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Curbing Fakes: The Role of Online News Media
By Prof. Abigail Ogwezzy-Ndisika
(Being the Text of The Keynote Address delivered by Professor Abigail Ogwezzy-Ndisika, at the 2018 Delta Online Publishers Forum Convention On Wednesday, 7th November 2018 at Asaba, Delta State).
It is a great privilege standing before you today. This gathering is important to me and every stakeholder in the online media industry. As a result, I decided to leave my workstation in Lagos to be here with you all. Also, the topic to be considered during this two-day convention is relevant and timely even as we prepare to go to the polls. Therefore, I consider it an opportunity to contribute towards the February 2019 general elections and the role of the media. As at today, there are 100 days left to go for the elections (INEC, 2018). The build-up to the elections is getting interesting on a daily basis. Stakeholders such as: the politicians, political parties, electorates and the electoral umpire are all gearing up to February 2019. Just some days back, political parties organised primaries to elect representatives for the different positions that will be vacant by 2019. In this mix, the media is expected to provide a platform for all. This platform created must be devoid of partisanship, favouritism and fakes.
The Media, Elections and the Fight against Fakes
The theme of this convention: “The Role of Online News Media in 2019 Elections” seeks to chat highlight the role of the media especially the online media as 2019 draws near. The online news media has grown with the aid of technology. Everyone has the power to be a content creator, publisher and consumer at the same time. Even as this sounds contemporary, there are issues that come with this trend. Just a button on your smartphone device can forward to hundreds on your contact list a WhatsApp message that is false. The desire to be the first to break the ‘news’ on facebook, twitter or on other online platforms without first confirming has been the bane of this era we live in. Some have created e online platforms in order to make money through click baits and other nefarious reasons. As the country gears towards another electoral season, we as stakeholders in the media industry must be on guard. I have no doubt that by the end of this convention tomorrow, we will be better equipped to wage the online war against fakes and its adverse effects. A media Professor at the London School of Economics, Charlie Beckett defined fake news as: “the canary in the digital coal mine.” He further noted that fake news is “a symptom of a much wider systemic challenge around the value and credibility of information and the way that we – socially, politically, economically – are going to handle the threats and opportunities of new communication technologies.” For Allcott and Gentzkoe (2017), fake news is regarded to be news items that are intentionally planted in the media with the aim of confusing or/and misleading the news consumers. I strongly believe that fake news is a threat to our cyberspace. To me, fakes should have no place to thrive. The damage does outweigh its advantages if there is any. Therefore, there must be a mechanism through which fakes are eliminated. Stakeholders in the media industry must stop at nothing to ensure that truth prevails.
Developing nations are not left alone in this struggle to purge the online media of fakes and hate speeches. Developed nations are also part of this struggle. For example, in 2016, the United States of America experienced a taste of fake news during the general elections. This involved the mining of Facebook data for the campaign by Cambridge Analytica. The country had an election which brought in the current President, Donald Trump. It is believed that the election was unduly influenced by the Russian government through the cyberspace.
According to a 2017 report by the Director of National Intelligence, United States of America, the government of Russia influenced the US elections in a bid to support the candidacy of Donald Trump over the then Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton. This was made possible through the cyber-attacks launched by the Russian government. As of June, 11 officials of the Trump administration had admitted the interference of Russia in the elections. To this effect, other developed countries are stopping at no cost to prevent a repeat of the ‘Russian’ interference. Many of us are familiar with Donald Trump of the United States of America and his constant ‘war’ on fakes. In a 2017 study carried out in the country, it was discovered that only 6% of the population trust online news sources all of the time. In another survey in March 2018, 52% participants stated that they believe online news sources constantly publish fake news stories.
