With the outbreak of COVID-19 and measures taken in many countries to curtail its spread, many of us have been left with depending on social media to stay connected with loved ones amidst lockdown and physical distancing precautions.  Just days into lockdown, I saw a sudden influx of friend requests in my inbox, something that indicated to me that many of my social networks including those I have never met, were spending a significant amount of time on social media. Social media group platforms that I belong to which were hitherto dead silent suddenly came alive as participants swarmed these platforms with messages in the form of videos, audio, text and graphics.

Many of the messages/posts that were COVID-19 related were constructed as news while some were advisory, with all manner of preventive and sometimes curative recommendations. Others were related to the various conspiracy theories on how the virus came about. A rather disappointing one I saw was a viral video claiming that bodies of COIVID-19 patients were being thrown into the sea and warning people against the consumption of seafoods

Right when it was posted, many of the group participants were outraged in no uncertain terms. They were totally scandalised and wondered why anyone, or people could do such a thing. But that video would turn out to be fake news when a participant on the platform proved to all that it was not an authentic video. This person had ever seen the same video some time last year and it was obviously not about bodies of COVID-19 patients that had been dumped into the sea. The story behind the original video concerned some migrants who had drowned and had been washed ashore the coast of Libya. As it were, some of the participants on the platform took the fake news story with a pinch of salt, which was very positive. But the question is how could someone twist events like that and spread it as a recent occurrence? What could be the real motive? Anyway, I probably should not be surprised considering there are varied motives including monetary gains to it.

There is too much information churn out and it is almost impossible to differentiate authentic information from the fake ones. That is why information and media literacy is important in contemporary times. Yes, you may be the most educated person in town, but if you are not information literate, my friend, you can easily fall for fake news.

NOT A NEW PHENOMENON

And just to let you know, fake news is actually not an entirely novel occurrence. As far back as the 15th centuries (specifically 1522) the Italian author and satirist, Pietro Aretino used his satirical writings to blackmail patrons and friends he had fallen out with. Then was the broadcast of the War of the worlds in 1938, which contributed to one of the prominent theories in Mass Communication at the time called the Hypodermic Needle Theory. And I love what Joanna Burkhardt said about fake news. She said fake news has been with us for “as long as humans have lived in groups where power matters”. Highly resonant, huh?

Fake news has, however, received enormous attention in contemporary times because of the phenomenal advances in Information and Communications Technologies, which have disrupted the relationship(s) between media audience, consumers and producers, as the media content consumer has also become an originator and disseminator of information or media content. This democratisation of information/content production or creation and dissemination facilitates the origination and spread of fake news, as it has somehow stripped traditional media of their gate-keeping role. Now, anyone with the skills to create content (be it text, video, graphics or audio) can easily create and share any content without restrictions. The receiver of information can also, just at the click, tap or swipe, share content received with thousands of networks in mere seconds. To the extent that it was listed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as one of the foremost threats to society, makes fake news a phenomenon that doesn’t have to be taken lightly.

CONTEXTUALISING FAKE NEWS

Edson Tandoc Jr., Zheng Wei Lim and Richard Ling describe fake news as a variety of content, including satirical news sites, fabricated news items, manipulated photography, propaganda and false press releases. Alice Marwick also describes it as sensationalist tabloid content. According to Robyn Caplan, Lauren Hanson, and Joan Donovan, terminologies like information operations, misinformation/disinformation, propaganda, low-quality news content, junk news, false news are also sometimes used in place of fake news. These definitions provide a broader perspective of what fake news is.  I also like the definition by Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow which perceives fake news as any news or information that have not and cannot be corroborated by any evidence in reality but has been deliberately packaged as so. Essentially, by this definition, fake news is not only related to news items but any content that is informative.

INFORMATION LITERACY OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE

My measured position is that it is not sufficient to make sharing of fake news punishable by law in order to deter people from spreading such content but it is also important to let them know what fake news is (in terms of attributes) and how exactly information consumers can verify fake news, should they be uncertain about the content of information they come across. The consequences of fake news are varied including spreading fear, anxiety, hatred and panic. It also fosters anti-intellectualism, where evidence-based information is put on the back burner and any information is taken as gospel and is disseminated. This can be very detrimental to societal growth and development generally. That is why academics, especially those in the discipline of communication and media studies, have a role to play in challenging and curtailing this phenomenon by creating avenues to make the media consumer knowledgeable in deciphering the differences between authentic news or information and fake ones.

