald Trump and President Jacob Zuma as both using false information to justify their decisions or bolster their campaigns.

Reports that South African football star Benni McCarthy committed suicide in London also surfaced this week and journalists from legitimate newsrooms scrambled to track McCarthy down, who squashed the fake reports.

A social media post claiming that 250 cats, dogs, birds, hamsters and horses in the Germiston and Bedfordview SPCA kennels would be euthanised was also circulated this week.

Chairperson of the Gauteng-based SPCA Elroy Parkinson said that as a result of the false information, their phone lines, e-mail and social media channels were flooded by concerned supporters, making it difficult for staff to respond to everyone.

A NUMBER of media experts around the world have published lists and tips on how to spot fake news. Here are some that relate to South Africa:

• Look to see if reputable news sites are also reporting on the story;

• Check for odd-looking domain names;

• Check the “About Us” tab on websites or look up the website on snopes.com for more information about the source;

• Watch out for common news websites that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sources;

• Bad web design and use of all caps can also be a sign that the source you’re looking at should be verified;

• If the story makes you really angry it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to make you angry in order to generate shares and advertising revenue.

By Kailene Pillay and Alet Janse van Rensburg for News24

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