In 2019, major elections such as the European Union Parliamentary elections, and general elections in countries like Denmark, India, Estonia, Argentina, Canada among others. These countries have continued to plug loopholes that might be exploited by advocates of fakes and disinformation during the 2019 polls. For example, the Danish government in September revealed an action plan of 11 initiatives to counter any form of influence that might occur as they prepare to vote in the 2019 parliamentary elections.(Bussoletti, 2018). These initiatives include: One, the Government set up an inter-governmental task force to strengthen the authorities’ co-ordination and efforts in countering influence campaigns. Two, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched a strengthened monitoring of disinformation in the media directed at Denmark. Three, the Danish Security Intelligence Service (DSIS) and the Danish Defence Intelligence Service (DDIS) strengthened their focus on hostile foreign actors targeting Denmark with influence campaigns, including with regard to the upcoming parliamentary elections. Four, the Ministry for Economic Affairs and the Interior in cooperation with DSIS and DDIS/The Centre for Cyber Security (CFCS) ensure necessary threat and vulnerability assessments are conducted in relation to the election. Five, the Ministry for Economic Affairs and the Interior’s response with regard to the election focuses on threats posed by potential foreign influence. Six, the Government through the national security authorities (DSIS and DDIS/CFSC)is offering to all political parties eligible to be elected to Parliament counselling on the risk of foreign influence in relation to the upcoming parliamentary elections, including cyber-attacks, and on the options for countering such influence and attacks.
Seven, the Government will invite all political party leaders to a meeting to inform them about the risk of foreign influence with regard to the upcoming parliamentary elections. In addition, the Government will invite representatives from the media to a dialogue on possible models for cooperation on countering potential foreign attempts to influence the upcoming parliamentary elections. This will happen with full respect for the central principles of a free and independent press. Nine, the Government will invite representatives from prevalent social media platforms to a dialogue on possible models for cooperation on countering potential foreign attempts to influence the upcoming parliamentary elections. This initiative will amongst other things be based on experiences from other countries. Ten, the Government will invite media with public service obligations to a dialogue on models for cooperation on countering potential foreign attempts on influencing the upcoming parliamentary elections. One of the aims being to raise awareness about the threat amongst the population. Eleven, the Government will present a bill to ensure that the criminal code is up to date to protect Denmark against the threat from influence campaigns launched by foreign intelligence services.(Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, 2018).
Countries are not the only advocates against fakes, corporate organizations are also involved. After the Cambridge Analytica saga, Facebook has continued to clean up fake profiles created on its platform. So far, 600 million fake accounts have been deleted. On other platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp and Instagram, app developers are fighting against fakes and its causes. In March, Google announced an investment of $300 million to fight fake news in the next three years. In addition, it launched two initiatives: Google News Initiative and Digital News Initiative (Gartenberg, 2018). Also, the British Broadcasting Corporation recently launched the BBC Reality Check service to check the different cases of fake news. These are some of the efforts done by corporate organizations in the media industry.
The Way Forward
The online media in Nigeria has continued to grow. Thus, the stakeholders in the industry have continued to organise themselves in order to harmonise their thoughts and resources for improvement. I call on Delta Online Publishers Forum to take the front row in the fight against fakes. Bloggers and online publishers under the aegis of DOPF must seek to only publish what is true, accurate, balanced and in support of national unity. Fact-checking is the way to go. Journalists must seek to fact-check statements made by politicians. Worldwide, there is a rapid growth of fact-checking. Organizations are dedicating their activities towards independent fact-checking activities. In Europe, fact-checking has grown. Several media organizations have taken it upon themselves to do debunk fake news. Some of these fact-checking efforts include: BBC Reality Check, Full Fact, FactCheck Blog, Les Décodeurs, PagellaPolitica, Ellinikahoaxes.gr, fact-checker.gr, Ferret Fact Service, Miniver.org, Minmikama and Bufale.net.
On the other hand, fact-checking in Africa is yet to gain the same momentum. Africa Check established in 2012 has been at the fore of independent fact-checking. The South-African based organization has its branches in Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal. In Nigeria, efforts of few online news media have helped in improving fact-checking. In a bid to amplify truth, Premium Times launched DUBAWA in 2018. Other fact-checking activities done by online news media include The Cable and International Centre for Investigative Reporting.
History has taught us that if we don’t regulate how politicians use the media. In 2015, the politicians had a field day throwing different shades of acerbic comments through the media. Online media users and readers were also involved. In 2015, the use of hate speech took the centre stage. Several hate speeches and fake news were spread by leaders, candidates and citizens through the use of the media. There was the use “acerbic words, half-truths and outright lies in their electioneering campaigns. The election was seen as a ‘do-or-die’ affair by the politicians. These activities were alarming and apprehensions were rife about the success of the election and peaceful transition of power.”(Ogwezzy-Ndisika, 2018) Also, the election was a “show unguarded, offensive, uncouth, uncultured and absolutely damning inexcusable statements emanating from the two major parties during Nigerian’s 2015 presidential election campaigns” (Ogwezzy-Ndisika, 2015). “Hence, the two major contestants, Goodluck Jonathan and MuhammaduBuhari along with nine other party leaders first signed the ‘Abuja Accord’ on January 14, 2015. The peace pact was witnessed by former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan and former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, EmekaAnyaoku. The substance of that accord was their commitment to free, fair and credible elections in Nigeria.” (Ogwezzy-Ndisika et al., 2015).
