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Mandela ‘death’ hoax exposes weakness of Twitter as news platform
The retweet didn’t kill the newsman, after all. As it turns out, the growth of Twitter simply reiterates the essential role of journalists in sifting through and filtering the rumour mill that hangs around the neck of the information economy. And a good thing it is, too.
This past weekend, users on social network Twitter inadvertently spread a rumour that Nelson Mandela had died. Many contributed to its spread by asking in tweets whether the rumour of his death was correct, thus spreading news of the rumour, rather than the rumour itself, but the end result was pretty much the same.
Lots of South Africans were left asking whether the former South African president and struggle-icon, now 92 and for years subject to rumours on his health, was still alive.
As any journalist worth their salt would have done, phone lines to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which manages Mandela’s name and legacy, and the African National Congress (ANC) got especially busy.
The Foundation dismissed reports of Mandela’s death, telling the media he was “well and on holiday.” It would later place a rather terse statement on its website saying “Mr Mandela is on holiday, resting. We would like to ask the media to respect his privacy. We have made a commitment in the past that should anything happen to Mr Mandela, we will inform the public.”
While it’s nice to know that the Foundation “have made a commitment” to inform the public in the case anything “should happen” to Madiba, they must also realise that they are probably not the only stakeholder in managing such news.
The ANC, in its statement railing against those behind the hoax and calling on Twitter to “stamp out misuse” on its network, described the (false) news of Mandela’s death as akin to creating “an atmosphere of panic and anxiety in the country”.
It’s a clear indication of how they view the sad but ultimately inevitable demise of South Africa’s beloved statesman and icon. “Those behind this hoax are certainly people without any interest in the political and economic stability of South Africa, which we very much owe to the immense contribution by comrade Nelson Mandela – the country’s first democratically-elected President,” the statement concluded.
Social media has been playing an increasingly important part in people’s right to access to information. It bypasses censors and puts information, sometimes true, sometimes false, in the public domain, which effectively puts it in the laps of journalists. It’s a key part of the job of journalists to follow up on rumours, even (rather especially) if they prove to be untrue, and present that confirmation or denial to the public.
But calls on Twitter to monitor tweets and weed out false rumours are incredibly short-sighted and will impose an immense legal burden on the network. It makes the platform responsible for the content, and is a short skip and step to regulatory intervention, and the further curtailing of the free flow and exchange of ideas and information.
At the same time most users know to check reputable news sources when reading “breaking news” on Twitter, and while Twitter can break a story, news sites tend to have the confirmation up in a matter of minutes.
It is interesting to note that News24 published a story, from one of its newspaper stable mates, the Afrikaans weekly Rapport, on the rumour headlined “Mandela is ill” in which it dispelled news of Mandela’s death but noted that “Mandela’s health had recently deteriorated”.
The story, republished on the biggest news portal in South Africa, continued by saying that “several rumours about his health and imminent passing away were recently proven to be untrue.
But according to a reliable source, this time was different.” Rapport, a Sunday paper, is definitely more sensationalist than the daily papers and wires which News24 traditionally pulls its content from. The story seems to suggest that the rumours have some basis in fact, and that while the former President may still be alive, his condition is fast deteriorating.
Senior editors at News24 must be asking whether it’s worth the risk to their reputation as the go-to source for South African news when they pull content from such a diverse pool of newspapers, some with a more populist streak than others, and each with a different core audience in mind.
It is worth noting that the original story, published on Saturday, differs substantially from the one published on in the paper on Sunday, which was headline “Mandela nié op sterfbed, maar wel siekerig” (Mandela not dying, only sickly).
Senior editors at News24 must be asking whether it’s worth the risk to their reputation as the go-to source for South African news when they pull content from such a diverse pool of newspapers, some with a more populist streak than others, and each with a different core audience in mind. It sounds like a reputational nightmare to me and intricately links their brand to that of another — one over which they have no say.