The major damage of misinformation in Africa will not be press regulation, but that the public may come to distrust all news, including real news.
‘Misinformation is not like a plumbing problem you fix. It is a social condition, like crime, that you must constantly monitor and adjust to.’
– Tom Rosenstiel, The Future of Truth and Misinformation
Globalization can be understood as a network of production, culture and power built on the innovative infrastructure brought about by a revolution in information and communication technologies. These communication technologies, such as the Internet, have created a pathway for new systems, such as social media. Which leaves the public open to the dangers of misinformation and, generally, fake news.
A fundamental driver of globalization has been advances in technology through network societies. A network society is a society where the key social structures and activities are organized around electronically processed information networks. Social networks are the first thing that comes to mind when we think of networks involving humans. But the forces driving globalization aren’t just social networks; in fact, historically, social networks have always existed as a form of social organization. Increased connectivity and access to networks are some of the forces that have also driven globalization. In turn, these drivers of globalization have led to new forms of inclusion, exclusion, fragmentation and integration. We currently live in a world where the chief form of power is control or influence over information and communication. The reason for this is because for change and development to happen in the network society, tension between the efforts of some networks to impose their values and goals and the efforts of others to resist their domination, must exist.
UNDERSTANDING THE INFORMATION CRISIS
Although fake news, disinformation and misinformation mean slightly different things, they are frequently used interchangeably. Fake news is complete or partly false information, often appearing as news, and typically expressed as textual, visual or graphical content with an intention to mislead or confuse people. Generally, fake news has always existed in the form of propaganda campaigns, ‘spinning’, manipulation, falsehoods, rumours, conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
Both disinformation and misinformation contribute to fake news, but the primary difference between the two is intent. Disinformation is a made-up story with a malicious intention to deceive, cause harm, and manipulate public perception. Misinformation, on the other hand, is the spread of misleading or false information inadvertently without the intent to deceive. A sender of misinformation may not know the information is inaccurate. In today’s world, where so many different stories for the same event can make sense, misinformation is pervasive. A recent survey of adults in 11 emerging economies by Pew Research Center found that, exposure to incorrect information is widespread in most emerging economies surveyed. The rise of social media has allowed for new ways to produce, distribute, and consume fake news, which makes it harder to differentiate what information can be trusted.
Although the use of fake news seems to be more well-known in the West—with popular figures allegedly accusing the Russian government of meddling in the US and British elections by planting fake stories— misinformation operations have occurred in many other parts of the world with Africa being a notable example. In a continent where most of its population, have low levels of digital literacy and Facebook is often the online source of news and information, identifying fake news is no easy task.
In 2018, Herman Wasserman and Dani Madrid-Morales conducted a study on fake news, disinformation and media trust in Africa. The study included 755 people from Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. One insight from the study was the consistent relationship between the perceived exposure to misinformation or fake news and the declining media trust, and trust in different types of media. The study, when compared with another study on the topic conducted in 2016 by the US-based Pew Research Center, shows that African audiences experience a high degree of exposure to misinformation than Americans. They have also knowingly shared more fake news than their American counterparts.
According to the BBC, emotions trump reason when it comes to sharing news and people tend to overestimate their ability to predict fake news. The BBC came to this conclusion after conducting in-depth interviews with 40 people, analysing 3,000 Facebook pages and interests, a sample of more than 2,000 messages and 8,000 news articles in Nigeria and Kenya. It is obvious that misinformation is now a part of life in Africa, especially when it comes to elections. Recently, Facebook shut down a network of accounts that targeted an African election from Israel. It is evident that without putting safeguards in place it is likely that misinformation will increase, as long as social media remains a key source of information.
