On the 31st March 2020, the UN took an official position on false information and its threat to humanity, following the Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres’s declaration on Twitter that “our common enemy is COVID-19, but our enemy is also an ‘infodemic’ of misinformation”.
With this acknowledgement of the danger of false information, popularly named “fake news,” the world has turned to journalists to fix the problem. However, like the pandemic, an infodemic takes a concerted effort to control.
In truth, “fake news” is not a new theme in journalism. Wherever there is a motive, information is often weaponized, and as such, Journalism has always combated the practice of fake news. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous nature of the digital age has moved the problem of fake news far beyond the limits of journalism, to the extent that fact-checking fake news requires technological, scientific, and, sometimes forensic skills.
Who, then, is responsible for fact-checking?
There has arguably been no worse time in history concerning the proliferation of misinformation than now. As a result, viewing media literacy in the same mode as viewing digital literacy becomes paramount. Just as digital literacy is essential to the 20th century, media literacy is crucial to the ‘post-truth’ 21st century.
To be media-literate is to be able to interpret and evaluate the information we access. This cognitive ability empowers us to protect and involve ourselves in accurate and verifiable digital information dissemination. In essence, the more aware we are about information processes, the more effective our fact-checking capacity.
For example, as we look to medicine and bio-science to find a solution to the novel coronavirus, we also have roles to play in curbing its spread as a civic duty. These responsibilities have, however, become edicts to many people. Hence, handwashing, good hygiene, as well as social distancing, are no longer viewed as suggestions; they are seen as health-related laws.
Similarly, as fact-checkers, journalists, researchers and data scientists work tirelessly to end the information disorder, we as citizens too have a role to play to assist in mitigating the spread of infodemic. This strategy, similar to what obtains during this pandemic, could protect society from info-viruses which uniquely spread from digital devices to human beings.
Knowledge is power
We have all heard of statements like “the pen is greater than…” or “knowledge is power”- the same logic applies here. To effectively battle misinformation, we have to know the terms. Hence, words like misinformation, disinformation and mal-information need to become entrenched in the vocabulary of the average newsreader. Further, simple techniques for spotting these info-viruses must become mainstream.
In 2018, the term “fake news” was used about two million times on Twitter alone. This term is now discredited by data journalists who argue that it only hurts the credibility of actual news.
For this reason, information disorder, first introduced by First Draft in 2017, is considered an adequate and encompassing term for addressing information pollution.
Disinformation is false information spread with deliberate intent to deceive. Disinformation becomes misinformation when considered enlightening information, shared on closed group platforms like WhatsApp or Facebook groups.
Misinformation is the spread of fake news without malicious intent. It is the kind of false information which seems enlightening and can be considered news that one can spread to loved ones with good intentions and without knowledge of its falseness.
To put it another way, recent events such as the current Coronavirus Pandemic have proven to us all how fatal fake news can be, making it ever more important that we are not misled. Pandemics and elections are rife with information disorder in the form of “revelatory” information about political power players or false medical remedies and cures. For example, salt and bitter kola remedies during the 2014 Ebola outbreak, caused two deaths and about 20 hospitalizations which were reported in the media and effectively fact checked.
The extent of damage done by mis- and dis-information during the past elections in Nigeria is still being assessed. The 2015 and 2019 elections were rife with information disorder. The media was quick to spot fabricated content such as “Jubril from Sudan” and unnamed international billionaire donors to the Jonathan campaign.
A 2018 survey published by NeimanLab suggests that more than a quarter of Nigerians have shared stories which turned out to be false, whereas for one in four respondents it was intentional.
Nonetheless, respondents also believed that the public bears greater responsibility in stopping the spread of misinformation.
Prevention is better than cure.
You can be a fact-checker and inoculate yourself by following these simple steps:
- Who, What and Where? Humans are natural storytellers. We ask these questions in our daily information sharing. It is imperative to do the same as the news that we consume digitally.
- Beware of clickbait: Twitter introduced a checkmate prompt to guard against clickbait. It warns that there is more to a headline encouraging us to read the story before retweeting. Read beyond the headlines. Find out what date, time, and news outlet published the story.
- Think about the information before you share it. Are other news media reporting this news? What are the sources and links referenced? Are they credible?
- Authenticate quotes and images. A simple reverse search on google can help prove the authenticity of these references.
- Check your confirmation bias. There is a tendency to choose the information that confirms your worldview. It helps to actively seek out authentic analysis that represents the other side of an argument.
- Follow relevant fact-checkers. Fact-checking in Africa is growing. You can rely on experienced fact-checkers like Dubawa, Africa Check, AFP Factcheck, to verify complicated false information.
So, who is responsible for fact-checking? Every consumer of information shares that responsibility!
The researcher produced this fact-check per the Dubawa 2020 Fellowship partnership with NewsWire NGR to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.