Recently, I had cause to caution the Volta Regional House of Chiefs on the wholesale reliance on ‘fake news’ peddled by one Kevin Taylor, a Ghanaian blogger based in the United States of America, to take a position that government planned to deploy vigilantes to foment trouble in the region ahead of the 2020 general elections. My concern was that though the chiefs described the YouTube post as an allegation, they nonetheless used it as a basis to draw conclusions on a sensitive and divisive security issue.
In the previous article, I pointed out that Kevin Taylor is a hateful blogger whose trade is to malign and blackmail anyone opposed to his masters, even if it means publishing false information that can set the country on fire. He deals in ‘fake news’, ‘disinformation’ and ‘misinformation’, which are hot commodities in the news industry. Therefore, our chiefs and other state or quasi-state institutions should not allow themselves to be influenced by ‘fake news.’
Currently, one concern around ‘fake online media’ and ‘fake news’ is that barriers to entering the media industry have dropped – because it is now easy to set up websites and easier to market web content through advertising platforms. Besides, social media and citizen journalism functions are no longer the monopoly of individuals with professional journalism training, but plied by ordinary people with no journalism background. Most recently, these newer online and mobile phone practices – popularly referred to as ‘citizen journalism’, ‘citizen-generated media’, ‘unfiltered journalism’, ‘hyperlocal journalism’ etc. – have entered the journalism landscape, constituting themselves as de-professionalised, de-institutionalised and radical counter-hegemonic spaces (Allan 2013; Atton 2002).
Shortly after the Kevin Taylor issue, another national issue centred around ‘fake news’ has necessitated a revisit to the emergence of ‘fake news’ in our body polity – and its repercussions for democracy, peace and security. Since the days of Aristotle, John Locke and Rosseau etcetera, democracy has thrived on informed citizens. The Miriam-Webster Dictionary explains that the term ‘fake news’ has been in use for over 125 years, but has recently taken on new meaning. It defined ‘fake news’ as the kind of news that is “frequently used to describe a political story that is seen as damaging to an agency, entity, or person”. In fact, with the advent of social media and weblogs, our media environment has never been so complex and controversial.
Media and communications researchers have indicated tha one of the most challenging aspects of addressing the phenomenon is defining what constitutes ‘fake news’. The phenomenon has been misused by politicians to dismiss disagreeable news coverage, and is often used as a synonym for inaccurate journalism, propaganda, conspiracy theories, hoaxes, lies, fabricated pictures etc. – but they are not the same. For example, Finneman and Thomas (2018) defined the rise of ‘fake news’ as a result of “the rise of the Internet as a source of information and the ability for anyone to produce and share content online”. Across democracies, ‘fake news’ has gained prominence, producing misinformation on social media platforms.
Worryingly, ‘fake news’ has served to diminish the credibility of mainstream news networks, thus dividing the general public further; ideologically, socially and religiously. In mature democracies like the USA and United Kingdom, ‘fake news’ has been a component of political strategies. Social media channels like Facebook and Twitter in this regard enable relatively cheaper, user-friendly ways to disseminate information on a global scale.
Survival of democracy
Small wonder, then, that the world and indeed Ghanaians are deeply concerned about the very survival of democracy and the rule of law due to the emerging threat of ‘fake news’ as a by-product of the Internet and technology-based media. Currently, civic guarantees of democracy such as free speech and freedom of expression which promoted our coexistence are under threat.
Freedom to speak empowers citizens, individually or collectively, to advance their interests and shape the institutions whose decisions impact their lives.
However, at this critical moment of our democratic development the use of bogus information and fake news to champion extremist causes must not be countenanced. A clear case is the manner some politicians fanned the fires of the so-called secessionist attacks in part of the Volta Region on September 25, 2020. It is our capacity for reasoned communication that makes elections possible and allows our representative political systems to function and adapt.
Undoubtedly, the digital technologies and new communications tools now provide the platform for free access to government data and information: encouraging citizen participation in public decision-making; introducing new voices to public debate; and fostering the transparency and scrutiny of administrative actions. The new media are also providing a platform for global advocacy on issues affecting human rights, the rule of law and democracy; and mobilising new actors to find alternative avenues for political participation.
On the flipside, the alarming number of unethical issues involving the use of social media platforms to manipulate elections and public opinion is alarming. Equally worrying is increasing use of the Internet by extremist groups to incite hatred, ethnicity and violence. Though ‘fake news’ is as old as news, and hate speech is as old as speech, the digital age has provided grounds for the virulent dissemination of both phenomena. As stated earlier, the initial idea of ‘new media’ promoting the people’s voice, participation and human development is beginning to backfire. More than ever, ‘fake news’ is serving to perpetuate the increasing political polarisation within the general public across the world – including Ghana.
NDC and fake news
The impact of social media on a country’s political psyche cannot be underestimated. Last week, another piece of ‘fake news’ captured the national agenda. It was released by a prominent opposition Member of Parliament, Mr. Inusah Fuseini, to the effect that a government official had been arrested in the United Kingdom with £26million. Quite expectedly, various radio stations then made this false news the basis of their discussions on corruption among members of the country’s parliament. After a public backlash reinforced by a rebuttal by the Minister of Information, Mr. Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, Mr. Fuseini retreated and confessed that he did not cross-check the source of his information before going public.
