By Muzi Dlamini
The advent of technology has brought with it many advantages to the world but it has also given way to a destructive nature, the paddling of disinformation, misinformation and ‘fake news’.
Due to the immediacy provided by platforms on the World Wide Web, misinformation can travel the globe extremely fast and spread like wildfire. This has brought with it a myriad of problems for ordinary citizens and governments alike.
Governments have been toppled, people arrested and others killed as a result of misinformation and the distortion of facts. Many examples exist in the global political landscapes such as the war in Iraq, which was premised on the existence of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Those weapons were never found.
The country was flattened from 2003 to 2011 on that premise as former US President George W Bush and his United Kingdom counterpart, Tony Blair tried to convince the world that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and that he thus presented a threat to his neighbours and the world.
The United States stated on November 8, 2002, that the UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 1441. All fifteen members of the Security Council agreed to give Iraq a final opportunity to comply with its obligations and disarm or face the serious consequences of failing to disarm.
Throughout the early 2000s, the two administrations built a case for invading Iraq which eventually succeeded. However, some government agencies, the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and other intelligence agencies refused to continue to support the allegations related to Iraqi weapons, as well as allegations that Hussein had links to the terrorist group, al-Qaeda.
When that failed to pick up steam, the administrations shifted to secondary rationales for the war, such as human rights violations and promoting democracy in Iraq. Chillingly, similar patterns are being witnessed in the Kingdom of Eswatini.
In today’s world, rumours and propaganda such as those pushed by the Bush and Blair administrations are being consumed as the gospel truth and conclusions reached without the interrogation of facts. But what exactly is this phenomenon we are experiencing?
We first need to start by defining what misinformation is. It is false or inaccurate information. Examples include rumours, insults, and pranks. Disinformation on the other hand is deliberate and includes malicious content such as hoaxes, spear phishing, and propaganda.
Also known as fake news, or information disorder, misinformation makes the truth hard to find, and can also be one of the leading sources of danger to personal security. According to PeoplesBank.com, fake news is a false narrative that is published and promoted as if it were true.
Historically, fake news was usually propaganda put out by those in power to create a certain belief or support a certain position, even if it was false.
Social media has now created an environment where anyone with an agenda can publish falsehoods as if they were truths. People can be paid to post fake news on behalf of someone else or automated programs, often called bots, can publish auto-generated fake news.
As a means of curbing the rise in misinformation, disinformation, and fake news, the government of Eswatini established the Computer Crime and Cybercrime Act 2022. When it was proposed as a Bill, it mentioned that any person who publishes any statement or fake news through any medium, including social media intending to deceive any other person or group of persons, commits an offence.
It is spelt out in this legislation that the fake news pusher shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding a fine of 10 million or 10 years in prison or both. This resulted in the public going into a frenzy over the fine.
Meanwhile, research conducted by USC scientists made findings that due to the reward-based learning systems on social media, users form habits of sharing information that gets recognition from others.
“Once habits form, information sharing is automatically activated by cues on the platform without users considering critical response outcomes, such as spreading misinformation.”
Posting, sharing, and engaging with others on social media can, therefore, become a habit. “Our findings show that misinformation isn’t spread through a deficit of users. It’s really a function of the structure of the social media sites themselves,” said Wendy Wood, an expert on habits and USC emerita Provost Professor of psychology and business.
The European Union is also involved in the fight against fake news and as a result, the European Commission announced the creation of an expert group to develop a strategy to tackle the problem. Concerning this, EU Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel began a public fake news conference where she declared the setting up of an EU-level expert group to analyze the extent to which the problem associated with fake news threatens the EU.
The EU reported that even though they are neither illegitimate nor contemporary, fake news is being scattered at an alarming rate and endangering the welfare of society, democracy and the media in general. Thus, attempts should be made to determine and spot fake news as well as find the channels via which they are funded.
The motivations as to why people create and distribute fake news are as numerous as there are individual opinions. A scholarly article written by the Department of Medicine at the University of Missouri, United States in 2020, published that several well-publicized incidents have demonstrated the negative impact of false information.
As an example, early during the pandemic, questions were raised regarding the possible use of disinfectants administered internally to patients with Covid-19. On June 5, 2020, the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) reported a steep increase in calls to poison centres regarding exposure to household disinfectants.
A CDC survey of 502 adults in the United States found that 39 per cent of responders engaged in dangerous practices including washing food products with bleach, applying household cleaners directly to the skin, and intentionally inhaling or ingesting disinfectants to prevent Covid-19 infection.
Another troubling issue secondary to heightened anxiety is the substantial decline in visits for chronic conditions, preventative care, and non-Covid-associated medical emergencies which were especially prominent early on during this pandemic. The fallout from delayed care may extend well beyond the current global crisis.
The potential dangers of misinformation and disinformation are more subtle. Fake news is created to change people’s beliefs, attitudes, or perceptions, so they will ultimately change their behaviour. If you believe fake news, then someone else drives your beliefs and decisions.
So how do you protect yourself from fake news? The most effective way is to only trust something once you can verify it. In today’s fast-paced world of social media, fake news surrounds us every day. If you are not careful, you run the risk of believing and acting upon it. Take the time to follow these basic steps to help ensure you make informed decisions based on facts.
- Consider the Source: Think about the actual source of the news. A local blog will not be as trustworthy as a major academic journal. What does the source stand for? What are their objectives?
- Supporting Sources: Look at the sources cited in the article. Are they credible? Do they even exist?
- Multiple Sources: Don’t just rely on a single article. The more you read from various sources, the more likely you can draw accurate conclusions. Also consider diverse sources and perspectives, for example, news from different countries or authors with different backgrounds.
- Check the Author: Who is the author? Research them to see if they are a credible author, their reputation in the community, whether they have a specific agenda, or if the person posting is a real person. Are they authoring within their field of expertise?
- Comments: Even if the article, video, or post is legitimate, be careful of comments posted in response. Often, links or comments posted in response can be auto-generated by bots or by people hired to put out bad, confusing, or false information.
- Check Your Biases: Be objective. Could your own biases influence your response to the article? A problem that we humans often run into is that we only read sources that simply confirm what we already believe in. Challenge yourself by reading other sources you normally would not review.
- Check the Funding: Even legitimate publications have sponsors and advertisers who can influence an article or source. Check if someone funded the article and if so, find out who paid for it.
- Repost carefully: Fake news relies on believers to repost, retweet, or otherwise forward false information. If you’re uncertain as to the authenticity of an article, think twice or hold off on sharing it with others.