By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica
It is probably true that African elections are not won on social media. Still, the same cannot be said of public opinion. There is evidence the dominant narrative on social media is influential. Sometimes, and increasingly so, the first anyone knows about a government policy is when it is announced on social media. American president Donald Trump is the archetypal example of this practice. Of course, and unfortunately so, what ‘trends’ on social media could also be false. Recently, for instance, it was falsely reported that Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, married two of his female cabinet minsters. And even now, despite the country’s secret service bringing the culprit to book, the false report is still widely believed.
Little wonder, African governments are increasingly concerned about social media and the influence it wields. Put another way, African governments are finding that they cannot easily control the media narrative as much as they would like or used to be able to. They are not taking the assault lying down. In Nigeria, a social media bill is in the works. It certainly does not help that Singapore, a paragon of development, has one already. In fact, in the Nigerian case, the draft social media bill reportedly takes a cue from the Singaporean law. To be sure, one is not suggesting that mischief-makers, and there are plenty of those on social media, should be given a carte blanche. But the risk of stifling free speech in the process is real and significant. What is to be done then?
Fake news predates social media
“Disinformation is as old as humanity. When the serpent told Eve that nothing would happen if she ate the apple, that was disinformation. But today, spreading lies has never been easier. On social media, there are no barriers to entry and there are no gatekeepers.” This exposition by former Time magazine managing editor & one-time American under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Richard Stengel, in his 2019 book, Information Wars: How we lost the global battle against disinformation & what we can do about it, highlights the longstanding use of disinformation or fake news for mischievous ends.
2019 Nobel prize joint-winners in economics and couple Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s Good Economics for Hard Times: Better answers to our biggest problems highlights the issue rather succinctly. Social media is not the problem. But social media magnifies the problem with relative ease. For instance, old media, not new or social media, motivated the genocide in Rwanda. Banerjee & Duflo assert “altogether, Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) propaganda is estimated to be responsible for 10 percent of the violence, or about fifty thousand Tutsi deaths.” The point is that propaganda & fake news predated social media with perhaps even more fatal consequences.
One concedes, however, that social media has made it easier for mischief-makers to practice their ugly art. Unsurprisingly, fake news and rumours are increasingly first planted on social media before germinating to old media. Fact-based journalism is undoubtedly under attack. Even when news is genuine, the brief format of many a social media platform and the seemingly unquenchable thirst of enthusiasts often means not much is read after the headlining tweet or Facebook/Instagram post. And once a tweet or other social media post goes viral, whether true or not, it is usually difficult for the original author to control the message thereafter.
Better information war strategies needed
Clearly nowadays, it does not take much to plant fake news and get it to permeate through social media with relative ease. Understandably, there is a growing call for regulation. Still, as it is very difficult to discern what is fake news or disinformation, regulation would hardly be a solution. Not without some creativity, at least. Because even when effective, regulating social media would almost certainly stifle free speech. Stengel acknowledges as much. Democracies, by their very nature, being as they thrive on openness to ideas, are not well-equipped to fight disinformation.
Put another way, fighting disinformation through classical regulation, which would probably require full censorship, would almost certainly push a government towards autocracy. And true to type, countries like China and Russia that have a relatively tight lid on disinformation today are autocracies. Incidentally, they are also the leading purveyors of disinformation towards geopolitical ends around the world. Simply put, as Stengel highlights, “in a democracy, government is singularly bad at combating disinformation.” So, should purveyors of falsehoods be allowed to continue going haywire, leaving immeasurable damage in their wake?
One of the first ideas Stengel mulled – to funnily much turf war-type resistance initially – at the American foreign ministry is already being implemented by many governments. But back then, it was a novelty; even for the United States. He suggested a digital hub of sorts, not as originator or author of content but an aggregator to “share, amplify and coordinate” American foreign policy and actions; which essentially involved retweeting and reposting news about the US state department’s activities each day. African governments, which already do this in one form or another, clearly do not think this is enough; in light of their quest for more stringent social media regulation. They are probably right about the limited reach of their current strategies. Even so, they would probably be more effective if they ascribed as much seriousness to the task as they do for old media institutions.
Stengel’s description of how Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) works provides insights into alternative but likely more effective strategies. “Every day, in two shifts, a few hundred young people spend their time writing blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, Vkontakte posts and much more…it is indeed a factory; they manufacture thousands upon thousands of pieces of pro-Russian, anti-American content a day.” Although the Russian IRA is owned by a businessman allied to the Russian government, every government should probably have an IRA-type outfit; much like most governments have their own news agencies and broadcasters.
The suggestion is not that a government-owned social media agency should engage in some of the negative activities Russia’s IRA is accused of. Still, such an agency would probably be the more appropriate public bulwark against the purveyors of fake news and disinformation on social media. It is certainly a better proposition than the potentially free-speech stifling social media regulations being proposed by some African governments and in fact already in practice in Singapore and elsewhere. That said, some regulation of social media has clearly become necessary. The key would be for any regulation to be geared towards incentivizing accurate news reportage. In other words, new media practitioners should be made to have as much fear of punishment as their counterparts in old media. To succeed, the active cooperation of big tech would be required. But would they choose to be part of the solution?
Make platforms liable for their content
Social media platforms are probably conflicted. That is, if you infer correctly from Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power, where she asserts “fake news and and other forms of information corruption have been perennial features of Google and Facebook’s online environments…[with]…countless examples of disinformation that survived and even thrived because it fulfilled economic imperatives”. Stengel corroborates this view: “The players in this conflict are assisted by the big social media platforms, which benefit just as much from the sharing of content that is false as content that is true.” Even more bluntly, Stengel asserts “popularity is the measure [social media platforms] care about, not accuracy or truthfulness.” Still, as Zuboff adds, “they [Facebook & others] absolutely have the tools to shut down fake news”. But they have to be willed to do so conscientiously. And there is evidence they do so when prompted by governments.
Still, in America, where most of the top global social media platforms are headquartered, there is limited incentive for them to combat disinformation. Their complacency stems from the United States’ Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 which provides immunity to social media platforms from being liable for published content. The part of particular interest in that American legislation reads thus: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Were this part of the legislation to be modified, it is well-known these platforms are perfectly capable of policing mischievous content with super efficiency. Thus, incentivising them via liability for disinformation might be ideal.
In practice, considering the robust political lobbying apparatus of American big tech firms, this would be a herculean task. But if African governments and others truly desire a curb on disinformation, it would not be untoward for them to be part of a global effort towards forcing the US Congress’ hand, via the United Nations perhaps – not that that has ever successfully forced the Americans to do anything they didn’t want to do – towards such a modification. Even so, Stengel sees a way to make changes to the legislation that may likely be acceptable to social media platforms: “One way to do this is to revise the language of the CDA to say that no platform that makes a good faith effort to fulfill its responsibility to delete harmful content and provide information to users about that content can be liable for the damage that it does.” Still, Stengel adds, “for all this to work, we need global privacy regulations, a universal definition of disinformation and legal consequences for purveying it.”
In any case, Singapore is pushing ahead with fighting fake news on its own; albeit it could be argued its intentions are not entirely altruistic. In November 2019, for instance, the Singaporean government ordered Facebook to issue a disclaimer (“Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information”) on a post by a local newspaper that it considered inaccurate. But how many of these orders can it issue? Its progress in this regard is likely to be incremental. A global effort, with America in the lead, under the auspices of the United Nations, would likely be more effective. In the absence of such a global coalition, hard-fought democratic gains around the world would be increasingly eroded; especially in the poor parts of the world, like Africa, where they are mostly needed.