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Our Post-Truth Era Media and the Globalization of Misinformation

Hours after US president, Donald Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January 2017, a dispute arose concerning the size of the crowds at the event. The argument took a decisive turn when press secretary, Sean Spicer, doubled down on the lie that the inauguration crowd was larger than the crowd for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013. Kellyanne Conway, a senior advisor to President Trump, defended these ‘alternative facts’. Conway defined alternative facts as additional facts and alternative information, she explained: ‘Two plus two is four. Three plus one is four. Partly cloudy, partly sunny. Glass half full, glass half empty. Those are alternative facts.’

The Misinformation Machine

Alternative facts and fake news are clear examples of misinformation and sometimes, disinformation. Misinformation simply means ‘incorrect and misleading information’, while disinformation is defined as ‘false information deliberately and often covertly spread in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth’. The major difference between the two words is intent. Where misinformation can be an honest mistake, disinformation is a deliberate use of misinformation to deceive. Disinformation was historically carried out by intelligence agencies, and in recent years by non-state actors. Misinformation is not a new phenomenon; it has existed since humans began communicating. However, the current information age, underlined by news publishing via social media platforms, encourages the spread of misinformation (and disinformation) on digital platforms, and this has far-reaching consequences on society. One of those consequences is the birthing of a ‘post-truth’ era, one where public opinion is shaped by appeals to emotion rather than facts, values, expert opinion, and shared reality. Misinformation has not only thrived online; it has also expanded offline into traditional media and become a global malaise.

In this ‘post-truth’ era, a mass of social media denizens, citizen journalists, professional communicators, and state and non-state actors use social networking platforms to set an agenda, whip up sentiments, and appeal to their audience’s emotions. Consequently, media narratives and public opinion have often swayed on these misdirections and emotive appeals. Social media lends itself to a user-centric format in which citizen journalists and the audience become ‘prosumers’ of content at the same time. The absence of gatekeepers on social media means that unverifiable information can get published and presented as real news. Fake news is further amplified because of the echo-chambers and filter bubbles of social media platforms, which deliver a diet of algorithm-curated content that leaves little or no room for divergent opinions and viewpoints. This has led to the rise of rabid partisanship, ideological extremes of far-right and far-left, clickbait, and the chase for views, at the detriment of real news. This is all compounded by the lack of digital media literacy by new media users.

The spread of misinformation has led to the erosion of a belief in credible content and expert opinion. A prominent example of this phenomenon is apparent in the global anti-vaccination movement, whose proponents are called ‘anti-vaxxers’. The movement is a classic case of misinformation cleverly presented as scientific fact; and it is propagated via social media and populated by individuals who believe that vaccinating their children against diseases like measles could lead to the development of autism or other brain disorders, in spite of scientific evidence to the contrary. They share this information among like-minded followers on social media, and use these networks to recruit even more followers. The success of the anti-vaccination movement is evident in the increasing decline of vaccinations globally and the rise in cases of measles in places like the Americas and in Europe, as reported by the CDC. The negative impact of the growth of this anti-intellectualism is distrust, and this is evident in public notions about science, environment, climate change, human rights, migration, and even economics.

Democracy has borne the brunt of the global information disorder. Misinformation and disinformation have become reliable tools to hack elections through agenda-setting and undermining the rationality of the public sphere, thereby influencing the voters. Be it unsuspecting social media users, Russian ‘troll farms’, WikiLeaks document dumps, the Cambridge Analytica scandal at Facebook, or Archimedes (an Israeli firm that tried to hack the 2019 Nigerian elections), weaponizing misinformation is conducted on a global scale. The threat of fake news has remained prominent in the last half-decade, because of its potential to decide elections and alter the course of democracy. This has become a moral and social cause, culminating in the pressure mounted on technology companies to self-regulate just like traditional media institutions.

