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What is now commonly called fake news is largely seen as a result of rapidly growing digital media and a fractious political environment. Picture: 123RF/M_WOODHOUSE
What is now commonly called fake news is largely seen as a result of rapidly growing digital media and a fractious political environment. Picture: 123RF/M_WOODHOUSE

After two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are familiar with the words “fake news”, “disinformation” and “conspiracy theory”. The overwhelming amount of information about the pandemic, much of it new, confusing, anxiety-inducing and often misleading, has been described by the  World Health Organisation (WHO) as an “infodemic”. The WHO warns that the rapid spread of harmful information on digital platforms can cause “risk-taking behaviours that can harm health” and can lead to “mistrust in health authorities” and “undermines the public health response”.

But this trend precedes the more recent scourge of antivaxxers and ivermectin prophets. Already in 2016, the year in which Donald Trump became president of the US, the Oxford Dictionaries declared their word of the year as “post-truth society”: “an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals”.

Of course, emotional appeals — usually to the racist and misogynist biases among his voters — were the stock in trade of Trump’s election campaign. He also weaponised the term “fake news” to dismiss critics and attack the news media. (One of the reasons researchers prefer to avoid that term, instead opting for more nuanced terms such as mis-, dis- and malinformation).

That same year SA became the target of a mass disinformation campaign. Orchestrated by the now disgraced Bell Pottinger public relations company and paid for by the Gupta family, an army of Twitter bots, hateful websites and fake social media posts sought to exploit racial polarisation and socioeconomic inequality in an attempt to counter allegations of state capture.

More recently anonymous Twitter accounts and “follow-back” tactics have been used to stir up xenophobia online. As political parties are again climbing on the xenophobic bandwagon to score cheap populist votes, we can expect more where that was coming from.

A man wearing a mask in the image of Donald Trump pretends to read a fake newspaper ahead of a protest against Trump in 2019. Picture: REUTERS/MARK KAUZLARICH
A man wearing a mask in the image of Donald Trump pretends to read a fake newspaper ahead of a protest against Trump in 2019. Picture: REUTERS/MARK KAUZLARICH

We are witnessing a growing global “information disorder”: the large-scale contamination of the public sphere with rumour, hate speech, dangerous conspiracy theories, harmful misunderstandings and orchestrated campaigns of deception. This disorder is seen as resulting from a combination of a changing media landscape (a new digital media ecology and an economic crisis for news media) and a fractious political environment (characterised by heightened polarisation, a rise in populism and ethnonationalism).

Globally, people are becoming concerned about their perceived exposure to disinformation, which has also been seen as explaining lower levels of trust in news media. According to the Reuters Institute at Oxford University in the UK, the growth in popularity of messaging apps such as WeChat and Whatsapp, especially in the Global South and diasporic communities, was one of the main reasons for the spread of coronavirus disinformation.

It is not surprising, then, that disinformation studies has become a growth area of research at universities, think-tanks and NGOs. Even former US president Barack Obama last week announced that he will be focusing his energy on fighting disinformation and its threat to democracy. The information disorder does indeed threaten every aspect of public discourse, ranging from geopolitics (look at the information warfare between Ukraine and Russia), to democratic politics (for example election manipulation), social cohesion (racist, misogynistic and xenophobic hate speech) and journalism (does “decuplets” ring a bell?).

Ironically, information disorder has given governments an excuse to stifle criticism by criminalising disinformation. Most recently, this trend is being seen in Russia, where anything deemed by the Kremlin to constitute “fake news” about the war in Ukraine can be punished by fines or prison sentences up to 15 years. In many African countries, journalists reporting critically on their governments’ handling of the Covid-19 pandemic have been threatened or harassed.  Reporters Without Borders documented three times as many attacks and arrests on journalists in Sub-Saharan Africa between March and May 2020 than in the same period the preceding year.

Media users in Africa are worried about their vulnerability to disinformation. In survey research I conducted with Dani Madrid-Morales in Kenya, Nigeria and SA, the number of respondents who suspected they had been exposed to made-up political news stories was much higher than what was found in a similar study in the US. Big tech platforms such as Facebook are aggressively expanding in Africa but not investing enough in countering misinformation and fact-checking in local contexts. Facebook’s own fact-checking is hugely skewed towards the Global North: only 9% of Facebook users speak English, but 87% of money spent at combating disinformation is directed at English content.

