Fanning fake news

HOPE Nyambe.

SOCIAL media as a source of news and information has given impetus to what is now commonly referred to as ‘fake news’. Defining fake news takes a continuum of aspects that include, but is not limited to, intentionally disseminating information that is explicitly or implicitly fabricated, deceptive or crassly distorted factual news or information.
This is done through satirical representation of facts, exaggerated and decontextualised opinions and the simple false reporting of news. Advancements in technology mean that fake news can be transmitted globally to millions of people within seconds. But what really fans fake news and how can you spot it?
You would think that a more contextualised response to what fans fake news would squarely point to how people access information and the laws that surround the same. Further enactments of laws restricting access to information naturally should lead to a ‘shortage’ of information and therefore giving rise to speculation and misinformation. Paradoxically, the answer lies in the ease in which people can share ‘any’ information on digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Digital platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp simply make anybody a source of information or opinion leader. Various research on fake news has shown that, apart from the ease of sharing content on social media feeds, eye-popping headlines, viral videos, pictures, etc, make information absorption much easier even without evaluating the substance of the information or reading it. This is what is referred to as a ‘Rumour cascade’ or ‘Rumour Mill’.
Fake news, propaganda, decontextualised information, and opinions distorted as facts, are in unbroken chains continuously reposted on various digital platforms without scrutiny. This in essence creates a viral avalanche of unsubstantiated information. And like an avalanche, the more it gains momentum, the more damage it causes.
Due to the high level of social engagement through mediums such as Facebook, fake news has in some instances had higher public engagement than mainstream news sources. This has led to fake news culminating into violent events and attacks on innocent people, societies or businesses. There have been attacks, for instance, of Chinese investments on the Copperbelt solely based on the circulation of fake news on social media.
Politically, fake news has the potential to polarise society. For instance, during the run-up to both 2015 and 2016 presidential elections in Zambia, there were sustained attacks on the presidential candidates that hinged purely on fake news. This involved alleging satanism, alcoholism, ill health of the presidential candidates. In a country like Zambia with strong Christian convictions, such fake news has a large impact on the outcome of electoral results, sometimes even overshadowing key campaign messages such as economic reforms.
Economically, too, the consequences of fake news are damaging. Earlier this year, a video went viral on social media alleging that a brand of margarine was not safe for human consumption. Apart from leading to a drastic fall in the sales of the same product, the makers of the product also had to invest millions of Kwacha in managing the crisis. On national and international level, fake news has affected investor confidence, leading to fluctuations of stock market prices and general market instability.
How do you deal with fake news? There is always the argument of tighter media regulations and stiffer punishment for people or organisations puddling fake news. However, such a move raises concerns of infringing on people’s rights to information and speech. Media scholars argue that the best way of countering fake new starts by first spotting fake news. There are normally tell-tale signs that will signal that this is fake news.
The first thing to do is to check the credibility of the author, individual or organisation that has posted the information. A simple Google search will reveal the credibility of the source. Most fake news from individuals will be posted as ‘cited’ material without attribution to credible sources or authority. For organisations, look for their website details. Simple generic requirements such as contact us, ‘about us’ and other information posted on their website will tell if it’s a reliable source of information or not. Counter-check their information with other organisations.
Secondly, scrutinise what is being communicated. What is the content of the message, and is it information that is being reported on multiple reputable sources. Genuine news will normally feature on various reputable platforms, with contributions from various experts on the subject matter. Fake news tends to be reported from a single source and normally not covered by reputable organisations. In cases where the information is reported on various media platforms, check for any discrepancies in the information reported.
Thirdly, pay attention to the quality of the information and its timeliness. Reputable sources will normally employ professional high level proofreaders who adhere to high grammatical standards. Spelling errors, poor punctuations are all an indication that it might be fake news. Be savvy to check on the timeliness of the event being reported. Is it something current or recent? Speculative fake stories will normally have unspecified timelines.
Finally, take whatever you read or watch with a pinch of salt. Just because something is in the papers or is reported on news does not necessarily make it accurate or true.
The author is corporate affairs specialist for Stimuli PR.

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