As 2016 draws to a close one of the topical issues in the media arena has been fake news and its impact on shaping people’s perspectives on major issues.
The term fake news refers to hoaxes, satire, false news items, misinformation or propaganda published by websites that benefit from the traffic generated by their misleading headlines and articles.
In the United States, a country that has often been a test case on the effect of massive shifts in media, fake news has been cited by some observers as a possible contributor to the shock victory of Donald Trump while social media platforms like Facebook have been under pressure to deal with the scourge of false news items shared through its platform.
Social media has been a key driver in the rise of fake news largely due to the connectedness enabled by platforms where we can share everything. Before something is verified it’s plastered in a group where every interested individual shares it in other networks and on other platforms.
With media and information playing an important role in shaping perceptions and creating society’s understanding of important issues the impact of fake news is clearly a problem that can distort the way facts are delivered to people.
WhatsApp and Zimbabwe’s own fake news
Zimbabwe hasn’t been immune to the challenges of fake news. Other than the emergence of news platforms that rely on clickbait and a national affinity for news content there is also the impact of internet access being limited largely to social media.
With the cost of internet services still considered as being prohibitive by a lot of Zimbabweans, partial access is only possible through products like WhatsApp and Facebook bundles that offer monthly access for as little as US$3.
Unsurprisingly the leading drivers of broadband consumption for Zimbabweans are WhatsApp and Facebook which collectively account for over a third of data used.
This leaves these two services not only as communication services and platforms to connect but also as the primary drivers of any sort of information that is being shared whether true or false.
It’s no wonder then that viral content in Zimbabwe, however sensational, makes extensive rounds on the WhatsApp and Facebook circuit. Examples include stories on bond note releases (before their release), shortages of commodities, misinformation on road accidents and politically charged content.
Internet users be smart and beware
As far as the clampdown on fake news is concerned there isn’t much that can be done to stop satirical websites or media practitioners actively involved in fake news production.
At the same time, internet access isn’t going to be reviewed favourably overnight and net neutrality which impacts the prioritisation of services like WhatsApp isn’t going to be addressed straight away.
This means that millions of Zimbabweans will still share and consume whatever content is forwarded on WhatsApp without verifying it.
The best solution, for now, is to view every sort of outrageous and sensational bit of information sceptically. Those who can verify content should share the fact over the fiction as well, something that helps knock the wind out of fake articles.
At the same time, there’s also some responsibility that brands, large institutions and state bodies should assume. Having verified (and active) social media accounts which can be used as references points for facts that dispel false information helps create a faster response to misleading information that’s put out there.
More importantly, though, there should be less of a reliance on WhatsApp as a news centre no matter how tempting it might be.
As much as the shift towards faster news cycles and “citizen journalism” has disrupted what we now appreciate as the latest information, there are still a lot of sources of credible information that beat the most informative WhatsApp groups.