Long before modern journalism established standards which define news as a genre, based on particular rules of integrity, mobilizing and manipulating information were features of history. The concoction of alternative facts was hardly rare, and the equivalent of today’s poisonous, bite-size texts and tweets can be found in most periods of history, going back to the ancients. An early record dates back to ancient Rome, when Antony met Cleopatra and his political enemy Octavian launched a smear campaign with “short, sharp slogans written upon coins in the style of archaic Tweets” to undermine him (Posetti & Matthews, 2018; Darnton, 2017).
The arrival of the Internet in the late 20th century, followed by social media in the 21st century, dramatically multiplied the risks of ‘Fake News’, a neologism used to conflate misinformation and disinformation, but which has become a weaponized term used to undermine and discredit journalism. Thus, ‘Information Disorder’ became a preferred term among journalists, since it conflates misinformation, disinformation and an additional category termed ‘Mal-information’. While Misinformation is information that is false, but believed to be true by the person sharing it , Disinformation is false and deliberately created to harm, and Mal-information is based on reality, but used to smear and embarrass a person, organization or country. Information Disorder causes chaos in society and can sometimes kill faster than the incidents reported about, or false claims made.
The way information is created and shared has dramatically changed over the past decades. New digital platforms have unleashed innovative journalistic practices that enable novel forms of communication and greater global reach, than at any point in history. The rapid accessibility of mobile devices and the rise of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Blogs and others have only made it easier to deliver mis/disinformation and mal-information at a faster rate. Society is today witnessing the weaponization of information at an unprecedented speed and scale, as powerful new technologies make the manipulation and fabrication of content simple, with social networks dramatically amplifying falsehoods peddled by states, populist politicians, celebrities, dishonest corporate entities, and individuals, as they are shared by uncritical and unsuspecting publics. Added to this, is the arrival of profiteering ‘troll farms’ around elections as seen in the 2016 US Presidential elections. All these have created a very noisy information landscape, which presents new challenges for journalists, public health practitioners and health security professionals and society at large. Of these challenges, misinformation and disinformation propagation has commanded the public spotlight over the past few years and has significantly damaged the global informational landscape.
Misinformation and Disinformation in the Age of Coronavirus
Nigeria has had a long-running battle with misinformation and disinformation. Just as the Coronavirus itself, misinformation and disinformation has spread far and wide, drowning out credible sources of information. Misinformation thrives where people have little control over environmental threats, like volcanic eruptions, unpredictable weather patterns and a new disease (Nyilasy, 2020), such as COVID-19, which is unknown and uncertain. Any information that is false, but promises to restore basic needs that have been taken away by the new threat, spread quickly and is often believed. For example, claims of miracle remedies and vaccine discoveries for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19 as well as the claim that the virus does not kill young people, appear to have been believed by some Nigerians, while factual information that is threatening is often downplayed and sometimes undermined.
The problem however, is that in times of health pandemics, misinformation becomes especially harmful, as was evident during the Ebola crisis in Nigeria, when narratives ranged from drinking and bathing in salty water to eating kola nuts as a treatment for the disease. Today, with COVID-19, similar dynamics are coming to play with misinformation narratives also changing rapidly, exacerbated by the sometimes limited and unclear messages from leaders. In early February, when Nigeria had not recorded any confirmed cases, there were claims such as: “African blood is immune to Coronavirus”, to a former Nigerian president allegedly calling Coronavirus a hoax (Centre for Democracy and Development, 2020).
The challenge with misinformation is that it can come from otherwise credible sources, who make speculations about certain issues and then spread their opinion as fact. For example, one of the most widely disseminated pandemic-related conspiracy theories is the idea is that 5G, a new generation of wireless communication, is responsible for the spread of the Coronavirus. This disinformation was also pushed by a popular and highly respected Nigerian pastor with large global following. One of the early conspiracy theories came out of the US, and claimed that the virus not only escaped from a lab, but was intentionally created by Chinese scientists as a biowarfare weapon. According to Pew Research, “nearly three-in-10 Americans believe that COVID-19 was made in a lab,” either intentionally or accidentally with 23 percent believing the former and only 6 percent believing it was an accident. This theory which is particularly popular on the US political right, was popularized by US Senator Tom Cotton (Lynas, 2020).
