One of the biggest media phenomena coming out of 2016 is the rapid rise of fake news, to a large extent propelled by the recent American elections.
For those not familiar with this, fake news takes the form of entirely false information or half-truths posing as a genuine account of events. Closer to home, we witnessed the Chase Bank run that was allegedly exacerbated by panicky social media reports.
What many may not realise is that fake news is nothing new; we have been drowning in a sea of false information, distorting things to suit partisan agendas. This did not arrive with Trump or Brexit.
The differentiating factor is the media landscape we now live in. The internet has put the spread of news and information on steroids and we are hopelessly entangled in a rat race of who gets the headline out first.
Add to that a shaky belief system, where people rarely question what they read on the internet, and you cannot ask for a better breeding ground for fake news.
RESPOND TO FAKE NEWS
The sensational form that fake news takes makes it appealing. Research has shown that people respond more to fake news than accurate accounts of events. Put this fact in the context of the internet, and especially social media, and you can see why fake news has become pervasive.
Fake news and misinformation have for centuries played a role in every conflict that is fuelled by an “us-versus-them” narrative.
In a country as ethnically charged as Kenya, this becomes a dangerous thing when such narratives are used to mobilise people towards ends much worse than what we saw in 2007/2008 after the elections.
The same forces that saw the media fail to educate the US electorate could end up being replicated in Kenya in 2017. If fake news can affect the way voters think, it is a threat to democracy.
The structures of today’s connected media ecosystem encourage separation and lack of diversity in views and, each time we use them, that rift grows a little wider. Do not be surprised when you go through your Facebook feed and only see one-sided views.
We live in an era of post-truth politics that exists alongside a 24-hour news cycle, diminishing trust in institutions and an ever-increasing velocity of social networked spaces. This reality makes the task of identifying information that is tainted, incomplete or manipulative almost impossible.
Former British prime minister Winston Churchill was famously quoted as saying that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”.
Many fact-checkers that I have talked to say they have realised that their work rarely has dramatic impact. People rarely change their views when confronted with the facts.
The best that can be done in this case is to try as much as possible to inhibit political lying, to nip things in the bud, which is why I think fact checking helps. I would like to think that being seen as a compulsive liar is not something most politicians want. Otherwise, there would be no political cost to lying in a country where “you would rather die than resign”.
A big problem here is that the internet has broken down the traditional distinction between news gathering and amateur rumour-mongering.
Some may say that the cure for fake journalism is an overwhelming dose of good journalism. I wish that were true but it simply shows that they do not understand media consumption. People rarely seek out the truth and, among those who do, not enough of them may trust it to inform their political decisions, let alone change them.
I believe it will take the effort of everyone — journalists, readers, technologists — to make it happen.
Mr Madung’ is data science lead at Odipodev. [email protected]