The term ‘fake news’ has made it big! Infact, it may be safe to say, following the Donald Trumps win in the United States Presidential Election in November 2016 ‘fake news’ probably remains the worlds most popularised, debated and confusing terms.
As internet access continues to increase on the African continent , it is more apparent the influence it has in activating the population. Africans have become more demanding of news in realtime, and at the same time, have stepped in to produce counter narratives, to those peddled by the mainstream on behalf of a political and economic elite.
Clearly, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, news content and opinions accessed over the internet, and particularly on social media platforms, has led to an undeniable upsurge in levels of clicktivism. Today audiences are mobilised on varying issues of national, regional and global movements in a manner never anticipated. Social media is no longer kids play! Particularly as it has caused a stir in the production, circulation and impact of opinion and ‘news’.
While speaking at the Freedom on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFA) conference earlier in September last year, Malawi based media and communications lecturer, Jimmy Kainja opined that there is a huge difference between news produced by a trained journalist and that produced by an opinionated person. He attributed fake news to the latter and insisted that there should be a way to stop it. This position remains popular amongst trained and mainstream practising journalists, who to a larger extent, seek to ‘preserve’ a profession whose ethics and standards are grounded in their base training. Rightfully so! But, not completely realistic in this new digital dispensation. ‘Fake news’ is a reality that exists across the globe and finds its way on results of popular search engines more often than news from mainstream.
Who says its fake news?
But who exactly determines whether news is fake, credible or dodgy?
If a fake news item goes viral on Whatsapp, Twitter or Facebook –who is responsible and can it be taken down? Infact, what is fake news? While fake news is a term that can mean different things, depending on the context, fake news is plain old and simple mis or dis information. Which misinformation is not new, but has over centuries been sold to us in the form of newspaper articles, adverts, cartoon strips and radio or television broadcasts. Only this time, through social media especially , ‘fake news’ knows no bounds, as there is very little means of gatekeeping and/or regulating under the guise of ethics and editorial standards.
There is more to ‘fake news’ than just lies. Sometimes fake news is dissent presented in a totally different style, by a not so ‘credible’ individual whose unpopular opinion, goes against the norm or is offensive to the status quo. What is perceived ‘fake news’ may not completely be a fabrication. Can we truly say that the announcement made by the military in Zimbabwe on the morning of 15 November 2017 was more ‘real’ news than the social media posts that citizens shared on popular social media platforms the day before on the occurrences?
More often than not, warnings against fake news are made by those in authority or public office, and in those instances, demonstrate their fear in losing control on the flow of information. However, in assessing the risks associated fake news, it is important to assess the different forms that ‘fake news’ takes, and be clear from the onset that not all forms of disinformation are harmful. Utterances that the demands for and promotion of internet freedom to an extent promote the problem of fake news, cannot be sustained, as talk of fines and bans of fake news are to a larger extent a form censorship.
Fake news frenzy!
There is evidently a frenzy around fake news by both mainstream news media and top private sector companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter that host a significant proportion of the worlds connected users.
Last year, Facebook’s interventions to combat fake news during Germanys election included publishing full-page notices on identifying fake news in German newspapers and working with fact-checking organisation, Correctiv, to deal with fake news flagged up by users. The introduction of its “i” button, to give detail on articles shared on its platform in order to gauge credibility is yet another effort still being tested.
Earlier this year, I read that Google came under fire for selling ‘fake news’ as news snippets and that efforts are being made to update its search quality to enable human as opposed to bot raters to deal with false information. Closer to home, the Media Monitors Africa, last year launched a Google Chrome extension, NewsCred, to help identify whether a news website is dodgy or credible.
In all these efforts, the intention is clearly to increase audiences media literacy by giving context on the issue, sources or history of the platform they are getting their news. Ideally, a person can decide if articles or news from that source can be trusted and if the actual news itself is credible. This is how far governments, ‘established’ news media platforms or intermediaries can go in challenging these alternative narratives, which whether we like it or not, are more appealing and accesible to the public. There has to be a level of trust that the public can determine whether a story is true or false.
Moment of truth?
The harsh reality is that the mainstream print and broadcast media have failed to adapt and keep up with the fast paced changes in the production and distribution of news content – verified or unverified. After watching a demonstration of Mobile journalistic (Mojo) techniques at last years Global Media Forum, held in Bonn, by former CNN Senior Social reporter, Yusif Omar, it was more apparent that the major challenge of the mainstream media is its failure to diversify news coverage.
For African mainstream media, the challenge is that of immediacy and the creative packing of news for documentation and demonstration of different perspectives, angles and realities of everyday interactions. Africa’s mainstream media landscape remains highly polarised. In a significant part of the continent, the mainstream does not offer the people affordable mid-point alternatives that offers widespread consumption on issues that are important to them. The media must wake up to the demand for a more responsive audience-centric media. Key to this is the acceptance that audiences have an alternative. They have counter–balance to the traditionally ‘licensed’ opinions and perspectives of the political and economic elite by finding a way to ‘make news’ – verified or unverified – and share it with such ferocity.
The debate on ‘fake news’ has to move from being about its ‘perceived’ impact on society and or ethical journalistic principles. It should focus on the dynamics of highly active pronsumers of news in a ‘digitalised’ environment. The mainstream media should think of survival in a digital era by being more objective in its agenda setting and more responsive in its reportage of events as they unfold. This means social media is a strategic place to be for the media. In order to mote with the digital times, the media should use social media to analyse trends of audiences consumption, mine their opinions in order it map priority for analysis in the public ‘interest’.