Not long ago, the rise of social media in people’s lives inspired great optimism about its potential for flattening access to economic and political opportunity, enabling collective action, and facilitating new forms of expression.
The world is not sanguine about that potential anymore. Social media has unbelievably allowed rampant disinformation and spawned fake news campaigns to flourish.
We expected the tech tools to help the world push back common threats such as food insecurity, climate change, global pandemic and nuclear war among others.
However, it has become a vehicle for a constant stream of inflammatory disinformation, tailored to our individualised psychological profiles and devised to thwart social and political cohesion.
Today, we have fake news, false social media profiles, and fabricated narratives created to mislead, sometimes as part of coordinated cognitive campaign warfare. Disinformation is a threat to security, public health, civic discourse, community cohesion, and democratic governance.
The spread of disinformation, use of half-truth and non-rational argument to manipulate public opinion in pursuit of political objectives and misinformation, is made possible largely through social networks and social messaging. It begs the question of the extent of regulation and self-regulation of companies providing these services.
Despite Google, Twitter and Facebook’s efforts to combat fake news in all forms, its prevalence in social media has increased. In Kenya, political misinformation has certainly gotten a lot of traction over the past months or so.
We have also had plenty of misinformation in the realm of health, science and nonpolitical news. The motives behind this misinformation is all over the place. It’s getting more difficult for people to separate reality from fiction.
However, can we blame the knife for a murder? Is it then fair to blame social media or messaging platforms alone for the problems of hate messaging, propaganda and misinformation? Like any other mobile-savvy person, chances are you might have unintentionally forwarded, retweeted, or shared “fake news” or misinformation online.
Whether we accept it or not, fighting fake news is a longer process that involves education, awareness and socio-behavioural changes. It’s a collective responsibility we have to acknowledge, without agenda or malice.
There are several factors that enable spread of disinformation and misinformation on social media platforms. Part of the problem occurs when there is high demand for information about a topic, but the supply of accurate and reliable information is inadequate. The information gap creates opportunities for misinformation. Lessons from other subjects such as Covid-19 vaccine ingredients and technologies, show how timely responses and proactive “prebunking” with accurate information, help mitigate misinformation.
To control Covid-19 infodemic, WHO teamed up with governments to create and distribute content to combat misinformation through a series of communication campaigns.
The consequences of ignoring political misinformation risk posed by these information gaps could be severe. Already, in Kenya voter trust in elections has plunged in 2022.
We can help citizens become critical consumers of information. Political elites can help by calling out bad behaviour. News organisations can help by telling us how they know what they know and being more transparent and responsible about news gathering process.
-The writer is public communications officer at the Pharmacy and Poisons Board