In 1982, Ruth First, the anti-apartheid activist, was assassinated by a parcel bomb sent by the South African security police. Almost immediately, a fake news report had been placed claiming that Joe Slovo, her husband and a similarly prominent anti-apartheid activist, had killed his wife.
Deliberate misinformation written with the intent to mislead is a persistent problem in Africa. Its effect has been most notable in countries with deeply polarised political landscapes, such as Zambia and Tanzania, and its prevalence has dramatically increased in recent years due to the growing influence of social media. Not only politicians, but businesses and NGOs are now deemed legitimate targets of fake news campaigns. And, given the projections for internet and smart phone usage all point upwards, it is not a problem that will go away quickly.
As a means of democratic engagement, social media is a cause for celebration. But its prevalence ( recent study found that in Kenya, 49% of people receive their news through social media) is open to abuse.
In the first instance, social media lacks transparency and credibility. Anyone can create a Facebook or Twitter page and publish news stories without having any legitimacy to do so. During the recent coup in Zimbabwe, the BBC cited @zanu_pf as the official outlet of the Zanu PF party, despite the account being a parody that spends most of its time peddling outlandish messages such as “Hipsters should be shot!”.
At a recent conference on fake news in Africa, organised by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Mark Kaigwa described how fake news was used during the primaries for this year’s Kenyan election to energise voters. False stories were pushed by hacked Facebook pages, and sophisticated young media entrepreneurs and bloggers.
The effect extends beyond elections, where polarised politics erodes trust in media and provides opportunities for wild allegations to take hold.
In Zambia, politicians, corporate entities and private individuals have become the targets of concerted fake news campaigns – which have quickly become very personal. Recently the Zambian government spokesperson had to defend herself after an article surfaced in the Zambia Observer claiming “Minister Supports arresting of men who dump women after a year of dating”.
The speed at which these false stories, gossip, and lies can filter into public consciousness and the business world is of increasing concern. Most worrying for individuals and companies is the inability to tackle deliberately false stories once they have taken hold; the damage to their reputation is permanent, and forever accessible through an internet search. A sound economy relies on trust and transparency between corporates, government, and the media, and fake news rapidly brings this to the ground.
Addressing the problem requires participation at all levels. Prior to the 5th European Union – African Union Summit in Abidjan (29-30 November), I presented, under the auspices of the Institute of Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE) which I chair, the results of the first survey of European parliamentarians on this issue. We surveyed 1565 of them, from across Europe, and the results clearly highlighted the need for a more integrated response to mitigate the negative impact of fake news.
Whilst 31% believe it should be the tech companies and internet service providers that ought to sanction the abuses, only 13% think it is a responsibility that lies exclusively with state authorities. The majority, 56%, believe that a joint approach from state regulators and ISPs, is most likely to succeed at tackling fake news and online abuse. I tend to agree.
The heavy-handed government approach clearly solves nothing. Since June, 3 newspapers have been shut down in Tanzania, and last year 11 countries had internet shut downs. Not to mention the obvious risks for freedom of expression that such approaches pose, governments shutting down the internet or closing popular newspapers does nothing to address the root causes.
But mainstream news outlets need to do more to reaffirm their position as leading, trustworthy voices. A key aspect of credibility lies in the author of the content, and so it is vital to find credible voices who will be trustworthy sources for whatever they write on.
The prevalence of social media across Africa provides a valid tool for democratic engagement, but the same tool is also being used to erode trust, unfairly damage reputations, and sow division within society. These problems exacerbate each other: the less people trust in the system the more likely they are to believe in fringe news outlets and what they find on social media.
It is time we all become aware of the democratic risks that this creates. And collectively, we must start empowering credible news sources.
Emmanuel Dupuy is President of the Institute for Prospective and Security in Europe (IPSE), an international and European affairs think-tank based in Paris with offices in London, Brussels, Geneva and Rabat.