Was the world ready for the age where everybody would effectively be a media outlet?
Digital technology has made it easy for anybody to reach a mass audience. A single social media or website post from an obscure source can go viral and influence the world on a large scale. Consequently, everybody is always receiving information from multiple sources and is always faced with the task of sifting through myriads of posts to separate truth from falsehood.
Big Tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and others are now working to solve this problem of misinformation and disinformation, but as someone recently observed, fake news is not a technology problem, but an information problem.
Dealing with fake news will need to involve more than simply adding a piece of code in today’s tech, and could require a lot of societal transformation.
The fear of giving everyone a voice
Christianity faced the same crisis when the Bible was translated from Latin to other languages which any person could read and understand. The church had resisted the move in the fear that giving everybody a Bible would result in skewed interpretations and rise of cults that would crop up everywhere. That is exactly what happened.
Today, cults after cult seem to spread all over the world with the educated being equally prone to the disinformation as the non-educated. It is like half of Christianity today is fake news.
This is not a new problem.
Disinformation has always existed, only that it does not go by the name fake news. Many times, we call it lies, falsehood, or even deception.
The influential teacher
Even in day to day conversations, a certain level of misinformation exists.
Earlier in 2020, I had a chance to meet a teacher in a rural part of Kenya and discuss various issues such as politics, the locust invasion, and education. One thing you need to understand about teachers is that they are one of the most influential people in society. Educated, with a captive audience, and evenly distributed throughout the country, it is said that one only needs to win teachers to win an election. They will do the campaigning for you.
However, it was the discussion with the teacher that opened my eyes to know that fake news is not a modern-day tech problem, but something that has been with human beings for ages. I disagreed with many things he said about politics and locust invasion because they were outright lies. Yet, he was confident of what he was saying.
What this influential teacher needed was access to a platform and he would have the media to reach more people with information, and we would all be talking about fake news.
Communities prone to disinformation and misinformation
Why does it appear that fake news is winning compared to the truth?
In Kenya, it could be a cultural problem.
There are some societies where telling the truth is expected. I grew up in one. It is not really about truth, but a general acceptance that it is very evil to tell lies that hurts someone else. Generally, you would not expect to find normal people openly spreading false information.
Unfortunately, this naïve habit is reflected in people’s expectations when both online and offline. It is the reason why politicians are able to deceive many people with very obvious lies. Very few people are able to pick up such lies.
It could also be the reason why we have a big number of people who believe that everything they read on the internet is true. All the news sources are treated equally, and the most sensational ones receive the highest traffic. Even when content is labeled satire or is served by questionable tabloids, people still end up believing the stories they want to believe. Check the reaction that www.postamate.com gets on social media.
Fueling the fake fire
Human beings have a great love for solving mysteries, new information and being the ones to break news. Perhaps, it is why conspiracies theories always find an audience.
We also like the information that confirms what we believe, whether it is true or false. This is why we quickly share the news that is aligned with what we want to be true, irrespective of whether the information is factual or not. If you do not like person X, you will believe anything negative about X, and question anything positive about X.
The problem with fake news or false information is that it receives a lifeline from the audience and goes viral. Friends know it is false. Enemies want it to be true. Others will share maybe because it is funny. Where it is also shared matters.
WhatsApp groups form a perfect echo chamber where information is shared among like-minded people, further amplifying the effect of fake news. The more fake information is shared, the more it is believed.
Fake news is not a short term problem.