Yet despite this high prevalence of disinformation in Africa and elsewhere in the Global South, we still know comparatively little about what it looks like, where it comes from or how it can best be combated. In a review of indexed academic journals over a 20-year period (2000-2020) by Madrid-Morales and me, the vast majority of articles on disinformation or “fake news” focused on the Global North.

Two recent projects aimed to help fill these gaps. The first, Meeting the Challenges of Information Disorder in the Global South, is a multinational collaborative project funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre, in which we explored the methods and strategies used by organisations and activists across the Global South to counter information disorder. Research teams from Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa worked together to compile an expansive overview of how the information disorder manifests in their respective regions, who are working to counter it and how they are doing it.

The second project is a book edited by myself and Madrid-Morales, Disinformation in the Global South, published earlier this month, bringing together case studies and comparative analyses from authors working in regions across the Global South to analyse core concepts, theories and histories about disinformation from Southern perspectives.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

What lessons did we learn?

First, that disinformation in the Global South often preceded its manifestation in the Global North. As Guy Berger, director for strategies and policies in communication and information at Unesco, writes in his foreword to our book, cases of information disorder in the UK and US could have been spotted earlier had more attention been paid to how this problem first appeared elsewhere.

Berger points out, for instance, that the Philippines was “an early experiment that saw significant home-grown purveyors at the highest levels using organised trolling which fused falsehoods with venom and which mobilised gang ‘pile-ons’ against independent journalists” — something that later came to pass in the US.

Similarly, if Facebook did not drag its feet about hate speech against the Rohingya people in Myanmar on its platform, it might have learnt lessons that could have prevented the same platform being used to organise the siege on the Capitol by the “Stop the Steal” supporters of Trump. And, Berger goes on to show, before Cambridge Analytica was active during Brexit and the US 2016 election, it was honing its craft in many other countries.

The book examines the political, social and media contexts within which disinformation occurs.

Politically, the region is frequently marked by upheaval, protest and conflict, which affect media and communication. For instance, Arab world news is described as a “battleground” where journalists blur activism and evidence-based reporting; in Latin America the history of dictatorial rule, upheaval and protest was often accompanied by disinformation as well as censorship.

Frequently, elections are disrupted by disinformation, false news about opponents, “astroturfing” and social media bots. In several Asian countries this is done by state-backed or political party-aligned online actors such as “IT cells” (India), “troll factories” (Philippines), “buzzers” (Indonesia), “cyber troops” (Malaysia) and a “cyber sena/cyber army” (Nepal).

The information disorder does indeed threaten every aspect of public discourse, ranging from geopolitics, to democratic politics, social cohesion and journalism.

But popular uprisings are also influenced: disinformation spread through WhatsApp during the 2019 protests in Lebanon affected the course of popular movement, encouraged violence and spread panic; protests in Iraq in 2020 were marked by inflammatory sectarian rhetoric on social media. Political candidates are often targeted on the basis of ethnicity and religion as a result of the rise of ethno-nationalist narratives.

A common, and worrying, trend emerging from various reports out of these countries is that governments themselves are often sources of disinformation, while their widespread use of internet shutdowns or intentional crashes in African and Asian countries creates the space for rumours and unverified information to thrive.

The social dynamics across the region go hand in hand with political dynamics. Most countries are characterised by deep inequalities and historical polarisations. Our focus group research in six sub-Saharan African countries (Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, SA, Zambia and Zimbabwe) shows how social and cultural factors drive people’s motivations for sharing disinformation.

People admitted that they would knowingly share information they suspected was false, mostly because of either their perceived duty towards their community (“I have a duty to warn others in case it might be true”) or because they have an inclination towards satire and humour (“just for fun”).

These experiences also differ across rural and urban settings. Rural communities use social networks less than their urban counterparts, and rely more on opinion leaders, local experts, family/community/religious networks. This is a problem, as our online study of vaccine hesitancy in SA showed, because social media users might trust family members more than the government or social media.

