Exploring the fake news problem in Nigeria, Africa
This morning, I read an article on The Undefeated explaining how ‘fake news’ let loose a genocidal maniac called Dylann Roof, the white American boy who walked into Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday, June 17, 2015, and shot and killed 9 people. Their crime? They were Black. His motivation? Black people are what is wrong with the world. They are “killing white people every day” and “they are raping white women.”
Earlier in December, The Guardian published an article claiming that fake visas had cost RwandAir over 8 billion naira on the Lagos-Dubai route. RwandAir quickly moved to dismiss the news, calling it a “fabricated piece of fake news.”
The Guardian has since taken down the story.
On December 9, news started circulating that Kia Automobile was taking its business out of Nigeria because of the dire economic climate. It turned out that that, too, was fake news.
If you have been around long enough, then you’ll know that fake news is not a recent phenomenon. It is, in fact, the foundation on which many tabloids and blogging careers are built–peddling rumours and outright lies. Walk the streets of Lagos and you will see shoddily published cheap magazines with sensational headlines, most of which, by merely looking at the absurdity of the front page headlines, you will know are full of fake news stories. But these magazines sell as fast as soft, warm bread in the morning because they feed people’s love for gossip and controversy.
But the fake news problem is not in any way limited to Nigeria alone, it is a burden the world has to deal with.
Fake it till you break it
Right now, there is an ongoing discussion about fake news and its impact on global affairs. There are several reports that Russia planted fake news stories to influence the outcome of the US elections. Also earlier this month, social media was abuzz with a certain ‘Pizzagate’ scandal– a news story claiming Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta were the ringleaders of a paedophilia ring running out of Washington DC. The story was proven fake when The New York Times and the Washington Post tracked it down and debunked it.
One of the main subjects of attack of the fake news phenomenon is Facebook, the world’s largest social network with a monthly active user base of 1.7 billion, more than the population of China and the United States combined. The platform has been used to peddle all kinds of news stories, all in a bid for platforms to rake in advertising revenue. For long, Facebook (or rather Mark Zuckerberg) denied its fake news problem. However, after a lot of pressure, it finally decided to do something about it by introducing a fake news signal that makes it easy for users to report and identify fake news. The flagged fake news will then be reviewed by Facebook’s fact checkers, an army of third party journalists from media organisations (this, in itself, is a story on its own).
The spread of the fake news phenomenon on the internet is caused by the internet’s ever-connected nature and the preference for speed over accuracy. Because internet content providers and distributors are in a zero-sum, winner-takes-all battle for attention and advertising revenue, they will do any and everything to boost traffic. Unlike print publications that usually have the luxury of time before reporting a breaking story the next day, online publications are necessitated by the franticness of the world in which they find themselves. On the internet, you either go fast or go home. Many journalists, because they are competing for attention and mindshare, are forced to publish first and verify later, and this is what is hurting our world.
Nigeria has this problem too but there’s not a lot of discussion going on about it. News sites and blogs publish stories without first authenticating the sources. Fake news stories are usually sensational in nature and so are very likely to spread quickly. And because the platforms containing the news already have a massive reader base that looks to them for information, the stories will most likely be believed by the people that read them. These people will, in turn, share the story on social media (because who doesn’t like to pride themselves on being one of the first to know), and the show, sadly, goes on and on. Sometimes, even after the story has been debunked, the fake news still prevails.
How do you solve a problem like fake news-ria?
Brian Hughes, a professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York, writes that “it would be a mistake to pressure Facebook and Google into acting as censors” for news because “we’ve already seen how such an approach can backfire.” He cites the example of Facebook’s manipulation of its Trending Newsfeed to suppress conservative news. This, he says, only increases public distrust for the media, turning them to less credible news sources instead.
Professor Hughes says we should consider the possibility of adopting the Fairness Doctrine for digital media. He says it should be possible for companies like Facebook to “individually program our news feeds for balance and accuracy” since they are already able to “identify consumer niches.”
Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker argues for more government involvement as a way of solving this problem. He says that “it’s facile and unhelpful to assume that government’s role in journalism can be either nothing or absolute control for propaganda purposes.” He proposes that the government invest more in the public media to give more room for press freedom and journalistic integrity. But I wonder how effective this will be if we try to adapt it to Nigeria, considering the country’s political climate, one where the government is viewed as corrupt and untrustworthy.
We cannot eliminate fake news. As long as there are people willing to buy tabloids and read blogs that they already know contain lies and half-truths, and as long as we have uneducated people who are unable to differentiate between real and fake news, fake news will continue to sell.
The solution to the fake news problem lies in the online media revenue model. Articles online are optimised for clicks. That means that the best performing content–the headline, article body, the images, SEO meta description, etc.–are designed, wittingly or unwittingly, to get people to click on them. The more clicks and the more time spent on an article, the better the analytics figures; and the better the analytics figures, the more likely the media house is to attract premium advertising revenue. So, to get from the point of content to more revenue, many times media platforms water down journalistic standards and integrity. Online media is a zero-sum game: the more time someone spends on your platform, the more time they spend away from other platforms.
Wikipedia, for many people, is a life saver–students (most especially), working class people, and any average internet user values the resource that is Wikipedia. Wikipedia has been around for almost 16 years and runs primarily on crowdfunds. Right now, The Guardian and New York Times are two publications that ask their readers to crowdfund them.
Crowdfunding makes online publications less dependent on advertising revenue and it frees them from compromise. The less dependent a publication is on ad revenue, the less it has to suck up to private and public organisations responsible for the ad revenue. But for this to be the case, we have to get the point where crowdfunding is mainstream. Usually, people participate in crowdfunding because they see value in the thing that they are funding. So, they are less likely to fund what they consider crappy publications.
Crowdfunding online publications will help improve their journalistic and editorial standards, leading to better content, and ultimately, a more informed public. It will also streamline the media in the sense that substandard publications will be pushed further down the drain and more authentic publications will ascend the mindshare ladder, becoming more prominent and more likely to be shared and quoted in everyday conversations.
Maybe we can’t stop fake news, but we definitely can slow it down and put it in check. Crowdfunding has a huge role to play in that.