In the lead up to South Africa’s 2019 general elections, the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and its benefits were being prophesied by many politicians as a way of solving the country’s unemployment crisis and reducing inequality.

The spread of misinformation often happens via groups that are set
up specifically to discuss politics.

However, party leaders often slipped up, embarrassingly showing in public how little they know about the digital revolution. But despite this, they are well aware of the changing patterns in how people consume news. Especially youngsters and those living in urban areas, have moved from newspapers to social media. Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp have fast become a tool to spread party messages – some true, others false.

According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019, the battle against misinformation is more difficult because of South Africa’s high usage of WhatsApp. According to an online sample, a total of 88% of users utilise it for general purposes, while 49% for news, which is high compared to other countries covered in the document.

This is the first time South Africa features in the report. It warns that because the research was conducted using an online questionnaire, online samples tend to underrepresent the consumption habits of people who are not online. These are people who typically older, less affluent, and with limited formal education. It says it is better to think of the results as representative of online populations, who use news sites at least once a month. In a country like Norway, this is almost everyone (99%), but in South Africa, this is around half (54%).

The report says that the spread of misinformation often happens via groups that are set up specifically to discuss politics. More than half (55%) of the report’s sample across 38 countries remains concerned about their ability to separate what is real and fake on the internet. The concern is highest in Brazil (85%), South Africa (70%), Mexico (68%), and France (67%) The lowest is in the Netherlands (31%), and Germany (38%).

For those with dubious intentions, it makes sense that social media is the go-to tool. The main reason is that there is still a strong tradition of highly trusted, independent media in South Africa. But the document says this is increasingly under threat.

“Trust is being eroded by a combination of unethical business practices, shoddy journalism, and escalating misinformation affecting critical national elections. South Africa scores highly on the press freedom index, and largely enjoys a strong and ethical news environment,” says Code of Africa’s Chris Roper in the report.

“This is reflected in a 49% trust in media, one of the highest in our survey, perhaps bolstered by the media’s recent role in exposing political patronage at the highest levels.”

Roper says that in the run-up to the elections, misinformation on social media exploded, with news brands becoming both targets and sometimes unwitting amplifiers. As a result, there has been a surge in organisations training media and civil society to combat misinformation, and platforms such as Google and Twitter have also allocated resources to help.

Financially, it’s not known what social media and news websites are bringing in for media companies. Revenue for news media has been plummeting for several years. Roper says there was a 12% drop in ad spend last year on television, 5.6% for radio, and 7.7% for print.

“Despite 16% of respondents claiming they pay for online news, this figure will not be representative of South Africans as a whole given our urban and highly educated online sample.

“Indeed, most of the local news organisations with subscription paywalls decline to release their figures, suggesting the number of paying subscribers is still low. The surge of goodwill engendered by the media’s role in exposing the Guptas has led to an upswing in reader donations to independent publications like the Daily Maverick and the investigative unit amaBhungane,” he says.

However, Roper warns that this is an uncertain form of income, and with no sustainable revenue model available, South African media houses are facing a grim future. Big social media platforms have effectively won the battle for advertising revenue, while resource-starved online and broadcast news brands face fierce competition from international English-speaking brands like the BBC and CNN, he says.

“Over the last ten years, newspaper circulation has declined by 49%, and the majority of media houses seem to have no idea how to roll out successful hybrid subscriptions models that have worked elsewhere in the world,” Roper concludes.

By: Amy Musagrave