Fake News: Is It Just Hype Or Should We Be Worried?

In the past, I used to look forward to reading the newspapers on April Fools’ Day. The goal was to identify the Fools’ Day story that the papers had published. This was fun! Trying to see how plausible a story was and identifying the outrageous component that proved it fake.

In the past year, especially in the aftermath of the US Presidential elections, fake news has become an issue of concern for many.

As Kenyans prepare for elections later this year, it is imperative that journalists, techies and netizens reflect on the issue in the local context. This was the focus of this month’s Hacks/Hackers Nairobi meet-up, with a panel of media & tech specialists: Nanjira Sambuli, (The World Wide Web Foundation), Rose Lukalo-Owino (Media Policy Research Centre), Jessica Musila (MzalendoEsther Wandia (The Star newspaper) and Catherine Gicheru (Code for Kenya).

To kick off the session, the participants shared examples of stories that raised question marks that they had identified in the local media. The examples listed were not necessarily tied to political/electoral news, they included sports, entertainment and science news. As Rose Lukalo-Owino says: “Fake news has always existed. This is the reason for the existence for our [journalism] code of ethics.”

As a participant noted, the channels of news distribution have increased thus making it easier to share fake news. Thanks to the existence of digital technologies, we now have numerous platforms to create and distribute content.

There were many questions that arose during the discussion with regards to journalism ethics and who should be held responsible for the sharing of fake news? Is the rush to scoop citizen journalists breaking news on social media contributing to the increase in fake stories in mainstream media?

It was also noted that at times half-truths are reported or stories end up with misleading headlines. Surprisingly, even in the age of cross-media ownership, the different news entities under the same media house could end up sharing different versions of truth about an event.

In this election, the youth are the bulk of voters and they consume and share news through social media. Thus, it is important to ensure that information they receive is accurate.

So how do we address fake news in our context? Suggestions that emerged include:

  • Embedding a culture of fact-checking in our newsrooms.

  • Using technology - algorithms to address the problem of fake news. However, questions on whether these would address local contexts came up.

  • The consumers of news were urged to:_ scrutinize information before sharing _and to ask: “who is the source of this information?” before sharing on social media.
  • We all need to be better information consumers and call out purveyors of lies and half-truths.

So it is up to all of us to shout out loud when we see outright lies or slanted truths in the media that could lead us down a scary path as we edge closer to the General Elections.

The media and all other content producers, both offline and online, need to be cognizant that what they publish could influence their audiences. So indeed, we should worry about whole lies and half-truths.

This post was originally published on Hacks/Hackers Africa

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