The age of Fake News Syndrome
“A lie can run around the world before the truth has got its shoes on”. –Jonathan Swift.
In the digital age in which we live, this statement made around the 17th century has become a self-fulfilling prophesy. I am Nigerian. During the more recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa between 2015 and 2017, I have had to, as do many others, rely on the often-overblown social media accounts of these attacks, to frame my judgments about South Africa and South Africans.
Incidentally, and as fate may have it, I came to South Africa last year to begin my doctoral studies at the University of Cape Town. I came with my baggage of fears, doubts, insecurities and preconceived notions. However, my experience of xenophobia has now taken a different turn. I found that there are many sides to this story. I found that I may have been unwittingly fed the single stories of these attacks. I found that as a focused postgrad student or academic in South Africa, you can live in peace and enjoy amazing opportunities. I found that there are young Nigerian men, especially those who live and do illegal businesses here, top of which is drug dealing. I learnt that it takes two to tango. I observed that Nigerians were also not the only nationals being targeted by xenophobia; many other black African nationals are. I found out that the videos and images we see on social media were sometimes often fake, and were not actually videos emanating from SA but from elsewhere in Africa where there was violence.
About three weeks ago, I woke up to the news that parents and guardians in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria where I come from, had been thrown into panic attack, following news that went viral on social media that their children were being injected with some poisonous substance by agents of Nigerian military. Schools and cities were thrown into a horrible pandemonium as parents began to withdraw their children from schools. This went on for over a week until the government not just cleared the air but took steps to restore normalcy, trust and peace in the areas affected. It turned out the military force was carrying out some well-thought-out PR activity, the first time ever in decades. How did this happen? Someone, somewhere triggered a false alarm on social media and apparently whipped up some ethnic sentiments and people went bananas.
Fake news syndrome. Fake news syndrome is a phenomenon which became a scholarly concept in critique of media landscape, from 2016 as a result of the controversies which trailed the recent US Presidential election and other political events in Europe. We haven’t forgotten how fake news surreptitiously favoured Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton and the subsequent rise of populism and post-truth in democratic contexts in different parts of the world. Contexts in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotions. Of course, fake news in whatever platform they emerge, are often emotionalised and satirised. However, although the concept seems new given its use in public discourse and media commentary in recent times, the notion of fake news has been there from earliest times during which period satirical television news were popular in various climes.
Today, the term is being used to describe: completely fabricated information, deceptive content, as well as distortion of news reports across online spaces particularly; pushed out by Internet trolls with vested interests. Indeed, the digital era and the resultant ubiquitous nature of technology has exacerbated the syndrome of fake news. Facebook and Twitter and other bogus web and news sites have risen in their popularity for pushing the syndrome and thereby raising moral panics about the impact of this phenomenon on society, democracies and even businesses. Dictionary.com announced a couple of weeks ago that the term will soon find its deserved place in the dictionary. In the age of social media, fake news has become both a thing news media and society celebrate and perpetuate. On the Internet, “everything seems to be true”, and there is an increasing “rise of alternative facts”. Thanks also to absence of fact-checking mechanisms and editorial filters on social media.
Let’s look at culpability. In understanding where the pendulum for blame for fake news syndrome should swing, I propose we look at three places: the media itself, Internet trolls and society itself. On the side of the media, the argument from time immemorial has been that the media of this century has become highly compromised, having become market-driven in nature. The commercialised and highly profit-driven media of this century aims for sensational content that commodify audiences in a bid to garner high patronage and views. I recall here the stinging statement Tony Blair made on the eve of his departure as a ten-year old Prime Minister of Great Britain about the media of this century:
The changing context in which communication takes place in the 21st century, has led to a more intense form of competition. The result is a media that is increasingly and to a dangerous degree driven by impact. Impact is all that matters. It is all that can distinguish, can arise above the clamour, and can get noticed.
Second is Internet trolls. Trolls are online mischief-makers who incite fights, arguments and even online bullying by making inflammatory posts and comments often employing emotionalism and sensational appeal. Though trolls are sometimes agreed to make these extraneous posts for their own amusement, findings have further noted that a higher aim is linked to these individuals’ perverse psychological masturbations in which they derive some level of joy in upsetting other people. Trolls use fake Twitter and Facebook accounts, photoshopped images and bogus videos to perpetuate their aim and enterprises. Sadly, some mainstream media, in a bid to make “impact”, give these fake reports the time of day in their pages and airwaves, amassing wide social media views, likes, followership and popularity.
And then there is the society itself. In a research I conducted in 2013 and subsequently published in a journal, I argued that there is an often-forgotten side of the story: people love sensational, emotionalised news. As Jon Stewart whom I cited said:
Sensational stories are the junk food of our news diet, the ice cream sundae that you eagerly gobble up. You know it’s bad for you but it’s delicious. And you can always have a salad tomorrow. It’s the same with news… And despite what high-minded critics might say, there’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, an interest in the sensational seems to be, if nothing else, an all-too human quality.
A justifiable question then arises: if news organisations aim to please their audiences and simply respond to their needs, what exactly urges the members of the public to favour gossip, violence and destruction over serious news? The uses and gratifications theory researchers have proven that there is a strong correlation between the gratifications the audience members seek and those that they actually receive. What this theory basically proves is that, given that the media industry now operates in ways similar to those of every other profit-seeking business, the laws of demand and supply can be applied to the news organisations in terms of journalists catering to the needs of the public, and thus providing material that will certainly be consumed.
In conclusion, what then must be done to help us survive the tide and impacts of FNS? The answer is I Do Not Know. I haven’t quite figured a way out of this myself. Businesses, newsrooms and society in general must map out unique and diverse strategies to address the problem. But I think that awareness is key; awareness of the practices, mechanisms and dimensions of FNS. Awareness means that we must initiate these conversations in our various spaces and spheres of influence. I imagine that sequel to “awareness”, there is need for certain literacies such as: media literacy, digital literacy and news literacy. You know, the 21st-century skills and competencies that are needed for living and working in media- and information-rich societies.
Just as we learnt the 5 Ws & H of a News Story years back, we must now of necessity begin to learn and to teach others the 5 Ws & H of Fake News. According to US News Literacy Project, these are: Who wrote the article (any byline or author?); What is the publication (credible or trusted news source?); Where do the sources come from (named, absent, legit?); When was it published? (missing date could raise a flag); Why did the writer write it (the motivations, is it shareworthy?); and How did it make you feel (angry, excited, strong emotions?).
The impacts of FNS may be more dangerously felt in developing countries in future years. Because, the fastest growing markets for social media companies remain in these developing climes, and because digital literacy is low in these countries including African countries, that is the more reason we should be more worried. I propose, and I believe, that building news literacy into schools, institutions and organisations, can help the public fight all shades and forms of misinformation including the syndrome of fake news.
I end with these powerful words by Neil Postman in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death”: When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.
I guess we must now choose between amusing ourselves and preventing a culture-death. The choice is pretty much ours.
Chikezie Uzuegbunam is a PhD scholar at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa. Before his temporary relocation to South Africa, he was a lecturer at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka in Nigeria.