The 2016 US General Election was era-defining. US intelligence and media reports concluded that ‘troll farms’ in Russia and Macedonia were able to affect the outcome of the election through a deluge of rumours, fake news, and disinformation. Unfortunately, this playbook has also been tested in Europe and Canada, with varying degrees of success. Although the use of troll factories to sway the outcome of general elections has not yet become standard practice, it appears that political parties, governments, and rogue agents might employ this tactic to influence future electoral outcomes. The Brexit referendum in the middle of 2016 also presented multiple instances of misinformation. Both the Leave and Remain campaigns propagated spurious and flawed information in their bid to woo voters. Some of these government statistics were presented to suit a certain narrative, while others were scare-mongering tales such as the idea that  allowing for a population the size of Scotland to move to the UK and use the National Health Service for free.

Misinformation has spread across the globe at the speed of clicks. Democracies have found it difficult to react to a situation where the natural cause of action would be to infringe on freedom of information. Authoritarian regimes and anti-democratic forces have jumped on the ‘fake news’ bandwagon to erect hindrances to the free flow of information, hurting freedoms in the guise of combating misinformation. Misinformation can be linked to the rise in nationalism and extremism, the public’s increasing disbelief of credible content and expertise, and the weakening of democracy and the electoral process.

In Nigeria, the cry over ‘fake news’ (a synonym for misinformation) increased after the 2015 General Election, which saw the defeat of an incumbent government for the first time in the democratic history of Nigeria. The All Progressive Congress (APC) was able to effectively leverage social media to set the narrative and turn the tables against the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). However, in the years since the election, the APC has been unable to solve many of the problems that bedevil Nigeria, opponents have in turn categorized their campaign promises as misinformation.

On the one hand, the popularity of social media and messaging applications have enabled billions of people to access the Internet in the last decade. Yet, their online education has lacked the media and information literacy to differentiate between facts, fake news, rumours, hoaxes, parody, satire, and propaganda. The penetration of messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have fuelled the spread of misinformation, with grave consequences. Sometimes, the reach of false information is so widespread that the mainstream media picks it up and spreads them unwittingly. In 2018, Vanguard and several other newspapers carried news reports alleging that one of the leaders of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association, Danladi Ciroma, had described the massacre in some communities in Plateau state as retaliation for the loss of 300 Cows by Fulani herders. Although these news reports all had quotes attributed to the Miyetti Allah leader, they were found to be false.

Facebook has been identified as a crucial factor in the spread of misinformation globally due to its two-step flow model, where information is shared from trusted friends and family, making it difficult to disbelieve. In addition, Facebook reported over two billion users at the end of 2018, and the Facebook algorithm, until recently, was programmed to give prominence to news sites. Although distrust of journalists and the media was already on the rise before the advent of social media, digital platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp have exacerbated the situation by enabling anyone to produce and share content. Add this to instances of poor and unethical journalism, and leaders like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin (who rail from their bully pulpits to manipulate the truth), and the media is facing an existential crisis today.

From the Brexit referendum to general elections in America, France, Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, Philippines, and Turkey, the rise of nationalism and populism today may not solely be traced to misinformation. Rather, the media coverage of the narratives and the echo chambers prevalent within social media show that misinformation, aided by social media and social networks, and abetted by the traditional media, is redefining the socio-political outlook of many nations.

Social Media Companies as Media Organizations

Historically, media organizations, news networks, and journalists have been self-regulatory and bound to certain ethics. These characteristics have kept the public’s trust in the media throughout much of its existence, irrespective of ideological bias. The advent of the Information Age and new media technologies have blurred the lines that define a media company. Tech giants like Facebook, Google, Instagram, and Twitter are reluctant to be named as media organizations even though they drive increasing numbers of news traffic online. Their refusal to act like media companies and abide by the ethics of the profession creates a vacuum, which leads to the proliferation of fake news and misinformation. This has led to governments around the world scrambling to solve the problem using various means, including pressure on the social media behemoths to self-regulate themselves.

