Experts Worry About Devastating Impact of Fake News on Media Practice

Experts Worry About Devastating Impact of Fake News on Media Practice

…Deplore Rising Internet Shutdown by African Govts …Insist It’s a Violation of Peoples’ Right to Information Experts at the three-day West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards (WAMECA) holding in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, have expressed deep worry about the devastating impact of fake news on journalism practice. This they adduce to the convergence between

…Deplore Rising Internet Shutdown by African Govts

…Insist It’s a Violation of Peoples’ Right to Information

Experts at the three-day West Africa Media Excellence Conference and Awards (WAMECA) holding in Accra, the Ghanaian capital, have expressed deep worry about the devastating impact of fake news on journalism practice. This they adduce to the convergence between the rise of technology and the ease with which news gathering is done, leading to the advent of the social media.

They however insist on the strengthening of professional journalism and proper fact checking of stories to arrest the menace. They also frown at the increasing resort to internet shutdown by governments across the African continent where 22 countries have so far done so in the last four years.

Speaking on the conference theme, Social Media, Fake News and Elections in Africa,” Mr Edetaen Ojo, chairperson, Board of Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA), organizers of the event, says, “But the real paradox lies in the notion of fake news. It is paradoxical because the political class, who routinely deal and trade in fake news, which they deploy as part of their campaign strategies, have also become so frenetic about the issue that it has become the excuse for every attack on the media and all efforts to repress media freedom.”

That’s why US President, Mr Donald Trump believes that any stories that are critical of his government are fake news, he maintains.

Mr Ojo, also executive director, Media Rights Agenda (MRA), a leading media advocacy group in Nigeria, posits that, “It is, of course, unfortunate that some media professionals have allowed themselves to be used to spread false news and there can be no doubt that any journalist guilty of such conduct is unworthy of being called a journalist. 

“As a sector or a community, we must deprecate such conduct and make clear that it has no place in the body of principles and values that guide our profession.

“A journalist has no real incentive to concoct or spread false news, although some of them have apparently been corrupted to do so.  But the politicians see it as an avenue to gain an advantage over their political opponents or in some cases, to completely destroy their opponents.

“Some may disagree with this proposition. But it seems to me that regardless of whether the politician or the journalist is more guilty of fabricating and spreading fake news, an obvious response to the problem, given the virtually impossible challenge of regulating social media, would be to invest in professional journalism which comes with a tradition of gate-keeping and which has as part of its core attributes accuracy, balance and fairness.

“Social media is a relatively new phenomenon.  But it is obviously one thing that is giving political leaders sleepless nights across the region and beyond.

“As the number of Internet users in many countries in the region has grown over the years, a new class of citizens has also emerged in such countries.  These citizens are increasingly interested in public policy issues and have become quite engaged and vocal in the political arena.  They engage online, leaning heavily on social media platforms.

“This is causing anxieties for political leaders on the continent with the result that many of them are actively seeking ways to regulate social media and suppress an increasingly engaged citizenry.”

Mr Ojo disclosed that “In 2011, Africa experienced its first Internet shutdown ordered by a government, when the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, threatened by anti-government protests largely organized and sustained through social media, ordered a shutdown of the Internet.” 

“Since then, Internet shutdowns have become the weapon of choice for many African leaders and the practice has become rampant throughout the continent.

“In November 2016, Advocate Pansy Tlakula, then Chairperson and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, sponsored the “Resolution on the Right to Freedom of Information and Expression on the Internet in Africa”, which was adopted by the Commission as Resolution 362, wherein the Commission expressed concern about “the emerging practice of State Parties (to the African Charter) of interrupting or limiting access to telecommunication services such as the Internet, social media and messaging services, increasingly during elections”.

“Despite this, the practice did not abate. If anything, the situation appears to have worsened in recent times in the result that in the past four years, about 22 African countries are reported to have experienced partial or total Internet shutdown ordered by their governments.  This is an issue that should clearly worry all of us.

