Internet technologies have revolutionised communication and completely altered the media landscape. They have widened accessibility and transferred the power of discussion to the people. Social networking has become a major aspect of social life, interpersonal relations, political campaigns, and business transactions in the country.
Despite their potential to democratise access to and use of the media, they have also added to the crisis of public communication leading to fake news and hate speech. Fake news and hate speech heat up the polity and threaten democratic governance.
Fake news results in fear and tension which jeopardises public peace and security. People have risen against one another, ethnic groups against themselves and regions against regions because of fake news peddled through platforms by people with different motives.
The 1994 Rwandan genocide was said to be caused by hate speech peddled by one ethnic group against another. According to the United Nations Educational and Scientific Organisation (UNESCO), “fake news has no straight forward or commonly understood meaning because news means verifiable information in the public interest, and information that does not meet these standards does not deserve the label of news. In this sense then, ‘fake news’ is an oxymoron, which lends itself to undermining the credibility of information which does indeed meet the threshold of verifiability and public interest, that is real news.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Secretary-General encouraged people everywhere to take a breath before sharing content online. The campaign was based on research which indicates that taking a brief pause before sharing information can significantly lessen the inclination to share shocking or emotive material, and slow the spread of misinformation.
Head of the UN’s Department for Global Communications, Melissa Fleming, said COVID-19 is not just a health crisis, but a communications emergency as well. She observed that when misinformation spreads, the public loses trust and too often makes decisions that hamper public response and even their own lives.
Although disinformation is not new, modern-day digital tools and social media platforms have allowed maliciously incorrect information to spread widely, before false facts can be challenged and removed.
In Nigeria, politicians have increasingly turned to social media like Twitter, Facebook, whattsapp, instagram to enhance their visibility and communication with the electorates, especially the younger generation. It is no surprise then that the battle to win followers and sway them from opposition was increasingly sought on social media platforms.
In the process, fake news, hate speech, misinformation, disinformation and other negative communication dominated the social media landscape. Thus, the need for solutions to the negative effects becomes more imperative.
At the UN Human Rights Council meeting recently, member states adopted a plan of action to tackle disinformation at the request of Ukraine. Officially sponsored by Ukraine, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the UK and US, the draft resolution presented to the Geneva forum emphasised the primary role that governments have, in countering false narratives.
It notes with concern, “the increasing and far-reaching negative impact on the enjoyment and realisation of human rights of the deliberate creation and dissemination of false or manipulated information intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either to cause harm or for personal, political or financial gain.”
On May 21, 2020, the United Nations launched “Verified”, an initiative to combat the growing scourge of COVID-19 misinformation by increasing the volume and reach of trusted, accurate information. The campaign, though borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic, is adaptable for other thematic areas. It requires everyone to consider the five W’s before sharing contents online. That is, Who made it? What is the source of information? Where did it come from? Why are you sharing it? When was it published?
In a recent publication by Media Awareness and Information for All Network (MAIN), with the support of UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC), media workers were advised “to be aware of the power inherent in the use of the media, both old and new. They should be sensitive to the subtle nuances in the words and images they employ in conveying their messages or those used by others. Words and images do not just contain information; they convey meanings which may cut deeper than intended, especially when disseminated by mass media with their extensive reach. The interpretations and meanings audiences draw from what they encounter in the media have consequences in the type of action they take or support their views and perspectives of others and the society in general.”
Authored by National Information Officer, United Nations Information Centre (UNIC), Dr. Oluseyi Soremekun and Lecturers at Lagos State University (LASU), Dr. Jide Jimoh and Prof. Lai Oso, the writers categorised fake news in form of satire, hoax, propaganda, trolling, disinformation, misinformation and mal-information.
In assessing if content is false or not, they stressed the need for journalists to access information from multiple sources, carry out proper check using fact checking sites.
They suggested the CRAAP test— Currency, Relevance,Accuracy, Authority and Purpose could be applied. That is, the timeliness, importance, source and reliability of the information.
In countering hate speech, the authors stressed the need for objective, fair, truthful, balanced and accurate reports. They also urged journalists to avoid ethnic slurs, stereotyping and carefully select languages to give accurate representations.
They harped on the need to be sensitive to the sensibilities of various ethnic nationalities; avoid use of negative descriptions and be emphatic in reporting.
For unsubstantiated allegations, the communication scholars insisted that information must be from multiple sources, adding that, “When in doubt, check, when still in doubt, leave out.” They advocated social responsibility, saying all sides of stories must be presented.
The authors insisted proclamations that foster provocative and divisive tendencies must be avoided and expressions that promote national cohesion, peace building, and positive intergroup relations must be embraced.
Concerning provocative, derogatory and divisive expressions, they said journalists must avoid emotive words, must be accurate and precise, avoid language that misrepresent and offend sensibility of various nationalities, religious groups and interest.
On issues relating to incitement to hatred, they stressed the need to understand individual and group differences in society; be sensitive to their aspirations, peculiarities and sensibilities adding that sectionalism of any group’s aims, objectives and aspiration must not be promoted above the collective will of others in the society.
In addition, the authors said reports should be conflict-sensitive and reflect unity in diversity. Expressions or language that can promote or incite violence against any group must be avoided; contents must provide balanced views of various groups, data used for contents must be presented using a peace building lens.
Other suggestions are, seeking voices that promote harmony and peace building in report; peace building and national harmony cohesion should be emphasised early in programme and news planning; contents must be designed specifically to promote peace, national cohesion and must emphasise issues that bind the nation; promotion of newsroom diversity; consciousness of national security because without peace, journalists may not be able to practice their profession.
They insisted that journalists must understand the nature of satires and innuendoes; avoid use of derogatory images; take cognisance of possible misinterpretation of satires; carefully choose words in a context understandable to the audience; satires and innuendoes promoting religious prejudice, bigotry and other divisive tendencies must be avoided and respect for traditional and cultural institutions must be observed.