Koliwe Majama

Digital Rights and Policy Specialist

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’.      

The 5th African Internet Governance Forum (AfIGF) was held from 16 – 18 October 2016 in Durban, South Africa. The AfIGF brought together government representatives, the private sector, academia, technical community, civil society organisations and the media from over 30 African countries.

 The African School on Internet Governance

Pic: The Association of Progressive Communication

The AfIGF was preceded by the African School on Internet Governance (AfriSIG) held 11-15 October 2016.  I was privileged to be a part of the class of 2016, whose dates were strategically planned to precede the AfIGF in order to enhance the learning experience of the 44 graduates who attended the school. As part of its practicum, the class of 2016, which I was privileged to be a part of came up with a statement with recommendations on intentional internet shutdowns which was presented at the AgIGF.

Internet shutdowns are the latest global phenomenon used by governments to ‘control’ citizen action. Globally over 50 internet shutdowns have been recorded for the year 2016. Africa has witnessed varied Internet shutdowns that range from total blackouts of access or targeted interruptions of popular social media platforms. The latest internet shutdowns on the continent include that of The Gambia imposed during the country elections, are Democratic Republic of Congo’s shutdown of social media applications, as the President Kabila’s term of office draws to a close. The reasons proffered for the shutdowns, are usually concerns of public disorder and national security during national elections. They are also used to censor citizens and control mobilisation during citizen-led protests. In some instances the shutdowns are government sanctioned, while in others as is the case with Zimbabwe, the shutdown is unaccounted for.

 Parallel session on Internet Rights

The session, which was organised by the Association of Progressive Communications, was an open discussion that focused on the African Declaration of Internet Rights and Freedoms and outlined digital rights trends on the continent

The following recommendations were submitted:

  • Within the framework of Internet governance, the promotion of rights and freedom online is the responsibility of governments, and other critical stakeholders that include the media, civil society and the private sector.
  • African Governments should consider the cost of not mobilising the potential of the internet as an enabler of free expression and the free flow of information. Rather than view the internet as ‘new media’ that channels dissent, they should realise its potential as a platform for interacting with citizens, deliver services, enhance open governance and contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Principles is a guide to respecting human rights on the internet for policy makers, the media, businesses, the technical community, civil society and human rights defenders.

Connecting the next billion which role for Africa?

This panel discussion centered on how Africa can contribute meaningfully to the next one billion people to be connected to the internet. Panelists noted that the following issues were important in making a meaningful regional contribution:

  • The need to promote local content through the development of a model policy framework and a strategy that not only promotes the development of local content but also its consumption.
  • The emphasis on the need for open government data initiatives that promote the accessibility of public information and services online. This would include e-government, e-payment systems, e-commerce and e-learning platforms.
  • Increase the accessibility of available broadband through the adoption of Private Public Partnerships for the sector.
  • Emphasis on the strengthening of collaboration between the ICT industry and education sector for an increase in skills for the development of a digital economy and skills for the creation of digital knowledge networks. This will ensure that relevant skills are developed and promotes for the industry.
  • Promotion of affordable internet on the continent through policies that provide for either or all of the following; subsidised broadband costs for academic institutions, reduction of operational costs and multiple tax constraints on internet service providers, levying taxes on internet enabled devices.
  • Promotion of Community Networks, which would allow geographically marginalised communities to get connected via a network of WiFi access points. Similarly, the utilisation of TV white spaces for internet deployment to underserved areas and at affordable rates. TV white spaces are unused broadcasting frequencies in the wireless spectrum
  • At country level, stakeholders organise themselves in order investigate and make clear recommendations on challenges relating to the affordability and accessibility of the internet within their context. This will enable them to select what realistically can be adopted from regional recommendations.

National Internet Governance Forums

Currently the continent has thirteen National Internet Governance Forums (NIGFs)

  • What is also clear is that very few African countries have managed to achieve a multi stakeholder approach in their respective IG processes. In Southern Africa, member states agreed to set up national internet governance forums (IGFs) to facilitate informed dialogue on policy and other related matters between stakeholders on internet development and governance by 30 June 2015. To date only five out of fifteen member states have set up and established NIGFs.
  • During the year, African states drew up a draft African Union Declaration on Internet Governance which was presented at the AfIGF-2015 for input by stakeholders. After that the final draft of the document was presented to the Ministers of ICT during the Extra-ordinary meeting of the Specialised Technical Committee on Internet Governance and Cyber-security held in Bamako, Mali in September. The ministers endorsed the documents and now it awaits forwarding to the African Union organs for consideration and adoption.

For a fuller, detailed report visit AfIGF website.




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