In her keynote address, Ms Tlakula, also a former chairperson, Electoral Commission of South Africa, argues that arbitrary shutdown of the Internet is a violation to access to information.

“..the role of the right of access to information in fostering good governance, transparency, accountability and responsiveness cannot be overemphasised. Access to information is a cross cutting right which underpins the enjoyment of other rights, in particular social, economic and  other political rights such as the right to vote, ” she contends.

Citing the example of the Hong Kong riots where protesters use apps to find out the movement of the police and avoid such routes, Tlakula, a lawyer and former chairperson, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), says, “social media can also be dangerous. It can be used for disinformation and misinformation.”  

Also speaking on “Content Management and Governance on Digital Platforms: Facebook’s Mitigation Policies and Strategies Against Fake News Especially During Elections,” Ms Akua K Gyekye, Facebook public policy manager disclosed that her organization has trained several persons on cyber security and fact checking in order to identify fake news, saying that “we do not want to be the harbinger of mistruths”.

“Once a fact check indicates that a story is false, we pull it down. If you see anything that promotes violence or hate speech on our platform and it’s brought to our notice, we’ll remove it on our platform. Every year, we give a report of decisions taken and the policies which guide the decisions”.

The Facebook manager however says doing fact checking in local languages is a big challenge. Citing the case of Nigeria which has over 500 languages, she says it was not possible for the organization to hire that number of staff to do fact checking for Nigeria alone but added that “we have many more local language speakers”.  

Although Facebook has a policy of not regulating political speeches, Ms Gyekwe reveals that both the twitter accounts of the Israeli Prime Minister and his son were shut down during the country’s recent elections for promoting hate speech.   

Reading a recently shared warning to Nigerians living in Ghana to withdraw their money from the banks if they are not properly documented which was immediately followed by a disclaimer by the Nigerian High Commission, Mr Shuaibu Usman Leman, general secretary, Nigerian Union of Journalism (NUJ), says there’s a lot of sloppy journalism in the social media. “No serious medium will put such a story on its platform,” he quips.

Calling for massive investment in “good journalism”, deepening of training in our journalism schools and fact checking, Mr Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher, Premium Times Online says the biggest worry is that there’s no newspaper that circulates up to 40,000 copies per day in a country like Nigeria with 200 million people.

“My aspiration as a young man was to work at the Daily Times which then circulated close to a million copies. But that publication is now in shreds. The last time I called the editor of The Herald where I used to work, he told me they now produce 1000 copies twice a week”

“If truth is slipping off our hands, then that’s a problem. There’s a need for massive investment in good journalism. We need to do a lot of investigation, we also need to do a lot of fact checking to strengthen our investigation,” he insists.   

Highlights of the opening day events also included two panel discussions. One was on “Spotting and Stopping the fake from going viral” while the other was on “When It’s Fake, It can’t be News; and When It’s News, It Can’t be Fake – Is fake News real or a Misnormer?”

Prominent amongst participants at the conference, drawn from countries in the West African sub-region, are Ms Pansy Tlakula, former chairperson, Electoral Commission of South Africa, Mr Ahmed Newton Barry, chairperson, Electoral Commission of Burkina Faso, Ms Jean Mensah, chairpeson, Electoral Commission of Ghana, Mr Sulemana Braimah, executive director, Media foundation of West Africa (MFWA) and Ms Akua K. Gyekye, Facebook’s public policy manager, Africa and MENA Elections.

Others include Mr George Sarpong, executive secretary, Ghana’s National Media Commission, Mr Dapo Olorunyomi, Publisher, Premium Times Online, Mr Rodney Sieh, Editor, Frontpage Africa, based in Liberia, Dr Khabele Matiosa, director, political affairs, of the African Union, Mr Shuaibu Usman Leman, general secretary, Nigerian Union of Journalists (NUJ) and Ms Hauwa Ba of the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).

Photo: Panelists at one of the Discussion Panel 

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