These social divisions and tensions give rumours, falsehoods and hate speech a foothold in social media “echo chambers”. At the same time, the news media in the Global South is often too beleaguered to provide an antidote. Across the region, democratic regression and authoritarian creep have put independent journalism under pressure or even at risk. Media environments in the Global South are often characterised by high levels of concentration, have a history of being state-owned or -controlled, or are mired in patrimonial relationships or elite capture.

Like elsewhere in the world, these problems have been compounded by under-resourced newsrooms, poorly paid or inadequately trained journalists. This has an impact on the relationship news media have with their audiences. In Kenya, Nigeria and SA we found decreasing levels of trust in local media, with indications of a relationship between diminished trust and perceived exposure to disinformation.

Trump's ‘Stop the Steal’ supporters clash with police and security forces as they stormed the US Capitol on January 6 2021. Picture: BRENT STIRTON/GETTY IMAGES
Trump's ‘Stop the Steal’ supporters clash with police and security forces as they stormed the US Capitol on January 6 2021. Picture: BRENT STIRTON/GETTY IMAGES

How do we stop the tide of information disorder? This is where the other collaborative research project offers helpful comparative insights. This mapping exercise gave us a sense of how many organisations, activists and citizens are working to combat this problem. From teams of independent fact-checkers in Latin America, to policymakers in Africa and the Middle East, to media education specialists in Asia, organisations and movements in lower- and middle-income countries are rising up against information disorder.

There has been strong growth in the number of fact-checking organisations across these regions, many of them only established recently, with cross-regional collaborations emerging. Not all of these are equally active or robust, and many of them struggle with a lack of funding. Fact-checkers also report harassment and threats, especially in the absence of legislation protecting them.

In some cases, fact-checking has become integrated into mainstream journalism. An example is Joongang Tongyang Broadcasting in South Korea, which allocates five minutes of its prime-time news bulletin to fact-checks of popular news items. An encouraging sign of public trust in fact-checking processes is the contributions made by audiences.

In Kyrgyzstan, the organisation Factcheck.kz receives fact-checking suggestions from readers via their social media accounts, and in India independent fact-checkers follow up on leads provided by members of the public. Several organisations in the regions under study are complementing fact-checking with their own investigative journalism (Chequeado in Ar­gentina and Verificado in Mexico), with work­shops on media ethics (Falso in Libya), or with journalism training ( Desinfox in West Africa).

Author Herman Wasserman published a book on fake news in the Global South with Dani Madrid-Morales. Picture: SUPPLIED
Author Herman Wasserman published a book on fake news in the Global South with Dani Madrid-Morales. Picture: SUPPLIED

Another type of response is aimed at improving legislation and policy. Several countries in the Global South have attempted to counter information disorder through legislation. Unfortunately, legislative responses have also been used more crudely, and not always with transparent intentions.

In most Arab countries we studied, accusations of “fake news” or “disinformation” are used as a pretext to suppress freedom of expression and silence government critics. Most of these countries have laws governing the media, electronic crime and cybercrime that prohibit the spread of false news and punish those who publish it. The Covid-19 pandemic provided many countries with a motivation or pretext to tighten these laws.

A feature of the communication ecosystem across the Global South is uneven, unpredictable or inadequate access to information. This makes it difficult for journalists, civil society organisations and fact-checkers to access reliable information with which to counter rumours or false information.

Some responses aimed at the production and distribution of disinformation, such as algorithmic processing or machine learning to identify disinformation, have been noted but are not common or widespread. Another way of fighting disinformation is by requesting social media platforms to take down false information, a strategy used in particular by Latin American and Asian organisations, though platforms are not always quick to respond.

A strategy used by organisations across the Global South is to educate audiences to recognise disinformation and avoid spreading it. Media literacy campaigns sometimes use creative and innovative approaches such as interactive games, and media literacy is taught at various universities and schools in countries across the region.

Notably, organisations in these regions often combine their work to combat the information disorder with other forms of activism, for instance working to ensure better access to information and digital technologies, protecting citizens’ data and ensuring freedom of the media and the right to protest.

The linking of these issues is based on the under­standing that a democratic public sphere is not one in which bad information is merely rooted out; it is also one where good information is al­lowed to flourish.

• Wasserman is professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town. Read more about his work at disinfoafrica.org.

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