The Covid-19 pandemic has given rise to an unprecedented proliferation of fake news and conspiracy theories. While the phenomenon is global, prompting the World Health Organisation (WHO) to describe the situation as an “infodemic”, or an epidemic of false information, it poses a greater threat to African countries, where rumours are spreading like wildfire on social networks. NGOs and groups of journalists, such as Media Monitoring Africa in South Africa, are working to raise awareness of misinformation and to train young people to be critical thinkers.
Mosquitoes propagating the virus, neem oil as a miracle cure for the coronavirus, African presidents assassinated for their anti-vax positions… These are some of the many far-fetched theories that have spread on social networks in recent months. To combat the flood of false information and conspiracy theories, which have been on the rise since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, several NGOs and groups of journalists have organised themselves to flush out the flow of fake news. Among them is Media Monitoring Africa, a Johannesburg-based organisation that has set up the website Real411.org and a disinformation training programme in the country’s schools.
Africa, the continent most affected by disinformation?
15 000. This is the number of “fake news” published about the coronavirus throughout the world, according to the American Poynter Institute for Media Studies. But it is in Africa that people feel most affected by this scourge. According to the latest Digital News Report by Reuters Institute, which devoted an entire section of its study to disinformation, 74% of people on the continent have already been exposed to an infox, compared with 54% in Europe and 63% in North America. Facebook, Whatsapp and Twitter are the main platforms accused of spreading false information.
This trend can be explained by the very relationship that people have with social networks. Faced with the failures of the media and public authorities, it is on social networks that citizens inform themselves and organize themselves. The most popular media on the continent for information are Facebook and Whatsapp. For Africans, they are a way to find out what is happening in neighbouring countries and the rest of the world, but also to bypass possible state censorship.
In addition to sowing doubt and confusion on a virtual scale, these fake news generate very real dramas: incidents opposing communities in several districts of Abidjan in Ivory Coast, the destruction of screening sites targeted by the surrounding population who thought they were centres for coronavirus patients, deaths after self-medication with kongo bololo in the DRC, a plant falsely presented as being close to chloroquine…
If the infodemia is global, it is on the African continent that it seems to wreak the most havoc. Fake news is not only a factor of social disorder but also threatens the very functioning of social networks, with its detractors seeing it as a reason for censorship. According to William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, which works against misinformation in South Africa, fake news is a real danger to social peace and emerging democracies. “The misinformation that exists on the web can cause as much harm to a democracy as a terrorist attack, especially when the country in question does not have strong institutions to respond adequately to these dangers,” he explains.
Projects against fake news all over Africa
On the Real411.org website, launched by Media Monitoring Africa to respond to the challenges of Covid-19-related misinformation, any citizen can report a complaint, i.e. information awaiting verification. This complaint is then analysed by three different experts: a media expert, who is often a journalist, a legal expert, i.e., a lawyer, and a social network expert.
Faced with the threat of fake news, projects such as Media Monitoring Africa are developing all over Africa. Fact-checking platforms powered by local journalists are flourishing: StopBlabla in Cameroon, Fasocheck in Burkina Faso, Ghana Fact in Ghana, CongoCheck in the DRC, GuineeCheck in Guinea and the Ivorian web radio station broadcast on the Whatsapp messaging service WA FM.
Other fact-checking organisations cover several countries on the continent. These include PesaCheck, which operates in 15 countries in East and West Africa, mostly in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya, but also Africa Check, an independent fact-checking organisation founded in 2012 with offices in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and South Africa. In West Africa, Dubawa.org focuses on information circulating in Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Last year, before the presidential elections in the Central African Republic, the Central African Bloggers Association (ABCA) launched the “Yefanda” initiative, which means “proof” in Sango, the national language of the Central African Republic, a fact-checking project to flush out the intoxicants that were circulating at the time about the elections.
As proof that misinformation is a major concern, UNESCO has initiated a fact-checking programme this year for journalists in 14 African countries, including Benin, Niger, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Senegal.
For its part, Facebook, which is often blamed for the rapid spread of fake news, has also developed a fact-checking programme available in Ethiopia, Zambia, Somalia and Burkina Faso via a partnership with AFP; in Uganda and Tanzania with Pesa Check and AFP; in DRC and Côte d’Ivoire with France 24 Observers and AFP; in Guinea Conakry with the help of the Observers; in Ghana via the Dubawa platform, as well as in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon and Senegal, via the Africa Check organisation.
Fighting fake news through media literacy
However, these latest efforts by Facebook are not enough. According to a study conducted in 2020 on young Africans aged 18 to 24 from 14 countries by PSB Research, more than half of them do not trust the social network. They are even 67% to say that fake news has a negative impact on their ability to be informed. This is why “media education for young people is a real challenge on a continent where the population is getting younger and younger,” says William Bird.
In addition to informing and raising awareness of the dangers of misinformation, some of these fact-checking structures offer training for young citizens to sharpen their critical thinking skills and give them the keys to be well informed. In 2016, Media Monitoring Africa created the Web Rangers programme to enable teenagers aged 12 to 17 from disadvantaged areas of South Africa to develop their skills to recognise dubious information. Students from selected schools learn to multiply sources of information and are trained in the basics of fact-checking. They are then encouraged to run a campaign to raise awareness of better use of the internet and social networks within their school.
But the South African organization is not the only one to target young people. The Ivorian citizen movement Génération Innovante, which created the web radio WA FM to fight against misinformation on Whatsapp, also intervenes in some schools in the country. And to reach a wide audience that is used to getting information on social networks, it publishes educational video clips on Facebook, which dismantle the most popular fake news of the moment and provide advice on how to recognize them.
With the flood of information published every minute on the web, it has become essential to develop skills to assess its credibility: search for evidence, analysis of sources and assessment of the plausibility of arguments put forward. These are all tools that citizens must be able to use to be better informed.
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