In this article, Reyhana Masters IFEX’s Regional Editor for Sub-Saharan Africa shares reflections from civil society on regional attempts to curb freedom of expression by using the rising stream of polluted information as the weapon of authorisation.
The speed at which tainted information spreads across countries and continents seems impossible to control. The particularly pervasive and incendiary impact of social media heightened during elections results in further fuelling of existing tensions while undermining the integrity of a supposedly democratic process.
African governments are using the negative impact of the sharing of these often inflammatory and harmful messages to craft draconian laws with heavy penalties.
Governments are able to claim they are fighting against the rise in the sharing and spreading of misinformation. What is actually spurring them is their fear of criticism, which is translating into legislation that shuts down critical voices, especially those of journalists wanting to hold power to account.
A prime example is the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and Other Related Offences Bill currently being debated in Nigeria. It is an exact replica of Singapore’s contentious Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill.
In its current form the Bill gives authorities the power to arbitrarily shut down the internet, limit access to social media or penalise a person for up to three years in prison for criticising the government.
“It is really about repacking anti-free expression laws to target online communication,” argues Kuda Hove, legal and digital policy digital rights activist at the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe).
“In Uganda we have a false news provision within our laws, which, in a landmark ruling for freedom of expression,was ruled null and void, but we see government coming up with a raft of other laws where disinformation or misinformation is being criminalised,” explains Paul Kimumwe, the senior programme officer at the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA).
Hove, together with Kimumwe, sees these manoeuvres as knee-jerk reactions over government’s failure to control the narrative.
A vociferous outcry from the public against Nigeria’s Social Media Bill as it is dubbed, has not thwarted plans to push it through, because the Senate is claiming “it will enhance security, peace and unity”.
It is an argument that can be used to win favour with the public, and it overpowers the fight for maintaining freedom of expression, both online and offline.
Their entry point is citizens’ penchant for passing of unverified information – as they may, sometimes unsuspectingly and in other cases knowingly – contributing to the information warfare chain through the collection, distribution, modification or distribution of corrupted information.
There are many examples of this, but the most critically influential in share and impact were the messages and videos that went out in April 2019, in relation to xenophobic attacks taking place in South Africa.
A video of people jumping out of a burning building and other horrifying videos were shared across the continent. The videos elicited strong and real-time reactions. Politicians from the region taking a more tempered approached were castigated online and offline, while citizens of Zambia, Nigeria and the DRC visibly showed their anger. “A closer look reveals that, while real, they are unrelated to the recent outbreak and have therefore been used out of context,” pointed out Africa Check in their report Think before you share!
Information disorder and its spread is a layered issue, and addressing the problem requires a multi-faceted approach.
“When propaganda is being spread, it is being spread with a negative agenda, and no fact-checking outfit anywhere in the world can curb the spread of such information and its impact,” explains Zoe Titus, executive director of Namibia Media Trust.
“What also has to be deciphered is the power dynamics,” expounds Tabani Moyo, executive director of MISA’s Zimbabwe chapter, “so consumers should be asking: where is the information generated, what is the intention of generating the information, what are the power structures surrounding the generation of that information?”
“While fact-checking does not require immense resources and it is not expensive, what is very challenging is that it is time consuming. Sometimes you can work on a report that can take you weeks or even months, or more than that, to be sure that what you have as evidence is very strong,” explains Samba Dialimpa Badji, editor of the French language Africa Check website.
Both Badji and Titus also highlight the inability to share verified information with the same speed or reach as polluted information. “A video used out of context or false news spreads quickly, but when you post a correction you realise that it is not going as fast as the news you are trying to correct,” says Badji. “It does not have the organic flow that the original polluted information has,” points out Titus. “There is no guarantee that it will reach the same people who saw the incorrect information in the first place,” adds Badji.
Exacerbating the flow of information warfare is the trigger finger impulse to forward messages without discernment. It is probably the most difficult to tackle.
Part of the challenge in tackling the issue may relate to oversimplified terms used. The oxymoron Trumpian term‘ fake news’ has blurred distinctly different forms of information pollution.
“The term is now almost meaningless, with audiences increasingly connecting it with established news outlets such as CNN and the BBC. Words matter, and for that reason, when journalists use ‘fake news’ in their reporting, they are giving legitimacy to an unhelpful and increasingly dangerous phrase,” according to Claire Wardle. “We prefer to use the terms disinformation, misinformation or malinformation. Collectively, we call it information disorder.”
Zimbabwean fact-checker Nelson Banya reinforces the sentiment: “Journalists sometimes make mistakes, but now that all-encompassing term ‘fake news’ has become a buzzword that has been weaponised by politicians to dismiss credible news and information.”
Using the terms that fit the content would go a long way in developing discernment amongst audiences. There is collective agreement that information disorder has to be tackled at multiple levels.
“It has to be a hybrid mechanism that includes citizens, governments and private players, but of course there have to be checks and balances, because if one of the stakeholders is given the upper hand, it will tilt the scale,” says Moyo.
An online study by Herman Wasserman and Dani Madrid-Morales also emphasises the need for a varied approach. “Educating audiences is not enough. Media literacy should form part of a larger, multi-pronged approach to restore trust in the media. Educating audiences about the dangers of fake news is not enough.”
Titus agrees that the solution is manifold. “Support to sustain good media to be able to do what it is supposed to do, is important. Resources are being put into this new industry of fact-checking, but it is a very basic thing that journalists are supposed to do. Verifying and fact checking is a journalistic function.”
A crucial element of the fight against information pollution is to get citizens and activists to push harder for access to information.
Moyo points out that “the government has to ensure access to information is guaranteed – at the lower level, you want to empower the citizens so that he/she becomes the agent of cross-checking.”
It is a point reinforced by Titus, who believes that in developing media literacy modules for the public from an early age “the basic fundamentals should focus on enabling critical consumers of information, supporting good, strong and independent journalism in the public interest, and the promotion of access to information so that the public can check for themselves.”
Fake news and vague laws: Online content regulation in Africa African School on Internet Governance
Nigeria: Bills on hate speech and social media are dangerous attacks on freedom of expression Amnesty International
Nigerian Parliament debates a ‘copy’ of Singapore’s fake news law, triggering protests The Straits Times
Nigerians raise alarm over controversial Social Media Bill Al Jazeera
‘We want one Africa’ – protesters in Zambia, Nigeria, DRC react to xenophobia in S. Africa The Observers
Nigeria’s social media bill will obliterate online freedom of expression ADVOX Global Voices
Merchants of misinformation are all over the internet. But the real problem lies with us The Conversation
What we’ve learnt about fake news in Africa BBC
Why Most of Africa’s Data is Used on WhatsApp The Culture Trip