Addressing a press conference, Dr. Mustapha Hamid noted that a statement by Ambassador Diana Acconcia – head of the EU delegation to Ghana – debunked the ‘fake news’. Similarly, the National Cyber Security Centre confirmed that an audio-report circulating on social media purported to be from an international media outlet, suggesting that a government official was involved in money laundering to the UK, was also fake. Perhaps if it was a mainstream media house or journalist that peddled such false news, the whole country would have descended on them; but as a Member of Parliament, Mr. Fuseini might well get away with peddling ‘fake news.’
In a similar fashion during 2008, the then-opposition published names and fake account numbers of NPP Ministers with ridiculous amounts of monies allegedly deposited in their accounts. Absurdly, the fake amount in total exceeded Ghana’s entire resource envelope. The opposition swept to power, partly on the basis of the ‘fake news’; but when later those who peddled the fake news appeared before a Parliamentary Vetting Committee to be vetted as ministers of state and were asked to substantiate their allegations, they pleaded for mercy.
Mimicking credible media In a press statement, the ruling New Patriotic Party decried the rise of ‘fake news’ and its threats to free speech and democracy. One disturbing trend is the use of ‘fake news’ outlets to mimic credible media organisations. It has emerged that the following fake online media have been launched by opposition elements to peddle ‘fake news’: ‘awakenews.com’, ‘graphicpoliticsonline.com’, ‘graphicg.com, ‘whatsappNews’, ‘Ghananewsavenue.com’, ‘LeakageGhana.com’, ‘DWGhana.com’, ‘BBCghana.com’, ‘NewsBulletin.com’, and ‘Africawish.com’.
Clearly, the above websites were launched to mimic established media organisations like the Ghana News Agency, Ghanaweb and Graphiconline.gh.com. Once these fake websites publish unsubstantiated news, politicians then cite them as the source of their information.
Where do we go from here?
Currently, not only are large numbers of non-professional citizen journalists and bloggers engaging in journalism, they are also using interactive multi-media which are challenging the idea of cautious verification and gatekeeping (Borgmann 2012; Silverman 2018). But what does ethical journalism look like in the Digital Age? According to Christians et al (2008), professional standards for ethical journalism are an important defence against disinformation and misinformation.
As Beckett (2017: 56) notes, “…’fake news’ is the best thing that has happened for decades. It gives mainstream journalism the opportunity to show that it has value based on expertise, ethics, engagement and experience. It is a wake-up call to be more transparent, relevant, and to add value to people’s lives. It can develop a new business model of fact-checking, myth-busting and generally getting its act together as a better alternative to fakery”.
Ultimately, the effects of ‘fake news’ can have detrimental consequences for any country and its democratic process – since the entire political and democratic process is based on reliable information. However, the use of large-scale and widespread dissemination of ‘fake news’ not only threatens democracy and development, but is also altering and undermining the very foundation of mass communications and mainstream journalism practice.
According to UNESCO (2017), “The spread of ‘fake news’ is made possible through social networks and social messaging – which raises fresh concerns regarding regulation and self-regulation of companies providing these services. It is evident, however, that strong ethical journalism is needed as an alternative, and antidote, to pollution of the news environment and the spill-over effect of tarnishing news more broadly”. (UNSECO 2017; European Commission 2017)
However, “…news today still must be accurate and fair, and it is as important for the readers, listeners and viewers to see how the news is produced, where the information comes from, and how it works. The emergence of news is as important as the delivering of news itself”. (Bunz 2009 :67) Therefore, stakeholders in the media industry – established media organisations, communications and journalism schools, professional journalists, journalism students and the general public – have cause to be alarmed by the threats of ‘fake news’ to mainstream journalism practice.
Allan, S. 2013. Citizen Witnessing: Revisioning Journalism in Times of Crisis.
Atton, C. 2002. What is “alternative” journalism? Journalism: Theory, Practice, Criticism, 4(3): 267–
Borgmann, LS. 2012. Universal Principles of Media Ethics: South African and German Perspectives. 2 (2):547
Bruns, A. 2009. Citizen Journalism and Everyday Life: A Case Study of Germany’s myHeimat.de. Paper presented at Future of Journalism Conference, Cardiff.
European Commission. 2017. Next steps against fake news: Commission sets up High-Level Expert Group and launches public consultation.
Finneman, T. and Thomas, R.J. (2018), “A family of falsehoods: deception, media hoaxes, and fake news”, Newspaper Research Journal, Vol. 39 No. 3, pp. 350-361.
Christians, C& Nordenstreng, K. 2004. “Social Responsibility Worldwide.” Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality 19(1): 3-28.
Silverman, C. 2018. I Helped Popularize. The Term “Fake News” And Now I Cringe Every Time I Hear It. BuzzFeed.
UNESCO, 2017. Journalism, Fake news and disinformation. UNESCO Series on Journalism Education.
(***The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist, and a Social Justice Advocate. All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation(s).
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