The consequences of ‘fake news’ come into strong focus during times of crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Misinformation and claims of phony cures were widely circulated, leading to serious injuries and even to some unfortunate deaths.
This misinformation even included a fake video of President Akufo-Addo that was quickly fact-checked by the BBC. Globally, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, at least 800 people have died and 5,867 have been hospitalised due to misinformation on COVID-19 treatments or alleged cures. But even when the consequences are not immediate, ‘fake news’ poses a tangible threat to an informed electorate and to democracy.
On December 7th of this year of our Lord 2020, Ghanaians will go to the polls to elect their leader and their representatives – a weighty decision that is infused with real consequences for our health, security; our financial wellbeing; our children’s education; and our country’s future. In making their choices, voters will weigh information on the candidates from various sources, including the media, friends and family – and even directly from the campaigns themselves. A successful democracy requires a well-informed electorate. A well-informed electorate requires facts.
Unfortunately, all over the world, facts have become harder and harder to find/establish.
A panel of experts at Yale University found that the greatest danger of ‘fake news’ is that it “undermines society’s ability to engage in rational discourse based upon shared facts”. Indeed, if a voter can find a source to support their pre-existing positions – regardless of its accuracy, the results could have serious consequences for governance.
If Voter A says the sky is blue and Voter B says the sky is green, that should be a simple matter to settle based on commonly accepted scientific fact. But if Voter B posts edited pictures of a green sky to social media, writes a blog about the threat of a green sky, and convinces other voters to support only candidates committed to ending the green sky threat, the resulting government could easily end up infiltrated by unqualified officials who would craft policies based on complete fiction.
The entire phenomenon of fake news and the distortion of truth are eroding trust. Trust in each other, in usually trustworthy sources and, ultimately, even in our own judgement.
The new technology of today’s world is truly amazing. But it comes with a huge downside. The term ‘fake news’ used to refer to myth, satire, misinformation or even propaganda. Today’s fake news is a whole different animal, and Photoshop is just the beginning. Hoax videos, ‘deep-fakes’ whereby a real video is synced with different words, and advanced tech tricks used to make it look like someone really said the words are just a couple of examples. The latest example utilised in Ghana was a widely circulated fake news clip, complete with a concocted voice – supposedly that of a British news-anchor.
It took great pain and sacrifice to build our democracy. Regardless of where any of us may fall on the political spectrum, the system that allows us to peacefully resolve disputes and elect a new government every four years must be considered sacred. The truth does not belong to a political party. It is a foundation upon which we can debate ideas, candidates can present policy choices, and voters can make informed decisions.
Sorting fact from fiction takes a lot of effort in today’s media landscape. A successful democracy requires an active citizenry. According to the 2020 Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford, “Greater reliance on social media and other platforms give people access to a wider range of sources and ‘alternative facts’, some of which are at odds with official advice, misleading, or simply false”. It is incumbent on each and every voter to remain diligent in the fight against ‘fake news’. In our Ghanaian environment, we who have the benefit of lessons like this have a further obligation. We must make all efforts to distil the truth from the lies, and explain this bizarre phenomenon to those around us who might be even more gullible than ourselves.
The next generation of African voters and future leaders is coming of age in an era of uncertainty. A 2019 poll, the African Youth Survey, conducted across 14 countries (including Ghana) found that 67% of Africans between the ages of 18-24 say ‘fake news’ is impacting their ability to stay informed. A majority said that Facebook (53%) and WhatsApp (50%) were their least-trusted sources of news, yet 54% also said social media was their primary source of news.
There are actions that we all can take to identify and combat fake news. Harvard University and the International Federation of Library Association and Institutions developed a series of steps to take when assessing the validity of a story or source (see the infographic).
We should be able to look to the official government and reliable mainstream outlets for information we can trust. It is clearly incumbent on those institutions to maintain the trust of their audience, admit and correct any mistakes, and operate in a transparent and ethical manner.
We should also consider the business-model of media outlets. Are they rewarded for publishing accurate information or are they driven by clicks and page views for profit? Newspapers, Television and Radio stations should not have to rely on scandalous headlines to stay in business. Ghana has many world-class journalists who perform the important democratic function of a free press. Unfortunately, there are also those who seek to capitalise on fabricated scandals and misinformation to drive viewership. Ghanaians know the difference and should reward and support those reporters and outlets which report responsibly.
Without facts, we cannot have a well-informed electorate. Without a well-informed electorate, we cannot have a successful democracy. It is the duty of every voter to authenticate and verify information received – especially information to be used in helping make decisions as important as choosing our government. Whatever your choice, our country will be stronger if our debates are peaceful, issue-based, well-informed and truthful; and our country will be better served if media coverage is factual.
Oboshie Sai Cofie is a political strategist and tactician.