Identifying the creators of misinformation and fake news, as well as their motivations, has been a major concern in recent media reports and academic articles released by organizations such as the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and Facebook. These reports and articles usually focus on how to spot fake news. One study in particular, conducted by Murphy Choy (DPS) and Mark Chong (PHD) attempted to do this, by creating the LeSiE (Lexical Structure, Simplicity, Emotion) framework. The framework, which was validated on real data, allows lay people to identify potential fake news without the use of calculators or complex statistics by looking out for three simple cues: Lexical Structure, Simplicity and Emotion. Often it can be unclear who has produced the fake news, but actors ranging from governments, organizations, companies, and individuals have been identified as creators of fake news. Some push fake news to make money, others do it to spread their world views, while trolls do it for the fun of it.
The Internet with its translational and transnational capabilities, has enabled foreign governments, state actors and non-state actors the ability to influence the affairs of both home and foreign states. Technological companies with their powerful data gathering and aggregating tools are able to offer fake news as a product, knowingly or unknowingly. A product that can have a crucial impact in political campaigns and many other issues.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ebola and fake news are in consort with one another. On August 1, 2018, an Ebola outbreak was announced in the north-eastern North Kivu province of the DRC. This is the tenth and largest outbreak of the disease that the country has experienced in 40 years. For more than two decades, the north-eastern part of the DRC, particularly Beni and Butembo in the North Kivu province, has experienced violent conflicts that have restricted the movement of the population and health workers. The people of Beni and Butembo mistrust for both the governments and aid workers also peaked during this period. As misinformation became frequent. Due to the outbreak of Ebola, on the 26 of September, the then-president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila announced the postponement of elections in the north-eastern part of the country, to prevent the disease from spreading. This decision sparked rumours that Kabila’s government was behind the outbreak and resulted in a Cameroonian Doctor being killed. At least five Ebola treatment centres have been attacked since the outbreak.
A recent study by The Lancet, an independent, international weekly general medical journal discovered that there was an Ebola misinformation epidemic in the north-eastern part of DRC. From a sample of 961 adults, some 78 percent said they’d heard Ebola didn’t exist, that Ebola was fabricated for financial gains and to destabilise the region. Some 25.5 percent of the people sampled believed the news that Ebola didn’t exist. The disease has become politicized, with certain political figures using it to push their agenda. At a press conference in late August 2018, an opposition politician, Crispin Mbindule Mitono, stated that Ebola was a new ÒLethal forceÓ targeting the residents of Beni and Butembo. The next month, he later went on radio, claiming that a government lab had produced the Ebola virus to exterminate the people of Beni. The circumstances of this particular outbreak have led UNICEF and other international agencies to rally together along with the DRC’s Ministry of Health as a single response team, using the airwaves, social media, and meetings with community and religious leaders to fight misinformation.
Citizen Lab, a research group tracked an online disinformation campaign for close to 2 years. The campaign impersonated major media outlets, used fake Twitter accounts to spread false articles, and targeted real journalists. The operation dubbed the ‘Endless Mayfly’ published 135 fabricated articles using 73 domains, 11 twitter personas and 160 personae by-lines. The campaign operation used websites designed to mimic outlets such as The Guardian, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, The Independent, The Atlantic, and Politico. The inauthentic articles were posted to Twitter, amplified by third parties, or covered by mainstream media. In response, Endless Mayfly deleted the content and redirected visitors to the legitimate media outlets that they were impersonating; thereby creating the impression for some that the fake story had originally appeared on the real site. According to Citizen Lab director, Ron Deibert, ‘It struck us as an innovation in disinformation tactics. The Citizen Lab report nicknamed this technique ‘ephemeral disinformation’ because ‘the message remains even though the evidence is ephemeral.’
It’s not clear to what extent misinformation and disinformation operations like Endless Mayfly have swayed public opinion because of the new techniques they employ. The Endless Mayfly campaign led to wrong media reporting and caused confusion among journalists, and accusations of intentional wrongdoing. Although there were instances where stories were later refuted, confusion remained about the intentions and origins behind the stories.
