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Dealing with fake, hate news in the digital age

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Mrs. Bimbo Oloyede

Political, technological, economic and social transformations are reshaping the communications landscape and raising many questions about the quality, impact and credibility of journalism. The information ecology is being contaminated by what has been described as orchestrated campaigns to spread untruths via disinformation.

This disruption is accompanied by manipulation of half-truths via mal-information, and by the unwitting sharing of misinformation.

Unchecked and even untrue facts and news are often inadvertently spread by citizens; the mutation of that news into misinformation has been as contagious as coronavirus.

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While some governments are seeking to tackle the problems through regulation, it is unlikely that this can resolve the matter at scale. Moreover, it carries major risks of abuse, where legitimate freedom of expression and authentic journalism can become subject to new censorship.

The United Nations Educational Scientific Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) is fighting back against disinformation and misinformation, in cooperation with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Recently, United Nations in Nigeria launched #Takecarebeforeyoushare campaign where it argued, “for all its benefits, social media has become a vehicle for misinformation. Stories are skewed, quotes are misremembered, and facts are twisted. Misinformation is disrupting our politics, our economy and our health. With the current pandemic, it can even be deadly. Cleverly designed to hijack our emotions, exploit our biases, play to our weaknesses-misinformation is everywhere.

“Whether we know it or not, we’ve all shared it, and because it comes from us, the people we share it believe it.
Misinformation is even making it harder to tackle the world’s most pressing issues. The climate emerging, the pandemic, the struggle for racial justice. We humans are hardwired to be connected — We want to share things with one another. Now in the age of social media, we are sharing more and more. All it takes is a click and we’ve shared something with the world. These tidbits of information can spread like wildfire, and a small share can have big consequences.”

The United Nations insisted that to find a solution, “we need to work together. We can’t wait for technology companies, we must all act now to break the chain and stop misinformation. However, there is something we can all do. Pause. The simple act of pausing triggers a moment of critical thinking. Pause and take care before you share.”

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In order to address fake news and hate speech brought about by citizen journalism and social media, a webinar with the theme, ‘Citizen vs. Civic journalism: Dealing with fake and hate news in the digital age’, recently held.

Speaking at the virtual conference anchored by communications consultant, Richard Landau and Executive Director, African News Centre, Ola Adebayo, media practitioners expressed concern over the damage citizen journalism and social media have caused modern discourse, insisting that it behooves on journalists in the mainstream media to change the narrative.

Veteran journalist, Bimbo Oloyede and Toronto-based writer, Susan Ponting have restated the need for journalists to ensure information is properly checked before going to press. They also noted that social media has led to misinformation and disinformation, which has misled many people.

In her speech contribution to the discussion, Oloyede stressed: “My problem with citizen journalism is that there is a freedom that is almost too much. There is a responsibility that goes with information that many people don’t have. Everybody has access to information, now and in fact, we can say everybody is now a journalist except that we know that it is not quite true. They don’t have the training and knowledge and I agree that it is important for all news organisations to gather as much information as possible but we have to be very careful and ensure that what we are collecting and disseminating is actually as close to the truth as possible.”

Continuing, she added, “citizen journalism has led to the emergence of fake news but civic journalism focuses on real issues. It chases substance and not shadows. Civic journalism embraces the traditional approach to journalism, to promote the dissemination of information about specific community issues particularly political and social issues. It increases public awareness, encourages responsible public engagement. Recently, it was reported on social media that some of the Chibok girls that were kidnapped have been released. One online medium then decided to interview the new Chief of Army staff and he responded that he was not aware if any army officer has been involved to facilitate the release of the girls. He also said he was not aware of any parents giving any indication that the girls have been reunited with their parents. So we have been boxed into a corner and each time we see stories on social media, we have to be a little bit cautious.”

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Susan Ponting, on her part, expressed her reservations: “Being in this business for so long, I am skeptical about a lot of stories. Citizen journalism emerged in my career 20 years ago and it wasn’t looked at as a positive thing. Twenty-five years ago, I wrote a newspaper story about the Catholic Church involved in some things. But my editor wouldn’t publish it and I asked why? He replied that there were many Catholics in Canada than anywhere else. Recently, a pastor’s wife arrived Canada and she was taken away from the airport in a van. Many citizen journalists were there. The story wasn’t picked up by major media in Canada but by other citizen journalists and it turned out to be one big giant mistake. It was framed that the pastor’s wife had been kidnapped by the government!”

Quoting Publisher of Washington Post, Kathryn Graham, during the Watergate scandal in the 70s, Oloyede argued that the power of media to set the agenda. “What we print and what we don’t print matters a lot. It matters because as journalists, we are professionals. It also matters because we are gatekeepers of information. And because of that, we have to be truthful and accurate. We should not manipulate public sentiments. We should make efforts to tell all sides of the story and we also need to exhibit fair coverage because civic journalism focuses on real issues. It chases substance and not shadows.’ She said.

On the positive side of social media, Ponting noted that without social media, “we wouldn’t know for instance that the British police, during a G20 summit killed a guy working in a magazine, he was just leaving his job and they attacked him from behind.” Similarly, Oloyede agreed, social media has been very misleading in many instances, but “that is not to say that it does not have its advantages but we have to be careful.”

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Ponting said: “Its about weighing a lot of information and taking time to get the stories right and pick out the truth and present them. It’s getting more and more difficult. I take concerted effort to hear more than one voice on all sides of the equation. With so much information coming from everywhere, I think what we need to do as journalists and writers is that we must investigate the stories. Journalists must follow code of ethics and the younger generation must also learn from the older generation about the standards and procedures of telling stories.”

Oloyede, however, submitted, “definitely, news has become more entertaining because of more access to information through social media. And I don’t take away from the fact that news is drama and drama is entertainment.

“We have to be truthful and accurate. We should not manipulate public sentiments. We should make efforts to tell all sides of the story and we also need to exhibit fair coverage. We have to protect people’s sensibilities.

“The fact that something has happened does not mean all the gory details must be feasible. In as much as it is news or information, we must not forget that we are talking about human beings. Citizen journalism has its place, but I think there must be a compromise, I think the way forward is journalism of the people, for the people and by the people. We are supposed to give out the information and let people make up their minds. The media is not expected to tell you what to think but what to think about the basic 5 W’s and H must be present in stories. Although the story may not be true but it gives us something to investigate.”

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