Presently, Facebook has tweaked its news feed algorithm to give prominence to posts from friends and family, while demoting clickbait and links to websites that drive an inordinate amount of their traffic from Facebook. YouTube—owned by Google—is working in India on methods to flag suspicious videos. Facebook and Twitter now regularly remove profiles and bots that engage in malicious activities. Twitter has taken it a step further by announcing that it will ban all political ads from late November 2019. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, justified the decision by stating, ‘Internet political ads present entirely new challenges to civic discourse: machine learning-based optimization of messaging and micro-targeting, unchecked misleading information, and deep fakes.’ Since this announcement, Facebook has come under pressure over its policy on political advertisements.

How Countries Tackle Misinformation

For many countries, self-regulation is not enough to tackle misinformation. The National Assembly in Nigeria has tried to introduce a bill to regulate the use of social media, while Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo has called for better collaboration among nations to regulate social media in order to curb disinformation. Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Information Minister, recently announced that the Federal Government will ‘sanitize’ social media, saying: ‘…we will continue to evolve ways to tackle fake news and hate speech until we banish both.’ The House of Lords has called for a regulatory framework for digital media companies in Britain, while Australia and Brazil have chosen the path of government task forces to manage the problem.

Several countries have succeeded in ostensibly criminalizing misinformation and fake news by arresting journalists, as seen in Egypt, Cote d’Ivoire, and Benin. Uganda has chosen the route of taxing citizens to use social media, while governments in Belarus, France, and Cambodia choose to regulate using legislation. China has adopted the method of controlling the biggest social media giant in the country, WeChat. The Chinese authorities use a mixture of censorship and volunteer fact-checkers to keep misinformation down on the app. However, there are fears that the Chinese government may also be using the same channels to push out some misinformation of its own. Last year, President Muhammadu Buhari had to weigh into the outlandish rumour that he had died and was replaced by a clone. While it became a joke in the international media due to the bizarre nature of the claim, that piece of misinformation spread like wildfire in many parts of Nigeria, animated citizens debated the practicability of achieving the feat of swapping the President.

In order to tackle fake news and misinformation, it is necessary for the media, governments, inter-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, and educational institutions to focus attention on media and information literacy programmes. UNESCO has taken up the challenge of developing a curriculum for universities to educate students of journalism on ways of identifying misinformation, fake news and disinformation with its handbook for journalism training and education. However, the United Nations needs to do more. For instance, the organization could convene another International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems as it did in 1980 when the Macbride Commission took place. As part of ongoing efforts to curb the problem, WhatsApp recently limited message forwarding to five messages at a time to reduce the spread of misinformation on its platform. Other social media applications are reconfiguring their algorithms to limit misinformation as well.

What’s at Stake

Misinformation, if left unaddressed, will impact the credibility and integrity of journalism. When governments clamp down on fake news around the world, journalists are frequently arrested. Policies created to combat misinformation and the spread of fake news may end up limiting freedom of information and preventing journalists from performing their jobs well. Authoritarian regimes and anti-democratic forces have used the threat of misinformation to roll back freedoms and infringe on human rights of citizens and journalists.

In Nigeria, journalists are threatened and harassed by the Nigerian Police Force. The country should not imitate belligerent nations, but rather look to places like Taiwan, which has rolled out media literacy classes for all of its schoolchildren. Training the audience (from an early age) on how to spot fake news, propaganda, satire, hoaxes, and clickbait, will produce a corps of sophisticated social media users, who will not only use social media responsibly, but will act as a bulwark against anti-democratic forces and free speech antagonists in our country.

From the initial projections of the death of newspapers and loss of jobs for journalists, paywalls, online advertising, and social media optimized websites have secured readership and attracted groups of people who were not regular newsreaders. However, the media now finds itself in the middle of a storm; one that threatens democracy, our shared reality, and the world as we know it. To prevent a dystopian future, we must combat the scourge of misinformation head-on, using technology, education, social awareness, both government and non-governmental efforts, and self-regulation, because the fight against misinformation is the fight for freedom⎈