Fighting the Fake News Menace: Why Media Information Literacy is a Great Weapon

A decade ago, words like fake news, disinformation, misinformation, mal-information, were used sparingly if at all. Thanks to the internet and its numerous opportunities.  However,these words are now part of our everyday lives.

Fake news, according to Jaster and Lanius(2018), refers to news that does mischief with the truth in that it exhibits both (a) a lack of truth and (b) a lack of truthfulness. It exhibits a lack of truth in the sense that it is either false or misleading. It exhibits a lack of truthfulness in the sense that it is propagated with the intention to deceive its consumers. Disinformation is false information that is deliberately created and spread “in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth” and Mal-information is information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country (e.g. someone using a picture of a dead child refugee (with no context) in an effort to ignite hatred of a particular ethnic group they are against.Whereas the two strands of fake news are spread around with the intent to cause mischief, misinformation on the other hand is a false or inaccurate information that is mistakenly or inadvertently created or spread; the intent is not to deceive.

Fake news have become a hydra-headed dragon that many stakeholders are fighting hard to combat. Thanks to social media, today, many people share fake news stories knowingly and unknowingly. Even trained journalists sometimes ignorantly share news that is clearly fake even though a simple Google search could have saved them from embarrassing themselves.

Findings from a Standford University research on how fake news spreads indicated that the “more times a person is exposed to a piece of fake news, especially if it comes from an influential source, the more likely they are to become persuaded or infected”. The findings added that with fake news being much like a virus”, over time, “people being exposed to multiple strains of fake news can wear down their resistance and make them increasingly susceptible”. 

 What are some of the effects of fake news?

The impact of fake news reached its apogee in the 2016 US election where Russian bolts were believed to have played a role in influencing voter choice through the distribution of fake news.

Fake news creates fear and panic; it causes recipients of such information to arm themselves with it as a form of revenge. On October 30, 2016, a white supremacist Twitter account’s tweet received more national recognition than expected. The discredited news story linked Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign with a fictional human trafficking ring.

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Eventually, the theories and rumors landed on Comet Pizza in Washington, D.C., the place many believed to be where the allegations against Clinton and other professional politicians took place. Seeking a possible revenge, on December 4, 2016, a 28-year-old North Carolina man, Edgar Maddison Welch, walked into the Comet Pizza restaurant with an AR-15 rifle and fired three shots.Though no one was injured during the event, the effects of fake news became alarmingly evident.

A UN Fact-finding mission has established that the failure of Facebook to flag fake news which incites others to take up arms have led to ethnic cleansing among the Rohingya Muslims.

Columbia Journalism Review reports that about thirty (30) percent of news can be found on Facebook.

Unfortunately, the phenomenon keeps gaining momentum and for several reasons. Two of the reasons  are the unrelenting work of FAKEPRENUERS who intentionally spread fake news for business purposes and , people with limited or lack of the required knowledge or expertise to verify a story or information they receive before it is shared.

Others too share misinformation particulalary on social media in order to achieve fake brittle popularity or to boon their ego.

Information, they say, is an expensive commodity. And so is ignorance. Again if an informed citizen is an empowered citizen, the reverse is also true. This is why it is important for every society to have media literate citizens.

The ability to analyze, create, access and evaluate information using all forms of media is what makes a citizen media literate. Media literacy helps to arm citizens with tools and information needed for critical thinking and responsible use and generation of content.

In the wake of it all, WHO has coined another word: “infodemic” — an overabundance of information and the rapid spread of misleading or fabricated news, images, and videos. Like the virus, the WHO said it is highly contagious and grows exponentially. It also complicates COVID-19 pandemic response efforts.Experts say this has been excerbatede by digital divide which makes it difficult for people to have unlimited access to information and validate them. The infodemic associated with the pandemic brought to the fore, what the  world has placed less value on, verification. Verification is a process that takes newsworthy informationand checks its credibility and reliability before it is published or broadcast as news.

The world celebrates Global Media and Information Literacy Week every year to drum home the importance of media literate citizens to a society.

Celebrating it on the theme, “Resisting Disinfodemic; Media and Information Literacy for Everyone and by Everyone”, this year’s information literacy week underscores how important it is for all citizens to have knowledge in media and information literacy in order to appreciate the value of the information at their disposal.

In Ghana, even though there is still more to do to fight disinformation, it is equally laudable to see efforts being put in place to establish research and fact-checking desks in some newsrooms. Other fulltime fact-checking institutes such as Fact-check Ghana, Dubawa and Ghana Facts have also been established to help fight fake news.

Going Forward

As we mark another year of MIL, citizens are encouraged to fact check every information that comes their way by verifying from trusted sources of information. This is also the time for stakeholdersto consider Media Literacy as course of study in schools right from the basic level to increase resiliency to disinformation. Among other strategies, citizens should consider the following tips when consuming news on the internet as recommended by Elon University’s Jonathan Albright : Think before you share, read the entire piece before you decide whether or not to share,verify an unlikely story, rethink your news diet, expand your information network to include diverse perspectives from quality sources.

Aside seeking to validate every information received, citizens must not forget the old adage that “ not all things seen on the internet is to be believed”.

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