GUIDE: How to verify South African government Facebook pages

Joke and hoax Facebook pages set up to look like official government accounts appear to be a national pastime in South Africa. We list five questions you can ask yourself to identify what’s real and what’s not.

If you’re on Facebook, you’ve almost certainly encountered a scam or fake page. Africa Check has published dozens of reports debunking fake job offers and other scams advertised on the site. We also have a guide on how to spot scams on Facebook.

Often, the motives of these pages are easy to determine. Fake adverts will direct people to websites where scammers make money from adverts. Others ask for personal information, or ask their victims for money outright.

But not all fake pages are designed to trick you into giving away money or believing something that isn’t true. They can be difficult to identify, especially when they share official announcements and genuine information.

So if you come across what looks like an official government Facebook page how do you determine if it’s legitimate? Ask yourself these five questions.

1. Was this page set up as a joke?

Plenty of supposed government pages are clearly not official, but also don’t seem to be trying to dupe or scam people. 

For instance, many Facebook pages use the name or title of South Africa’s minister of basic education, Angie Motshekga. But it would be difficult to mistake them as her official accounts. They share jokes and personal comments that do not seem intended to mislead people.

Several of them even state: “This page is not affiliated to the Minister of Education” and remind followers of this in posts.

So what’s the harm in following them or sharing their posts? When content from these pages is shared, it can lose the context that makes it clear that the page is fake. This is often the case when screenshots of posts are shared. 

Africa Check has previously reported on a page that falsely claimed South African schools would not reopen in 2020 after closing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The page retracted the post, claiming it had been a joke. It has since been deleted. But the message had already been copied and shared by people who thought it was true, and some of these posts are still on Facebook.

So before you share an “official” post on Facebook, check it isn’t from a page intended to entertain, not inform.

2. Has the page been verified?

Africa Check asked the Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) in South Africa how to confirm if a government Facebook page is legitimate.

A spokesperson told us: “We try to ensure that all the official social media channels of the departments are verified, so that should be your first stop when checking if the pages are legitimate.”

Verified pages will display a blue check mark, indicating that Facebook has confirmed that the page is “the authentic Page or profile for this public figure, media company or brand”.

3. Are there obvious errors?

Not every government page is verified, so you might need to do a bit more digging. 

Keep an eye out for errors on the page. Many false pages have typos in their names. If they have been corrected, the past changes will be visible in the page’s “transparency” section. You can also check if the page previously had a different name. 

The “about” section of the page might also look unusual. For instance, Angie Motshegka is not a “product/service” or an “artist” as two pages would suggest.

4. Is the information being shared accurate?

Some pages share real information about government programmes. This can make it difficult to spot imposters. 

A fake page called SASSA Special-Grant Info uses the name and logo of the South African Social Security Agency, Sassa. It mostly posts information about the organisation’s Covid-19 social relief of distress grant. Often this information is copied from reliable sources, including the Sassa website and Facebook page.

Despite the fact that most of this information is correct, some posts include partnerships paid for by another page, Market Yourself Techniques. This is associated with a business of the same name, and promoted on a number of otherwise unrelated Facebook pages. It has no affiliation with Sassa.

So this page only posts legitimate information as a way to promote an unrelated business. It even directs followers to the business as though this were part of the application process for a Sassa grant. This could lead people to believe that Sassa has endorsed the company.

“If you are worried about the legitimacy of a post or page you can visit the departmental website and click through from there”, GCIS said. The Sassa website links to its real Facebook page, and not the fake.

GCIS told Africa Check that even fake pages which share official announcements copied from elsewhere “can delay response times as well as adding a middleman to a process that is unnecessary”.

Job postings in particular are likely to lead to problems when shared outside of government channels. GCIS warned that a job ad posted on an unofficial page might not be updated to reflect a change in the application process. This could mean “your application won’t reach the department in time or at all”.

5. What do official social media pages say?

If you’re looking for the most accurate information from a particular South African government department, where can you go?

You can start with this list of all government social media pages. If you can’t verify a page any other way, you can search through the list for the relevant government department.

And as a last resort, GCIS says: “If you are in doubt about the page or the content of the page, contact the department or the official government pages”.

In South Africa, every government web address should end with “.gov.za”. A small number do not, but a gov.za address is a good sign that you are on an official page. You can also check the government’s list of official websites.

Following these legitimate sources will not only mean you are safe from scams and misinformation, it will help ensure you are getting the most up-to-date information.

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