Another conspiracy theory is the claim by anti-vaxxers who do not believe vaccines work, that Bill Gates wants to use a vaccination program to implant digital microchips that will somehow track and control people (Lynas, 2020). Similarly, a professionally produced video which has gone viral contains false claims and outright lies that Dr. Fauci, a key member of the US Coronavirus Taskforce is a secret member of a “deep state” of America’s elite is plotting to undermine the President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. In the video, Dr. Judy Mikovits, an anti-vaccine activist, claimed that she was arrested and sent to prison, because she exposed the Coronavirus pandemic, as false. This video was debunked as false on New Day, a CNN programme which aired on May 8, 2020. One of the anchors, Erica Hill, who referred to it as “Infodemic”, noted that the video had been taken down by YouTube and Facebook, for violating their misinformation policies, but not before it had gained viral traction with millions of views. CNN reported that Facebook removed the video because it suggested that wearing a mask can make people sick and cause harm, while YouTube removed it, because “it violates their community guidelines, which include medically unsubstantiated diagnostic advice for COVID-19” (New Day, May 8, 2020). However, copies of the video are still circulating, because Twitter has refused to take it down, telling CNN that the video did not violate its misinformation policy. These videos have been shared and reshared on WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media platforms in Nigeria and many are inclined to believe them. According to Alan Duke, an online fact checker, whose company works with Facebook, lies travel faster than the virus, because they fit into people’s beliefs or the bubble, they are in (CNN, May 8, 2020). People’s sense of isolation, brought on by the lockdown and social distancing, makes it more likely for them to accept information from friends and family without scrutiny (Nyilasy, 2020). Mian and Khan, (2020), observe that over the last couple of months, posts from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Center of Disease Control (CDC) have cumulatively only achieved several hundred thousand engagements, considerably eclipsed by hoax and conspiracy theory sites, which have amassed over 52 million. This serves to emphasize the popularity of unverified sources of information.
There are also several claims of miracle health remedies for the prevention and cure of COVID-19 circulating on various social media platforms. These health remedies range from the use of steam inhalation for prevention, to treatment with Garlic, Onions, Lemon, Piper Guineense or Uziza Seeds, Negro Pepper or Uda Seeds, as well as the use of Garlic and Pepper Soup for the cure of Coronavirus.
CURTAILING INFORMATION DISORDER
Since information is capable of inciting emotion, shaping one’s perception of reality and influencing what decision we take, including in matters of life and death, it is necessary that information we share, must be factual and accurate, even in the most trying of times, such as we are now witnessing. Disinformation can be more dangerous than cyber-attacks, and can spread faster than governments, social media or media outlets can react to its dispersion. Wole Soyinka has warned that if Nigeria is not careful, World War 111 will be started by fake news generated by a Nigerian (VOA, February 13, 2019).
Everyone has the responsibility to combat this scourge which continues to threaten not only our democracy, but also our very existence, but we as journalists and journalism educators owe it more to our country and to the larger society, to come up with not only ways of fighting it, but participating in the war. To have any chance at success, the fight must be multi-sectoral and the strategies far reaching. Although, every strategy has its flaw, combining technological and human efforts in line with the peculiarities in each environment appears to be a better approach. The challenge however, is how to address the problems without undermining the benefits of digital media.
Social Media and Technological Companies
Pew Research Center, reports that in 2016, 76% of Internet users in Africa relied on social media for their information needs (cited in Amobi et al, 2019). Indeed, several studies have shown that Social Media is one of the greatest purveyors and enablers of information disorder, with WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram being the dominant platforms that aid their distribution (Amobi et al, 2019). This makes social media an effective tool in curtailing the menace. These efforts include:
- Banning users found to be purveyors of misinformation and/or disinformation and shutting down their accounts on social media. For example, the US conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones was banned from Twitter and most major platforms for posting false and inciting messages.
