Here’s what you need to know about disinformation

Fake news

Fake news can discredit the press directly by accusing them of bias, complicity, and incompetence.

Photo credit: File

As opposed to the past, disinformation is now targeted. Now you can find specific narratives being shared, and for most times they easily align with the things that are happening.  With bots, which are automated accounts that are used for spamming and increasing amplifications on certain topics, they could be set in a way that they retweet conversations on certain narratives or follow certain accounts. To understand the matter better, we spoke to Robin Kiplang’at, a senior investigative data analyst at Code for Africa.

How do we combat targeted disinformation?

We can do that by monitoring and surfacing, especially the trending topics, because in most conversations, things are not to be taken at face value. When you scratch the surface, that's when you get to see things like coordination, amplification and copy-pasting behaviour. To monitor coordinated inauthentic behaviour, considering the bridge between free speech and surveillance, you can flag the content on a platform, which will then deactivate or suspend such accounts. That has been the main forte that our team has been using, because I don't think we have any further implementing powers. On our front, the proverbial naming and shaming has been the one thing that we've been using, and providing evidence to the platform.

Can a normal user spot a targeted disinformation campaign?

Anything that doesn't have verifiable information is malicious. People are usually gullible when the topic is sentimental or it's reactive to something that strikes at their core. One would need to verify and check the authenticity of the post. Since everyone has a phone, we've nominated that responsibility of accountability to other people, one can use a couple of resources to spot bots as well as just looking at opinions as opinions and not necessarily as research.

How big of a challenge can this pose in influencing a political campaign?

One of the things that I believe in is that we are moulded by our environment. People form beliefs when they are able to connect pieces. For example, as a father and a husband, I can convince and influence my family a certain way, which means I can effect a change within my circle. On social media, and because of the ripple effect that my post has on the people around me (followers), if I am able to convince two or three friends against a particular person, then I guess that’s the change that whoever is pushing the campaign achieves.

What does history tell us about disinformation and fake news?

The long-standing problem of political misinformation drew public attention in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election. Scholars, journalists, and politicians expressed alarm that the spread of fake news could destabilise political institutions and delegitimise media organisations. Despite those widespread concerns, there is relatively little research exploring the consequences of fake news consumption in the current political environment. Even though its direct electoral impact in 2016 may have been limited, online misinformation could have other important effects on our society.

Fake news can also discredit the press directly by accusing them of bias, complicity, and incompetence – or indirectly by contradicting a range of claims made by mainstream media. What is more, the very existence of online misinformation resembling a journalistic product can diminish the credibility of legitimate news. Confirming the relevance of those concerns, our study offers evidence that exposure to fake news is associated with a decline in the media trust of respondents.