The panic created by the spread of misinformation in general has led to introspection by journalists and a reassertion of professional values and standards.
The rise of false information has complex cultural and social reasons. Until now, though, the phenomenon has been studied mostly as it happens in the US and Europe, with relatively little attention to the situation in African countries.
This is despite the fact that disinformation on the continent has often taken the form of extreme speech inciting violence or has spread racist, misogynous, xenophobic messages, often on mobile phone platforms such as WhatsApp.
To fill the gap in information about “fake news” in sub-Saharan Africa, we conducted an online survey in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa earlier this year. Our study had three goals: to measure the prevalence of disinformation, to learn who people believe is responsible for stopping fake news, and to understand the relationship between disinformation and media trust.
Our survey, in which 755 people took part, reused questions from another study on the topic conducted in 2016 by the US-based Pew Research Centre. In this way we are able to compare our results with those in the US.
Our findings suggest that African audiences have low levels of trust in the media, experience a high degree of exposure to misinformation, and contribute – often knowingly – to its spread.
There are five takeaways from our study:
Educating audiences about the dangers of fake news is not enough. Media literacy should form part of a larger, multi-pronged approach to restore trust in the media. The findings suggest that media organisations would have to work hard at rebuilding relationships with audiences.
Our data comes with some limitations. While we tried to sample different segments of society, because data was collected online, it is more likely to represent the point of view of urban middle classes, than those living in rural areas or with lower income levels – or both.
The results of this study, which is the first to explore misinformation and disinformation in multiple African countries, provide some initial evidence that can be used in designing strategies to limit the spread of fake news, and to mitigate the declining trust in the media.
In sub-Saharan Africa, mainstream media have long struggled to gain their independence and freedom. State control, either through ownership or suppression, over media remains strong. The high levels of perceived exposure to misinformation and disinformation, if left unaddressed, could further undermine the precarious foothold of independent media on the continent.
Authors: Herman Wasserman is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Film and Media Studies, University of Cape Town; and Dani Madrid-Morales is assistant Professor in Journalism at the Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, University of Houston.
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