- Social media platforms should figure out how to keep misinformation and disinformation off. It is not just enough to limit the number of times a post can be shared, as the same post can be reshared from the receiver’s page.
- Technological companies should invest in tools that identify mis/disinformation, such as the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), by the US Department of Defense to detect manipulated pictures and videos. This may be in response to the Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections (Gupta, 2018).
- Financial incentives for those who profit from disinformation should be reduced.
- Online accountability should be improved, through the registration of real names on hosting platforms.
Misinformation and Disinformation can be so destructive, that government may sometimes be tempted to use stern and undemocratic measures to curb it. Some members of government have suggested naming and shaming of culprits, others have suggested using legislation to fight it, as demonstrated by the ongoing attempt by Nigerian government to enact a Social Media Bill. Some African countries in varying degrees are complicit in the clampdown of journalists for performing their functions. For example, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta in 2018 signed a cybercrimes bill that calls for fines and prison sentences for people convicted of spreading fake news, while authorities in Uganda warned that perpetrators face charges under a law prescribing criminal penalties for the misuse of a computer (VOA, 2019). Journalists and activists have protested these moves as a ploy to censor press freedom. Thus, government can help solve the problem of misinformation in the following ways:
- Government should resist creating or providing the fodder for misinformation, which it does by sometimes maligning true stories that do not favour it.
- It should stop restricting journalists’ access to data. For example, when journalists are denied access to the full picture or scope of COVID-19, such as the number cases, the extent of spread and the true number of deaths, this creates the opportunity for information peddlers to create and spread their own false stories.
- Government should provide detailed, clear and transparent official information that crowds out mis/disinformation, rather than information that will help it save face or prevent panic.
- Government should desist from demonizing the media with the term “Fake news”, which has almost become a cliché.
- Government should encourage independent professional journalism, which helps the public make sense of complex developments and deal with changing nature of society.
- Educational institutions should include media literacy in their curricula
Since government regulations can only do so much in stopping the spread of disinformation, it is up to the public to determine what is true or false, and many people will already have made up their minds.
As a responsible citizen, you owe it to yourself and to others the responsibility to create and or share factual information. This is because people who hold you in high esteem, may believe every information you send to them and may reshare such information without verifying it, even when they have the skill set to do so. Individuals should therefore engage in “Information hygiene exercises” which can be considered as the mental equivalent of hand washing and distancing. AfricaCheck has recommended the following questions you should ask yourself before creating or sharing any information:
- Who wrote it?
It is not always the person who sent you the message that created it. Many fake messages (especially forwarded ones) do not say who wrote the message. So, how can you trust a message which source you cannot determine? Before you share or act on the message: Ask the sender who the author and source is, and double-check the facts.
- Can you verify the claims?
Many fake messages don’t give sources for their claims, or use unreliable sources like hoax news sites, or fake names. Some fakes say they come from a trusted source, such as a real news site – but they’re lying. So, before you share, check to see if it has been reported on any trusted news sites or other sources, and check the links to ensure that they are not hoax sites.
- Does the information make you scared and angry?
Some information makes you so scared and angry, preying on your prejudices, so much so, that you feel like going to bite somebody. If the information incites such visceral impulse or emotions in you, it means that the message makes it difficult for you to apply critical analysis. Many fake messages try to make us scared or angry about something. Examples abound of South Africans or the Chinese carrying out xenophobic attacks against Nigerians.
- Does it include shocking photos or videos?
Many fake messages use pictures, video or audio to trick us. These could be edited to be misleading. They could also be taken from a different event in another time or place. They can be shocking claims about crime or kidnapping, about people from a different country or ethnic group. For example, a graphic image of a mutilated baby who was killed in Congo-Brazzaville in 2012 was shared with the accompanying information that the act was perpetrated by the Fulanis in 2018 against the Beroms in Jos. Many fake messages can be checked out online, or on reliable news sites or fact-checking websites such as AfricaCheck.org or Snopes.com.
