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Africa’s fake news problem

Alex Booth
By Alex Booth
Associate Managing Director, Kroll

Alex Booth is with the Business Intelligence and Investigations unit at corporate investigations and risk consulting firm Kroll

Posted on Monday, 3 June 2019 11:42

Facebook and Twitter have swiftly become major sources of news

Fake news has been a growing concern in global politics and business for a number of years, and it is now exploding across the continent, with highly orchestrated social media campaigns deployed in both these areas with alarming influence.

Fake news is a significant threat to the integrity of information sharing and news reporting, and has a particularly unique environment in which to thrive in Africa.

  • During the Nigerian presidential election of 2019, incumbent candidate Muhammadu Buhari was forced to deny reports of his death and subsequent replacement by a clone. Although an obviously ridiculous claim, the necessity of a public denial shows how easily fake news can take hold.

Editorial standards in African journalism can be erratic, and the readership of established newspapers with high editorial standards is often confined to a relatively small, literate middle class. Everyone else gets their news from social media, which has made mass news and commentary available to large swathes of the continent for the first time.

  • This readership often includes young people with minimal experience of critically engaging with the news agenda.

As the populations of many African countries are overwhelmingly young (the median age in Africa is just over 19), social media is a central source of news, which means that stories of questionable provenance can gain significant traction very quickly.

Additionally, social media is dangerously receptive and open to fake news, as with no publication costs, no quality control and incredibly rapid dissemination, stories can reach huge numbers of readers within minutes. Given the reliance on social media as a primary source of information, the prevalence and dissemination of fake news is fast evolving into a genuine challenge for Africa.

Fake news in African politics and business

African politics faces an especially significant challenge from fake news, which is common in African election campaigns.

  • Hoaxes, lies and even incitements to violence have been seen in a number of campaigns, with fake newspaper front pages, inaccurate reports of defections by candidates, and even false announcements of candidate or donor deaths, all undermining legitimate political engagement and debate.
  • Young electorates can be too easily influenced by such tactics.

Separately, the prevalence of “fake news” has been adopted as a pretext by incumbent regimes in some African states to crack down on freedom of expression under the guise of protecting the press and the people from fake stories.

Promisingly, we have seen a response from civil society through NGOs who are providing fact-checking services to counteract fake news. Some are successfully attracting donor financing, and together with PR agencies, they are fighting the tide of malicious and manufactured stories.

Combatting fake news is also important for African businesses, who are increasingly coming under attack from sophisticated and coordinated campaigns designed to undermine reputations and question management capability or financial strength.

  • These can fundamentally alter share prices, weaken management teams and impact the progression of takeover bids, or destabilise markets.

Fighting back

Despite the serious nature of the threat posed by fake news, there are strategies available in both the business and political arenas to combat it, beginning with the life cycle of stories.

Normal news stories typically follow a linear progression, beginning with the original, individual report and going through different levels of publication until they reach their peak. But, by using investigative analytics at Kroll, a division of Duff & Phelps, we have identified that fake news stories tend to appear simultaneously across multiple unconnected social media accounts, often using verbatim language.

  • This was notably what happened in the case of an East African bank, which came under attack from a coordinated social media fake news campaign.

Important clues about the source of the story can be found here, as identical stories indicate a small number of people are behind them, making it easier to ultimately track the authors down. What makes this tricky, though, is that stories often disappear within days of publication, only to be replaced with more fake news shortly after.

  • Countering fake news is usually done on the back foot, after a story has already broken, but often this is too late. The damage has already been done. When stories are controversial or complex, it can be incredibly difficult to share a credible counter-narrative.
  • The best strategy is to control the messaging agenda from the start. Pre-emptive approaches allow a message of a politician’s or business’ choosing to be put in the spotlight. This means that if fake news does appear, there is already an entrenched narrative, which will be difficult to replace.

Unfortunately, most corporate entities in Africa either aren’t aware of the need for this, or don’t have the capital to invest in it. Negative campaigns are consequently often better planned and funded, placing them ahead of the curve and putting legitimate actors on the back foot.

Reclaiming the news

There are steps that can be taken to fight fake news, but it will almost certainly be an uphill struggle in the short-term. Societies globally are so geared towards social media news that breaking its influence is likely impossible. As such, those combatting fake news must focus on controlling the messaging agenda on social platforms and ensuring that fake stories are starved of the oxygen and reproduction they need to survive.

Education may, in fact, be our most powerful tool. By giving people the knowledge and ability to spot potential fake news, we can hope that these stories won’t see the light of day, and the damage they cause can be prevented.

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