By Dr Admire Mare
HARDLY an hour or a day passes without another ‘fake news’ or should we call it ‘junk news’ torches an inferno on social media and other platforms we use on a daily basis.
The notion of “fake news” has received so much publicity in the past two years that it has become part of everyday speech.
But pinning down its meaning – and indeed, agreeing as to whether it even exists – has proved a rather more complex methodological challenge.
For the purposes of this article, the term fake news is used to refer to stories that are generally false, but have enormous popular appeal and are shared far and wide.
This includes hoaxes, propaganda and disinformation purporting to be real news—often circulated online to drive web traffic and amplify their effect. Also important part of the mix is completely false information that is created for financial gain.
There is general agreement that disinformation is as old as writing itself, that the manipulation of public opinion and official records for the benefit of the powerful goes all the way back to the earliest settled societies.
Hoaxes and falsehoods have been associated with the internet since its early days, but it is only in the last two years that organised, systematic misinformation campaigns, often linked to governments, have emerged online, and their effect on democracy and society scrutinised.
What distinguishes the current outbreak of fake news from its predecessors is the extraordinary ease and rapidity with which information can be disseminated and shared globally over the internet, by anonymous individuals who need no expensive equipment or intensive training.
A few days ago, the Ministry of Information, communication and Technology (MICT) issued a press statement in which they cautioned Namibians against being creators and circulators of fake news.
This was in the wake of fake news circulated on social media claiming that the government of Namibia had passed a new regulation to monitor all cellphones and communication platforms.
The message which was circulated on the mobile instant messaging platform-WhatsApp—created panic and despondency amongst the public who feared the existence of the Big brother.
In their response, MICT indicated that the ministry has no regulation or system that monitors voice calls and social media activities of citizens.
Fears about social media regulation have been growing ever since the rise of fake news and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal. Countries like China and Iran are already known for their erection of firewalls and imposition of intermediary liability on internet access and service providers.
In Africa, cases of internet shutdowns have increased over the past three years. For instance, in 2016 at least 11 African countries experienced internet shutdowns with deleterious impact on the economy and the entire value chain of start up enterprises.
A number of national security justifications have been offered for internet shutdowns in countries such as Zimbabwe, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Chad and Uganda.
Some countries have even noted that internet shutdowns are justified in order to slow down the circulation of disinformation and fake news in times of crisis and conflict.
So why should we be concerned about fake news online?
Fake news has the corrosive effect of creating misinformed citizens thereby weakening our democratic institutions. It can also destroy the credibility of media institutions thereby furthering eroding trust in news and information.
In 2017, the country experienced various forms of fake news especially relating to SWAPO party factions as they jostled for control of the revolutionary party in November last year.
Only a few days ago, social media was also awash with rumors that the President of Namibia, Hage Geingob, was going to meet the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in China.
Whilst fake news circulated by professional media organizations can easily be nipped in the bud, it is not easy to control disinformation created by citizen journalists. Once an inferno has been torched, it can go on for days, weeks or months before a huge dose of ‘real news’ is able to stop it.
There are on silver bullets which we can use to deal with online fake news but the starting point is to build capacities in terms of digital literacy and civic education.
Critical digital literacy programmes like continuous education must be an on-going concern because as new technologies are developed, new literacies are needed to engage with the content and tools.
On the one hand, digital literacy is concerned with practical skills to access, navigate and use the internet and its ancillary technologies like social media platforms.
On the other hand, critical digital literacy is about empowering users to consume content critically, as a prerequisite for online engagement, by identifying issues of bias, prejudice, misrepresentation and trustworthiness. It also encapsulates the notion of critically understanding the position of digital media technologies in society.
Regulations of fake news are bound to fail. Recently India, Malaysia and Singapore attempted to come up with guidelines which stated that if any journalist is found to have “created and/or propagated” fake news they can be suspended or have their accreditation cancelled.
The main problem with the guidelines is that they focused on professional journalists yet the bulky of fake news is created and circulated by citizen journalists and ordinary people.
Instead of statutory regulation, press councils and ombudsman must be tasked with dealing with fake news within the professional media organisations.
Internet intermediaries also have a duty and responsibility to curb click-baiting fake news in the name of profit-maximisation.
In neighbouring countries like South Africa and Zimbabwe, fact-checking platforms and organisations like AfricaCheck and ZimFact have been launched with the sole mandate of fact-checking news and information in the public sector so that the general public can receive verified news and real effects.
These are nobel experiments which will go a long way in fighting the scourge of fake news.
In Namibia, fake news continues to wreck havoc on social media to a greater extent. The way forward is to ensure that readers and users of social media understand the source of information, check the authors of the story, read beyond the headlines, check the date, ask the experts and check our own biases.
Fact-checking of social media information continues to cause headaches to internet intermediaries. This is largely because they handle tonnes of data which makes it difficult to meticulously verify and moderate it on a regular basis.
Research in Europe and the United States of America suggest that there is need for a greater digital literacy for all adults, not just children. Like other forms of education, critical digital literacy must be implemented as a lifelong set of abilities and predispositions.
It must be promoted in line with civic education which is essential for providing context around which the veracity of content can be more easily ascertained.
Indeed Namibians have the right to be afraid of the surveillance capacities of the state whenever they are proved to be in operation. But for now, based on the assurances by MICT, there is need for us to be vigilant as we fight against fake news production and consumption.
Dr Admire Mare is a senior lecturer in the department of communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology
Confidente. Lifting the Lid. Copyright © 2015