Friday, October 10 2019. Sitting in a taxi, heading to work, I clock in on a conversation about the president getting married. There was an unusual traffic along the road that connects AYA to the popular Finance bridge in the Federal Capital. “New Ministry. New Wife” the driver said. Everyone in the taxi echoed laughter and began to give their sides of the theory. Apparently, someone started a story about the president getting married to a woman whom he had made the minister of a new ministry he created. On twitter, the hashtag #BUSA2019 was trending. While hashtags and jokes and parody tweets trended on twitter, a large population of Nigerians believed this information and that it was linked to the heavy traffic in town that day.
Before #BUSA2019 my friend Fakhrriyah, a gender activist was declared dead on Facebook in a dramatic twist of events. A man had posted some pictures of her on his timeline, claiming she was his bride and that she had died few days to their wedding. The story which drew a lot of sympathy made the rounds on Facebook and blogs. So, in a space of three days, this friend of mine who was doing nothing but committing her time to gender development, was both engaged to a man and dead. Fakhrriyah became burdened with debunking the news of a wedding she wasn’t a participant in, and a death she had not died.
Why This Matters
Fake news has become epidemic across all social spaces, especially Facebook and WhatsApp but recently, Twitter has also been infiltrated. The situation can be likened to an information warfare with verified information on one end, having a small army and fake news on the other with a large army. Fake news is beyond just getting people to believe false information, but making them less informed or less likely to consume factual information. This comes as a threat to our democracy as information remains one of the bedrock of democracies around the world.
Misinformation and fake news do not only sway voter choices during elections alone but also changes their attitudes toward those in power, and their supporters. This can lead to disunity, which is another threat to democracy. A not so far from home example is the Cambridge Analytica saga where a disinformation campaign was set off to sway the 2015 general elections. A disturbing 1-minute video titled “Coming to Nigeria on February 15th, 2015,” that was graphical and violent heralded that misinformation campaign. The campaigns were targeted at people who were likely to vote Buhari as he was the strongest opposition then. Much as Nigeria has become worse off under this administration, the underlying aim of that campaign was to create fear and it was successful then. This fear had people abandoning their places of residence to their regions of origin in anticipation of some sort of war. Weaponizing information to harm an opponent has become standard methodology in undermining the democratic processes.
This highlights the third reason we should be worried about fake news does, it creates fear, which prevents citizens from taking action. Weaponizing information to harm an opponent, create fear or to cause disunity has become a common and prevalent methodology used in undermining the democratic processes.
What Motivates Fake News?
The motives for fake news remain common on every platform they are being shared; to misinform, disinform, to discredit and sometimes, to entertain like the case of #BUSA2019. But then, motive can be lost in the process seeing posts like satires can be misunderstood to mean real life situations. Also, citizens mostly share this information with the motive of helping other citizens like during the Ebola crisis, when there was a well-intentioned but dangerous news about bathing with salt water.
How Fake News Works
The spread of fake news happens in three phases; first, someone has to create the news, it is hosted on an information sharing platform like the blogs or social media page, and then it is shared by other users who come across the information. Sharing is the most important part of this triangle as the creators of news understand the place of cognitive bias in information sharing, where people will rather side with information that complies with their belief than accept alternative information that is fact based. This is why a #BUSA2019 can trend when a random google search will not link to any credible or reliable information about a presidential wedding. According to a research by the BBC: how ordinary citizens feel about a story can be more important than fact-checking when it comes to sharing news. It explains why in periods of heightened emotions like elections, there’s a proliferation in fake news and fake news sites. They take on many forms, like documentaries and blog posts, parody social accounts that are mistaken for real ones and most recently old photos or videos being made to appear like recent events.
While most of the fake news shared on these platforms are outright lies without any backing and can be easily discarded, the most prevalent and worrying form of fake news remains misinformation. In this scenario, facts are twisted, and one-sided narratives are pushed for propaganda, or to discredit people or gender groups. For example, a book and arts festival that was held at the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University was cancelled because conspiracy theorists said the festival had an undertone for the promotion of LGBTQ rights. A lot of people boycotted the festival in and it did not hold in the end.
Tackling Fake News
The buzz phrase for the decade has been “Data is the new oil” asides been the world’s most valuable resource, it can help us tackle fake news in many new ways specifically through artificial intelligence. The overwhelming information that goes out on a second by second basis makes it difficult to manually sift through posts and messages.
Asides building deep-tech solutions, people are the most important component of fake news. So, it is important to deal with people as well. Public awareness and capacity building for identifying fake information through media engagements can be effective towards helping giving audiences concrete tools to identify the strategies used by the creators of fake news. Also, supporting the capacity of those engaged in building counter-narratives to fake news, will help build public trust.