Alagi Yorro Jallow
Fatoumatta: Fake news is so real and so pervasive that it already rings disturbingly familiar to real news. Fake news or junk news, or pseudo-news. It is the production and dissemination of false information meant to influence the direction of our people’s way of life by deluding anyone unsuspecting enough to swallow it. Counterfeit activists circulate real fake news, a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread and broadcast news media or online social media. Do not let fake news, slacktivism, and clicktivism fake you out!
To our thinking, it is a matter of championing a healthy democratic process in The Gambia, if nothing else protecting a healthy cash cow. The Gambian people can and should do much to rid their cyberspace of malicious fake news sites and social media platforms, ‘attention seeking activists,’ haters, and trolls. A fetid stream of garbage had diluted the quality of honest debates in our political climate in a time of post-truth discourse, in practice, undermines the intellectual values of our democracy. Bad for our emergent democracy. Fake news is doing great harm. Beware of Slacktivism, clicktivism, and fundamental social change.
Fatoumatta: Let us be honest with ourselves. Fake news is a problem, and something needs to be done about it. Fake news is a severe problem that has been known to have fatal consequences. Scores in India, Brazil, Mexico, and even the US have been killed in various incidents based on fake news. At home here, fake news has been used to incite and push anger, hate, and bigotry. We see messages on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. We either assume to be accurate or because they feed into whatever biases they have. We accept it as valid even if, deep down, we know better. Many send false publications and fake news on their timelines as if the message shared is authentic. They pretend they did not write or share the publication to absolve themselves of culpability if something goes wrong. We should be vigilant to know how to identify false information on social media and share incendiary videos that were fake news.
Fatoumatta: Let me use a more recent example. One of the defining false news on around social media recently is the posting on Facebook of stale news of April 7, 2014, Standard newspaper edition captioned “State OFFERS D.5 MILLION FOR RUNAWAY PA BOJANG,”; This lack of variety old information of disinformation and misinformation of deceiving Gambians by posting falsehood that Adama Barrow government has a misplaced priority of paying Mr. Pa Bojang of the colossal amount of 5 million Dalasis at the expense of Yahya Jammeh victims when the Standard publication posted was on about April 7, 2014. However, the story was about the Gambia government declaring Pa Bojang a fugitive and a bounty of 5 million dalasis on his head for his arrest. My heart broke every time I saw those misleading publications especially coming from people of gravitas. I prayed for them each time I saw them spreading fake news.
I can imagine many other people must have been so hurt and angry at what happened to such kind of falsehood. But guess what? That Standard photoshoot behind the Facebook post is fake! To say I was shocked that that story was fake would be understating it. My wife even joked that, so I had been wasting my prayers since. However, I kept asking, does someone sit behind a keyboard and concoct these fake stories? For what purpose? To incite? For clout and hits? So please let us be honest with ourselves and admit that fake news is a dangerous problem.
Furthermore, yes, something does need to be done about it. Although the Government’s regulation of social media is not a solution, should we try to engage in a politics of decency? No censorship of the internet cannot be the solution. Suppose we are not serious about facts and what is accurate and not actual. In that case, we have problems if we cannot discriminate between serious arguments, lies, misinformation, doublespeak, half-truth, and propaganda. Maybe the cure begins with a new challenge of civic education, common sense, and political maturity. Facebook, Facebook, posts, Facebook Live Show! WhatsApp forums, Social media has been drowning in fake news, increasingly serving the needs of authoritarians and their allies and power addict politicians. Social media, once seen as a profoundly democratic technology, activists of both sorts benefit from spreading falsehood about their opponents, ginning up panics about minority groups, and undermining people’s trust in the independent media.
Fatoumatta: In Gambian politics, during the dictatorship, and in our evolving democracy, social media is a perfect tool for this activity, often undermining political leaders and decent people. Social media and fake have rotting our democracy from within, enable so-called activists to undermine our democracy. A share of the fake news and misinformation was blamed on a sophisticated propaganda campaign by dishonest people. What role it played in the fight against dictatorship and our nascent democracy is unknown. Still, the risk it holds for democracy is clear.