- Poor Content Quality: Other tell-tale signs include the quality of content. A lot of mis/disinformation, contain grammatical errors, illogical statements and are usually not professionally produced.
- Individuals should follow a diversity of news sources and be skeptical about info
In the so-called Digital Age, when information can spread quickly to other users without having to go through a gatekeeper such as an editor, who might otherwise require confirmation of its truth before allowing its publication, media outlets can help curtail information disorder when they begin to fulfil their role as the accredited information purveyor:
- Through debunking and denying mis/disinformation, using inhouse professionals and partnering with fact checking organizations.
- By providing high quality journalism to build public trust and correct mis/disinformation. This is partly premised on the notion that people have turned to social media because they are dissatisfied with the mainstream media (Bernal, 2017). In this scenario, people are then likely to take as credible whatever content is endorsed by their social networks, and which corresponds with their hearts – but leaves out engagement with their heads.
- By giving factual, unadulterated accounts of news events and limit the use of rejoinders. They should strive to correct mistakes quickly and efficiently, and they publish corrections on the internet and social media in an effort to be transparent. This should however, be limited because, not everyone who read the incorrect story, will read the rejoinder.
- Using investigative techniques and courageous challenge to authority. Journalists looking to do this today need look to the Watergate scandal under President Richard Nixon, when journalists used facts, and held power to account, in order to bring out the truth.
- Keeping reporters and editors in several locations in a wide range of locations around the world in order to produce original content. This allows them to rely on their own reporting, instead of receiving it from external outlets.
- Training Journalists on the various ways to overcome fake news through programs like Journalism in the Era of Disinformation Fellowship which helps journalists learn new ways to fight disinformation, while developing a network of colleagues around the world who are dealing with similar issues.
- Rejecting mis/disinformation Ads. For example, CNN, MSNBC and other outlets rejected ads containing disinformation on the role played by former Vice President Joe Biden, the democratic presumptive nominee, in fighting corruption in Ukraine.
- Holding Media Literacy Programmes by teaching audiences how to properly consume news: access, analyse, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.
- Also educating users about news sites that mislead, by judging the accuracy of leader claims and write stories detailing the truth or lack thereof.
It is no longer in doubt what a scary world we live in today and the urgency needed to return it to normalcy. A world where people are suspicious and untrusting of one another, a polarised world in which the quickest impulse is to make for our tribal and ethnic camps, threatens not only our democracy, but our journalism profession and indeed, our very existence in society. It is my submission that this situation is to a large extent created, nurtured and sustained by information disorder, and can only be defeated by a collaborative effort, but we as journalists and journalism educators, must be at the forefront of the war.
AfricaCheck. (2019). Questions you should ask yourself before creating or sharing information. Retrieved from https://africacheck.org/how-to-fact-check/tips-and-advice/
Amobi, T., Obia, V., Udodi, L. & Akinuliola, O. (2019) Media and the menace of information disorder in Nigeria’s public sphere. (In Press)
Centre for Democracy and Development. (2020). Health misinformation: False stories from Ebola to coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.thecable.ng/health-misinformation-false-stories-from-ebola-to-coronavirus
Hill, Erica. (May 8, 2020). New day. CNN
Lynas, M. (April 20, 2020). COVID: Top 10 current conspiracy theories. Retrieved from https://allianceforscience.cornell.edu/blog/2020/04/covid-top-10-current-conspiracy-theories/
Matthews, K. (2019). Learning journalism’s role in an era of disinformation: Fact-checking and verification. Retrieved from https://ijnet.org/en/story/learning-journalism%E2%80%99s-role-era-disinformation
Mian, A. and Khan, S. (2020). Coronavirus: the spread of misinformation. Retrieved from https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-020-01556-3
Nyilasy, G. (2019). Fake news: When the dark side of persuasion takes over. International Journal of Advertising. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. DOI: 10.1080/02650487.2019.1586210
Posetti, J. & Matthews, A. (2018). A short guide to the history of fake news and disinformation. International Centre for Journalists.
VOA. (February 13, 2019). Battle against fake news ahead of elections. Retrieved from http://voanews.com