As the threats of fake news continue to stoke fears of the unknown across the world, African experts in communication and public policy are intensifying strategies to combat the growing menace and prevent the benefits that come with new information age from being corrupted by faceless criminals.
Uncorroborated and often concocted reports have grown in circulation across the world, with the last five years being described as the most challenging since the advent of Internet less than three decades ago.
While the crisis has not been limited to particular countries, it has exacerbated in some places than others; and Nigeria remains top amongst the countries where fake news has spread almost without control, with the government even admitting its own helplessness.
“Today, people in beer parlour could conjure information in their imagination and post it on the social media,” Theophilus Abah, a former editor of Daily Trust, said at a new media conference in Abuja Wednesday. “They are even able to manipulate pictures, that is the problem with social media.”
Mr Abah said while false information in the decades past circumvented the media and found its way into the public consciousness, it has never been nearly as ruthless and widespread as what people across the world are now witnessing with modern communication technology.
“Journalists have been dealing with fake news for decades. We have always had people in the beer parlour, but they could not get any message out because whatever they say must be processed in the newsroom before being published,” Mr Abah said.
The editor was amongst senior professionals from different organisations across Africa who attended the 2018 edition of New Media, Citizens & Governance Conference, a platform where experts brainstormed on the changing dynamics of new media. The event opened in Abuja Wednesday and continues Thursday at 9:00 a.m.
Organisers estimated 250 participants for the event, with scores of experts from media organisations, public policy think-tanks and social media influencers lecturing audience on a wide array of topics around new media and social engagement.
As the 2019 general elections draw near, Mr Abah said citizens should pay more attention to conventional news organisations, where they could hold persons accountable for misinformation, than social media operators, many of whom have long been notorious for propagating falsehood.
Within the past three years, dozens of Nigerian citizens have been arrested for posting unconfirmed reports on social media, with some like entertainment mogul Audu Maikori being charged to court. The police often claim fake news has the potential of fomenting violence through incitement.
Still, Mr Abah said the Nigerian government should desist from cracking down on citizen and instead focus on deploying resources towards countering the menace.
Mr Abah said that is why verification has now become a whole new industry. Information being put out in other countries would be verified and debunked. In the United States, Fox News is pro-Trump; while CNN tends to be more against Trump, and this does not mean they would propagate fake news.
Chidi Odinkalu, a rights expert who once led Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, said in his keynote that social media users should be more responsible with the power they have on their palms.
He urged citizens to use their handheld devices to hold government to account, especially as 2019 general elections approach and politicians could trigger a series of untoward practices to influence the citizenry.
“There is an assumption that social media is an instrument of transparency,” Mr Odinkalu, head of Open Society Initiative in Africa, said. “It could be. But it could also be an instrument for obfuscation.”
Mr Odinkalu urged good citizens online to rein in the activities of the bad elements, expressing even more confidence in the ability of the good to overcome evil.
“What has happened with social media is that many of us are running around naked with each other. Some people are okay running naked, but those who were properly brought up should not get involved. Dignity does matter even in the digital age.
“We should make social media a safe place to properly put our narrative for a better cohesion. That for me, and that for us, should be the challenge. That is where the demographic that was born into the digital generation has got to lead us into,” Mr Odinkalu said.
Habiba Balogun, a politician and member of KOWA, said Nigerians online should counter false narratives, which are becoming more devastating by the day, but should not be distracted from holding authorities to account.
The Independent National Electoral Commission has a key role to play in understanding that when people mount pressure on electoral officials to do the right thing, such should not be seen as negative, she said.
She expressed outrage over how the All Progressives Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party — Nigeria’s ruling and main opposition parities, respectively — have allegedly weaponised fake news in order to drive their propaganda online.
“The responsibility should be on the big parties, not everyday Nigerians,” she said.
This was, however, countered by Demola Olarewaju, a political strategist with the PDP in Lagos. Mr Olarewaju admitted the PDP has its share of blame in the deployment of bots to drive damaging narratives online, but said combating the menace of fake news should be a collective effort.
In PDP, we are not used to propaganda. I apologised when I put up fake news recently, because it destroys your credibility, Mr Olarewaju said.
He called for better sensitisation of citizens against selling their votes, as well as the need to keep sharp focus on the leadership of INEC in order to preserve the will of Nigerians at the ballot box next February.
Politicians would be desperate, they would try to buy votes and cause violence, and that was the reason why INEC was placed in charge of conducting elections rather than politicians, Mr Olarewaju said.
Enough Is Enough, Paradigm Initiative Nigeria and BudgIT Nigeria — the major partners for the conference — plan to use this year’s edition to highlight the broadening function of new media platforms, especially social media, in facilitating discourse between government and the governed, with particular reference to Africa.
Gbenga Sesan, executive director at Paradigm Initiative who moderated a panel on fake news, said the menace might keep gaining strength unless civil society players take a proactive approach.
He said government’s clampdown on citizens may not have any tangible effect on tackling fake news online.
Cybercrime Act has never been used to prosecute anyone for cybercrime, but has been used to clampdown on people, Mr Sesan said. They call it cyberstalking and they go against people, he added, suggesting that federal authorities do not have a clear understanding of what constitutes cyberstalking.
“Someone who just wrote a story that is not correct would be immediately arrested and tagged as a cyberstalker,” Mr Sesan said. “That is why there is a need for the civil society to be more proactive than being reactive around the way security agencies are clamping down on people.”
Ronald Kekembo, a digital training expert from Uganda, said individuals have a responsibility to be curious about the information they see on the Internet and take time to verify.
“That they should look at things critically before believing them rather than taking anything on social media,” he said.
In Uganda, he said there are efforts by authorities to crackdown on fake news, but these often cross the limit of people’s rights to free speech.
He said those that are for the freedom of speech in Uganda are usually bigger than those who are against it, because those in power are usually afraid.
However, a new code of conduct law is now improving the situation for Ugandans, he added.
Experts estimated that thousands of social media accounts are being shut down daily by social media giants like Facebook and Twitter. Both organisations are expected to play crucial roles in checking fake news millers ahead of and during Nigeria’s upcoming general elections, experts said.