Government has cautioned South Africans to be aware of the scourge of fake news sites that have gained popularity on social media in recent months, which have also targeted a number of national departments. And it apparently wants your help to stop their spread.

“South Africa has a thriving media landscape and in this digital era people have access to content wherever they go. However, the trend of satirical news websites presented as a credible news source misinforms society on key issues and prominent figures,” said Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) acting Director General, Donald Liphoko.

The Departments of Home Affairs and Health have fallen victim to fake news stories n the last month, as has leader of the Electronic Freedom Fighters Julius Malema, with hoax news stories being shared on social media as accurate information.

“This genre of reporting is detrimental to those involved and also detracts from key issues which can be harmful to the citizens and the country as a whole. Such websites aim to communicate false news in an attempt for citizens to further share it on social media,” Liphoko added.

South Africans are urged not to share fake stories on social media, so as to help curb the spread of such news.

“The Electronic Communications and Transactions Act of 2002 states that Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) has a mandate to shutdown websites that are not credible. Therefore, members of the public are encouraged to approach the internet service provider directly to lodge a complaint,” GCIS said.

ISPA’s responsibility and ability to pull content isn’t quite as sweeping as GCIS suggests, however. ISPA’s policy and regulation head Dominic Cull says that GCIS is referring to his organisation’s responsibility to react to – although not necessarily act upon – requests to takedown websites hosted by its members from the public and businesses.

ISPA’s official takedown guide is here if you feel like reporting a fake news site, but the site will have to have broken a law. That would mean it published hate speech or was guilty of defamation. In 2015, ISPA logged 236 requests and acted upon exactly 50% of them (118). Of those, only 17 successful requests were for hate speech or defamation – the vast majority (101) were for copyright infringement or malware infection.

Takedown notices (TDN) acted upon by ISPA timeline (ISPA).
Takedown notices (TDN) acted upon by ISPA timeline (ISPA).

Fake news stories are a tricky one, however. There’s no law which is being broken by lying online – it’s only perjury if you lie under oath – and as veteran journalist Gus Silber points out on Twitter freedom of expression quite rightly trumps most things when it comes to words. Even if someone sued a fake news site for defamation, the defence of parody would be a strong one in South African law.

We all hate fake news sites. Beating them may not be as easy as it seems, though.

Additional reporting by Adam Oxford.