As humans and bots continuously spread misinformation online, Ron Deibert of Citizen Lab suggests that, those who are looking to run information operations for whatever reason. See the Internet as a laboratory for testing what sort of misinformation or fake news strategy works and doesn’t work. And because of the difficulty of figuring out the identity of perpetrators of fake news, these perpetrators can easily push out and amplify their coordinated manipulation operations.
As the BBC beyond fake news project seeks to answer the question; How organised is the spread of misinformation on private and public social networks. Its research on fake news in Nigeria and Kenya show that social media users surveyed in both countries believe that, fake stories are spread purely to make money. The research also reckons that when mainstream journalistic sources use sensationalist headlines without verification. They blur the lines between legitimate journalism and out-and-out misinformation. It’s really easy to find opinion or shabby reporting masquerading as news in our current information-rife world. Quality journalism, which complies with professional standards and ethics, isn’t predominant in the African society, as most news agencies tend to allow their biases lead their efforts. All in a bid for more clicks. The effects being sub-standard news reporting that sometimes, permits disinformation and misinformation to take root in the real news system. That is not to say that feeble journalism is a cause of misinformation. Only that it is evident that solid ethical journalism is needed as part of the remedy and as an alternative to the spreading of misinformation and the pollution of the news environment.
THE MAJOR IMPACTS OF THE INFORMATION CRISIS
The media perhaps more so than other stakeholders have a role to play in curbing the deluge of fake news in Africa. This is because the media faces the risk of being infiltrated, manipulated and targeted by the perpetrators of fake news as observed in the Endless Mayfly campaign. Moreover, the major damage of misinformation in Africa will not be press regulation, but that the public may come to distrust all news, including real news. The resulting effect is uncertainty, leaving people with no other option other than to believe the content endorsed by their personal social networks, that conforms to their biases.
Nowadays, misinformation and disinformation strategies can easily disrupt internal political and social systems within African democracies to muddy the information waters, and also build social media constituencies that cast doubt on the truth. These activities have a negative impact on ethnicity, public beliefs about health, science, and the status of reliable expertise. It is important for African nations to understand that fake news is neither a local nor an isolated phenomenon. But a trans-national battle, a battle for freedom, and, as such, it is essential that stakeholders prepare and execute comprehensive responses.
One way to develop a response is to look to the countries that are fending off fake news and information wars, especially from external actors. One country that has effectively dealt with the spread of false information is Finland. The Finish country developed a public diplomacy programme to advise state officials on how to understand and identify why false information goes viral and how to counter propaganda. Jed Willard, the developer of the programme, suggests that Finland’s education system, reputedly the best in the world, facilitates a combination of widespread critical thinking skills among the Finnish population combined with coherent government responses that makes a strong defence against deliberate efforts to spread false information and undermine faith in institutions.
ADDRESSING THE INFORMATION CRISIS
As misinformation and fake news are rapidly becoming a worry for African countries, some interested parties have banded together to establish fact-checking desks. First Draft in collaboration with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting launched CrossCheck Nigeria, a collaborative verification project that sought to debunk misinformation during the recently concluded Nigerian election. The collaborative project also trained 16 Nigerian media organizations on how to work together to debunk misinformation spreading online, especially on WhatsApp.
Similar solutions have also been established in other parts of Africa. On April 1, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa launched a platform aimed at curtailing information that might undermine the credibility and integrity of its electoral process. The platform developed by Media Monitoring Africa, in conjunction with the IEC and other organisations, allows members of the public to report misinformation, primarily in the form of social media posts.
Fully addressing misinformation and fake news as a whole will require changes to the relationships between social media platforms, news agencies, governments, and individuals. Some of these changes will entail people becoming better critical thinkers to grow into enlightened consumers of news in this digital era.
Collaboration between news agencies that establishes a sort of gold standard, can play an active role in combating misinformation, too. There is also a question of the need to introduce critical theory to digital media to develop a new blueprint of citizen journalism and participatory democracy based on an intelligent open knowledge and information system⎈