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’We trust social media’

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Despite concerns around misinformation and false claims, social media users continue to believe that the information they read and share on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook is factually correct.

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ACROSS the Northern Cape a large percentage of our population spend a considerable amount of time each day, and often into the night, on their cellphones, tablets and laptops . . . and specifically on social media.

And, despite concerns around misinformation and false claims . . . and fake news, social media users around the world continue to believe that the information they read and share on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook is factually correct, with levels of trust highest in emerging economies especially South Africa.

The findings, based on a global study by Oxford University Press (OUP), the world’s largest university press, show that when looking for factual information, 37% turn to social media, rising to 43% of South Africans. Overall, most of us also rely heavily on Google and other search engines for information, with two thirds of people (67%) worldwide finding facts this way.

The study, The Matter of Fact, takes a broad look at how people across the world seek out information and judge its accuracy, drawing on a pool of evidence bolstered by survey data collected from 5 000 people across South Africa, the UK, the US, India, and Mexico. It finds that social media has become central to shaping people’s understanding.

More than half (52%) said that when it came to distinguishing fact from fiction, sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram play an important role. At the same time, reliance on books and more traditional means of gathering accurate information has declined. For example, less than a third cited non-fiction books and encyclopedias as sources when seeking facts.

There were geographical differences in the level of trust people put in social media, with more than half (54%) of South African respondents seeing these networks as an important tool for separating fact from fiction, but only 27% taking this view in the UK and 42% in the US. Under 55s were more inclined to believe in the accuracy of the material they shared on social media.

While 35% of people aged 25 to 44 said they were “very confident” they were sharing only truthful information on social media, only 13% of over 55s felt the same. Younger people are also more likely to rely on social media as a source of factual information, with over 44% of those in the 25 to 44 age-bracket turning to the platforms compared to just 12% of over 55s.

Other key findings from the report included:

– Most of us prefer to consult multiple sources to determine whether something is accurate, with 80% globally keen to double check their facts.

– Half of us still think politicians and government play a significant role in helping us to separate fact from fiction (47%).

– Almost two thirds (65%) agree that facts should be open to interpretation.

The pandemic does appear to have had an impact on people’s perceptions of truth, with around three in four people agreeing that they are now more cautious about the accuracy of the information they encounter – a figure that climbs to over 80% in South Africa.

The data also shows growing mistrust and scepticism about truthfulness, with 68% saying it has become harder to clarify whether information is factually correct.

Despite having multiple sources at their disposal, talking with friends, family, and trusted colleagues remains an important way for people to discover information. Globally, four in 10 said they had learnt a new fact this way in the last five years. However, with almost half (46%) of South African respondents using WhatsApp as a common source for sharing facts, it is difficult to know where information is originally sourced from and, as a result, hard to determine if what is being shared is true.

A few recent cases of misinformation in South Africa – some of which were debunked by popular fact-checking website Africa Check – include:

– claims that Covid-19 vaccines contain traces of monkeypox;

– rooibos tea being a cure-all for preventing allergies, diabetes, and kidney stones;

– plans by the South African Reserve Bank to introduce a R500 note to South Africa’s currency;

– and claims that South Africa is the most dangerous country in the world to drive in.

The report confirmed South Africans’ trust in institutions and experts. 85% agreed that universities and academic institutions were important upholders of truth and with increased exposure to experts throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 62% expressed trust in information when it was backed up by relevant experts. South African respondents were also the most likely to cite teachers as being relied on for teaching children factual information (48%) and when looking for factual information, more than half (52%) chose educational textbooks or websites.

Fathima Dada, Managing Director for Education at Oxford University Press, said: “It’s encouraging to see that teachers remain a valued source for trusted information, as we know they have much to share with present and future generations of students. At the same time, it’s important that education continues to evolve to provide children with facts, as well as much-needed critical thinking skills from a young age to teach them to examine the information they encounter and reach their own conclusions about its validity.

“As our research makes clear, young people are increasingly turning to social media to discover facts, so helping children use technology in a safe and responsible way, and equipping them with the tools to be well-versed in digital literacy for the future, is crucial.”

Speaking about the research, Nigel Portwood, CEO of Oxford University Press, said: “Differentiating between fact and fiction is harder than ever, with the unprecedented events of the last two years bringing the debate around misinformation and false claims into sharp focus.

“With an ever-increasing number of sources to turn to for information, from books to academic texts to digital channels, and so many answers available at the touch of a button, it’s no surprise that our research presents a global picture of confusion.”

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