The Centre for Post Graduate Studies at the Rhodes University recently put together an informative and highly instructive video to help make students (who are considered key in helping curtail the spread of fake news) as well as staff members information literate. In the subsequent section, I refer to some of the highlights that I picked from it with you.

HOW TO IDENTIFY  FAKE NEWS

As we talk about social distancing in the wake of the COVID-19 crises, it is equally important to practice intellectual distancing when it comes to news consunption; fake news is a virtual virus, you know. And just us we are mindful of what we put in our system to nourish our bodies and to build our immune system against the deadly virus, it is equally important to be mindful of what we feed our minds with. Some practical steps that  can be taken have been outlined below:

Verify the source of information

Find out if the article is published in a reputable media outlet and whether the article has a byline (who wrote it?).

Shortfall in evidence

The content must cite credible sources. Who is cited in the story or post; are they credible? If sources are given anonymity there should still be an indication of how the reporter got the information.  In the absence of these, the story is likely to be fake.

Be mindful of exaggerations, including clickbait headlines:

If the post seems exaggerated, it is likely to be fake. Clickbait headlines are over-the-top, sensationalist headlines. Such headlines often leave out key piece of information to entice you to click for more information. Sometimes, clicking on the headlines to get to the webpages earns the content creators some money, however, the veracity of the content cannot be guaranteed.

Check the use of language and punctuations

Most credible and reputable news media outlets pay attention to proper use of language. If the writing is sloppy, marked by bad grammar, improper capitalizations, typos and needless use of exclamation marks the story is likely not coming from reliable news media organizations and are indication that a news article or post is fake.

Is the story only on social media?

When a news story is shared predominantly on social media and does not appear in reputable news publications it is likely to be fake.

How old is the story?

Some stories are old and shared as recent events (as was the case with what happened in my WhatsApp group). You can always do a search on the internet to ascertain this.

Whose interest is the story being served?

If the story seems to be pushing a particular interest or agenda (mainly propaganda), you have to be wary.

Reverse search the images

In order to verify if a news story reflects an actual current event and not an old event that is being presented as new, you can do a reverse image check to verify whether images accompanying stories are factual accounts of the event, time and place. A simple right click on the images and selecting “Search Google for this image” will retrieve all the webpages that had the images together with their contexts.

FACT CHECKING – A RELIABLE ALTERNATIVE

Although technology is part of the spread of fake news, it also offers solution to the problem. Thankfully, there are various fact checking outlets that can help us confirm the authenticity or otherwise of news. Some of them are AfricCheck, Snopes and Hoaxslayer. Recently, I was privileged to have attended the launch of another fact checking platform in Ghana with my colleague, Abena Kyeraa Duah.  The name of this fact checking platform is Dubawa. Originally based in Nigeria, this fact checking organisation has decided to extend its tentacles to Ghana. Should you be in doubt about any information, verify from any of these and other reliable fact checking platforms.

BE THE SOLUTION; NOT THE PROBLEM

The task of being a responsible “literate” information consumer seem daunting but bear in mind that spreading fake news is punishable under Ghanaian law [Refer to Section 76 of the Electronic Communications Act, 2008 (Act 775)]. So, next time you want to click or tap and forward that message, remember that if you forward fake news apart from being intellectually lazy, you are becoming part of a growing problem. In case you realise you might have published or forwarded fake news, don’t feel bad, just do the right thing – DELETE IT and use it as opportunity to educate others about why you think it’s fake, so they learn from it.

Until next time, learn to spot the fake and if uncertain about the authenticity of a story, please don’t forward it.

About the writer:

Theodora is a lecturer at University of Professional Studies, Accra and Post-doctoral Research Fellow at Rhodes University on the Licence to Talk Project. Follow her scholarly works at Google Scholar and Research Gate. She can be reached on theodoradame@yahoo.com