There was a time when legacy media was the go-to platform for information. Audiences could wait for a news bulletin or next day’s newspaper to confirm national developments or even global events.
But today, with the proliferation of digital platforms, content is everywhere. And audiences can sometimes access it without verifying information.
We are living in an era where journalism is facing an acid test insofar as trust is concerned. The digital craze has presented a challenge to traditional media, and a huge number of audiences access news through social media, search engines, and mobile aggregators.
According to the Digital News Report by Reuters, audiences pay more attention to celebrities, influencers, and social media personalities compared to journalists on digital platforms like TikTok and Instagram. This makes it difficult to control fake news.
Because some influencers care more about the number of followers they have and hits, they post anything. This has made it impossible to control misinformation and disinformation. But this has been attributed largely to the decline in trust in news due to a number of reasons — bias and failure to understand audience needs, among them of them.
However, according to research, fake news spreads six times faster than real information.
In Zimbabwe, a heavily polarised country where media outlets report differently even on the same events, it’s not surprising that trust in news has significantly depreciated. Coupled with other factors like circulation decline and falling revenues, local media finds itself in a precarious situation that can only be saved by good journalism.
Of course, fake news has existed since time immemorial, but the advent of digital media technologies has amplified the challenge to an unimaginable degree. The last half decade can be blatantly called the decade of fake news, with established media stables contributing to that crisis.
Now that Twitter has introduced payments for impressions, we are likely to see a surge in fake news, particularly in the African market, where monitoring mechanisms and laws have not been strengthened.
Why fake news?
While things are not as always as they seem, people spread fake news for different reasons. Most of the unauthenticated Web sites in Zimbabwe pretending to be news publishers share fake news to generate more traffic with the aim of generating more revenue. Some do it for popularity, while others are just attention seekers. Some could be coordinated efforts to shift an audience’s attention from current important issues to trivial currency.
However, it is interesting to note that most prevalent sources of fake news are our favourite social media platforms, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. This is mainly because these can be low-cost distribution channels where bogus misinformation spreads like wildfire throughout the Internet once posted.
Democracies are strengthened by the quality of information consumed. It is from this information that progressive decisions are made and adopted by citizens and authoritative structures. Thus information becomes a vital parameter for decision making; therefore, this can make or break a nation and society.
The Iraq and Libya wars were justified based on fake news, and today millions are suffering. With the current election mode motion in the country, fake news has become the order of the day. In Zimbabwe, it’s known that official results are announced by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), but if you scan through social media, people are designating themselves as the electoral body.
Misinformation and disinformation represents a range of serious issues that can be part of distortions on electoral processes and incitements to violence, and can fuel dangerous conspiracy theories.
Information gaps and media literacy
Much as we express displeasure on fake news, we need to accept the reality that fake news agents take advantage of information gaps that have been left void either by media or institutions that are authentic sources of information.
In this digital era where people look at their mobile phones countless times during the day, it is depressing to observe many institutions do not have information readily available on their digital platforms.
What to do
There are many things individuals can do and that newsrooms can do to help combat these problems.
• Consider the source: Investigate news sources and evaluate their mission and contact information.
• Check the author: A quick search on the author will help authenticate a piece of news. This will answer whether it is credible or not.
• Undergo fact checking: Many newsrooms are introducing desks specifically designed to concentrate on fact-checking. Every piece of information has to be verified before public consumption.