Democracy relies significantly on the public is well enough informed to make wise decisions about its Government. Suppose those decisions are based on misinformation purposely created to skew the views of some portion of the electorate. In that case, self -Government begins to deteriorate. It is a scary thought, especially given some of the fake news spread in recent times: The fake news, fake, doctored videos circulating on social media. Who believes this stuff?
Fatoumatta: Sadly, there is an open market for the preposterous. It is not hard to find people who believe even the most absurd stories if they support their prejudices. The good news out of this is that, for people who want to, this pernicious trend is easy to counter.
First and foremost, is to pay attention to that nagging question in the back of the head. This only works for those who take time to think, but it is effective. Be doubtful, even -maybe especially, of timely information that supports your worldview. If something seems unlikely or too ‘good’ to be accurate, check it out.
Second, adopt the journalistic code and insist upon corroboration. If your mother says she loves you, get a second source—the difference between real and fake news. Professionals report the real news with a commitment to accuracy and objectivity. It is checked and edited. Time and money are put into the serious work of providing information that is factual and valuable. It is meant to inform, not to manipulate. It is a dangerous trend for any democracy that intends to sustain itself. Social media sites, especially Facebook and Twitter, need to combat a bad practice and the worst for the country.
Fake news is fake because it is untrue – usually deliberately so. It is not fake news because it is uncomfortable or because it is negative. Furthermore, that is my problem with the Government’s “shut it down at will” solution. A Government with a history of labeling any negative news as fake should not be the one regulating actual fake news on social media. A massive trust deficit exists between the citizens and the Government, so the citizens do not trust the Government to regulate social media to curb fake news honestly.
In contrast, the Government does not authorize the citizens to self-regulate without Government intervention. So we have an impasse. How do we break it?
First of all, whatever the citizens think of the Government, we need to realize that no responsible Government anywhere in the world can sit back and do nothing while fake news consumes us. “Do nothing” is neither an option nor a solution. I believe the answer lies in a collaborative effort between the citizens and the Government. First, citizens have to engage in exercising self-restraint and self-regulation on the sharing of unverified news. Citizens need to understand that fake news is as harmful as the number of times it is shared. In other words, when you do not know the source or cannot verify the source, please do not share it and do not write it.
However, you shared it. Moreover, that is how fake news spreads. I know this is easier said than done because this generation is obsessed with “likes” followers, clout, viral videos, etc. However, the reality is that if we do not self-regulate, the Government may have to regulate. So regulation has to happen one way or another. Either we do it, or the Government does it – we need to make a choice. Secondly, the Government needs to get tough on the purveyors of fake news. Figure out a way of tracing phony information to the source. One of my central beliefs is that those bad things repeatedly happen because of a lack of consequences. When the sources of fake news start facing the total weight of the law, maybe they will start to think twice. Where fake news is shown to be directly or indirectly responsible for any death or injury, the source should face a similar penalty to someone who directly or indirectly causes death or injury.
This is how you crack down on fake news by ensuring that there are consequences. Our law enforcement agencies need to be constantly trained on cyber activity or have specialist cyber activity divisions which deal with these issues. When we have this, coupled with constant engagement with citizen or youth groups, we will start to see a difference.
Fake news is a problem. Fixing it is something we all have to do together, both citizen and Government. Blaming the Government for fixing it is neither fair nor realistic – indeed, they cannot fold their arms and do nothing.
Fatoumatta: On the flip side, blaming the citizens and seeking to “shut it down at will” is neither fair nor realistic because the citizens do not trust the Government not to use that power to label any negative news as fake. Collaboration is how this gets resolved. Anything else will lead to a widening of the trust deficit that already exists. More importantly, Gambians must learn how to distinguish between what is real and fake news, misinformation, and propaganda at this crucial stage of our transition to democracy. It is very fragile. When people choose any candidate or party based on false information, they and the country that relies on them are being abused. That is dangerous to go unchallenged.
Alagi Yorro Jallow