As the 2019 general elections draw near, I strongly advocate an issue-based campaign. This will rise above an individualistic approach to the campaign. At the expiration of the period for the conduct of party primaries, the Independent National Electoral Commission announced on Friday, October 26, 2018, the emergence of about 70 presidential candidates. The candidates include: the incumbent president, MuhammaduBuhari, Former Vice President and presidential aspirant, Atiku Abubakar, former Governor of Cross River state, Donald Duke and former Minister of Education and activist, ObiageliEzekwesili, Kingsley Mogahlu and a former Deputy Governor of Central Bank of Nigeria, OmoyeleSowore, publisher of Sahara Reporters among others. I anticipate for a robust and articulate debate among these men and women. It will be unthinkable to have 2019 go the way of fake news, hate speech and other rhetoric.
As online news purveyors, the onus lies on us to ensure information dissemination is disseminated professionally. As an academic of media studies, I teach students of journalism on the importance of confirming information with several sources before publishing. The popular saying goes thus: “If in doubt, leave out.” This applies to online publishers. Never be too fast to publish unconfirmed stories. Publishing such stories goes a long way in tarnishing the image of your news outfit and distorts the information cycle.
Last Saturday, I was the chairperson of a meeting of online publishers under the aegis Guild of Professional Bloggers of Nigeria in Lagos. I spoke on the need for stakeholders in the media industry to fight fakes together. The highlight of my presentation to the seasoned online journalists was the need for journalists to “work at the credibility problems in the online media by ensuring whatever they were publishing had all the elements of credibility.” As I stand before you today, I will like repeat same. The credibility issues surrounding online news media has continued to tarnish the good work of seasoned journalists and online news media publishers.
Also at the meeting, the Minister of Information and culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed stated unequivocally that the war against fake news is a war that must be fought and won at all cost.
In his words:
“It is a must-win. As a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation, Nigeria cannot afford an unbridled spread of fake news. This phenomenon is exploiting our front lines to aggravate crisis in the country. Of course, you aware of a recent report by the BBC that says fake news circulating on social media is fuelling the farmer-herders clash in Nigeria. Gory pictures from other lands are circulated freely via Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, purportedly being from the killings in Benue and Plateau States.
“Let me repeat what I said at the launch of this campaign the Federal Government will not use cohesion or engage in censorship in order to fight the fake news epidemic. We believe there are enough laws in our books to fight this phenomenon. We, therefore, appeal to you and all Nigerians to join us in the fight against this scourge. We are telling Nigerians to do just two simple things before you share that information on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, please ask yourself how credible the source. Two, don’t share any information which you cannot vouch for.”
In July, the Nigerian government launched a campaign against fake news. The campaign is believed to be a collaboration between, National Orientation Agency and the media in order to educate the citizens on fakes and its adverse effect on the nation. This is a welcome development. Media and Information Literacy is a sure way to go. Citizens must be equipped with the right mentality on how to communicate online, access and analyse information disseminated through the media. A media literate citizen will be equipped to critically interpret, create and act on media messages. I am hopeful that this convention will suggest ways the online media can support the conduct of the upcoming elections in 2019.
Nigeria needs a credible election. An election that will usher in a new set of leaders that will provide good governance, growth and development. As the electoral umpire continues to plan for the election billed for February 2019, the media must be an accomplice in this process. The media especially online media must be at the fore of ensuring that the right narratives are in the public domain. The media must not be used again as the ground for politicians to throw tantrums at each other. If Nigeria breaks, no one will have any place to call home. As such every stakeholder in the media industry must strive to uphold the tenets of the profession. Journalists that work for online news media must be at patriotic and passionate about having a Nigeria that works. They must not give the ‘media rostrum’ to politicians to pontificate at will through comments laced with acerbic, half-truths and lies.
I thank you for listening.
Prof. Abigail Ogwezzy-Ndisika PhD, MNIPR, arpa
Head, Department of Mass Communication
University of Lagos