[Updated] With Elections On The Horizon Watch Out For The Fake News Storm That Is Coming

Farai Mudzingwa Avatar
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As we edge closer and closer to the elections this coming Monday, it seems one of the major concerns that people will have is how they can get a reliable stream of information. It’s certain there will be an increase in politically inclined fake news meant to influence people’s vote and even just to cause unrest.

Why do I make this claim? There have already been a number of inaccurate stories being spread on the internet and recently the Governor of Zimbabwe’s central bank (RBZ) actually had to make a statement warning the public of the devastating impact of these false stories.

Why use ‘fake-news’ to win votes or incite?

This is a simple one. Because. It. Works. People believe that things they read on the internet are written by all-seeing, high and mighty beings who would never dare spread misinformation.

The only problem with that is, that’s not exactly how it works. You, yes you who is reading this post could start your own blog (right now) and start writing whatever you want about whoever you want and the chance of any accountability, if you are spreading falsehoods, is very unlikely. Because of the way people religiously follow anything and everything they see on the internet it makes it very easy to spread falsehoods about key political figures or the parties themselves.

Why is it hard so to regulate this stuff?

The biggest problem with fake news is something we have already stated above. Anyone can build up these stories and before you know it they gain traction.

We saw a perfect illustration of the effects of fake news in November: A message started spreading that there would be shortages of household commodities such as cooking oil and other food items. This message sparked a shopping frenzy as people tried to hoard as much as they could before this ‘shortage’ came into effect. A few days later we all realised there was no shortage on the horizon but it was too late. Stocks in shops had already been plundered and this bout of fake news actually had an adverse effect on the economy.

Similarly, with elections, this is how it will work. People will be driven into a panic and they will respond instinctively.

Secondly, it’s hard to regulate this stuff because it’s almost impossible to trace who the sources are. Sometimes the fake news may not even originate from the party that stands to benefit but from an external supporter of the party. It may also originate from one party trying to tarnish another party’s image before the elections. The only problem is it’s almost impossible to know where these stories originate.

Which Countries Elections Have Been Affected By Fake News?

In Africa, Sierra Leone’s election seems to have been affected by fake news. A few days before elections in the Western African country news was spread that UN peacekeepers were about to be deployed. The rumour was being spread along with some out-dated photos and they were spreading across Whatsapp throughout Sierra Leone.

It’s reported that news such as this was a constant feature of the Sierra Leone elections and some feel the outcome of the election may have been decided by fake news.

Italy also made efforts to fight misinformation as they approached their general election (in March). It’s reported that in November two ‘explosive’ stories had begun circulating and these stories gained mileage as they could be used to influence the coming elections. One website reports:

What the stories had in common was the potential to cause turmoil in an already raucous political debate—one defined in part by anti-immigrant and anti-establishment sentiment—ahead of the country’s March 4 general election. Another thing? They were both fabricated, and it’s not clear by whom.

In a poll from last year, a list of countries who are most worried about fake news was compiled and in this list was countries such as Brazil and France. These are just but a few examples of countries were politically inclined fake news increased as the country approached elections. Brace yourselves…

How to avoid the fake news storm…

This is the most important part of the equation. How can you dodge the ‘fake news’ that will be coming your way?

Well, it’s tricky because the way fake news works means once it’s started spreading on Whatsapp, people begin to talk about it and once it starts spreading via word of mouth that’s a sign of something that has already spun out of control. On platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, when you see theories around the elections consider:

  • How popular that source is.
  • Their track record with other stories
  • A simple glance on a users’ profile may actually help you in discovering who is bogus and who isn’t
  • Don’t share until you have verified

If you receive any news (especially shocking news!) on platforms such as Whatsapp or Facebook/Twitter, make sure you verify how accurate these stories are before you start spreading them. I would like to encourage readers to resist the urge to be the one who broke the news first. A lot of times breaking the news in groups on Whatsapp comes with a lot of recognition but I think it’s more important to inform people correctly.

If you don’t consume any news on social media but instead you read from physical papers and online publications you can check out sites that offer more reliable and accurate news, one of which is Pindula (wink-wink). A constant question that is raised is, “how do I know which sites are actually offering reliable news?” Well, there’s no list that is set in stone but one good way of verifying news before you share is to at least check if a number of sites are reporting a similar story, especially in the case of seemingly huge stories. If a number of publications are running with it there’s a high chance that it’s accurate.

[This article has been updated]

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