In December 2016 Facebook released its new strategy for tackling the spread of fake news on the social networking site. Yet, the planned structure of the fact-checking operation means that fake news stories targeting users in African countries are almost certain to fall through the net. What will it mean for 146 million+ African Facebook users being left to the lions with fake news?
What do Kenyan doctors, Mole Soup and Nigerians living South Africa all have in common? In the last week, they have all fallen prey to fake news stories spread on social media. In Kenya, the legality of the 3-month long doctors’ strike was questioned by a false claim that doctors’ pay was only one of 30 other contested issues (it is not- on the contrary, pay is the sole issue).
Meanwhile, bad news abounds for our furry mole friends in Tanzania, as a broth made from the burrowing rodents was declared to be a credible cough remedy; while in South Africa, simmering anti-migrant sentiments were stoked with unfounded claims that over 800 000 Nigerians are living in the country. All of these stories were quickly disproved, but not before they had done the rounds on Twitter and Facebook raising eyebrows and, for believers, tempers.
Fake news is becoming an increasing concern for social media platforms and their users. The unanticipated election of Donald Trump as the USA’s first orange-tinted President was preceded by a campaign that became notorious for its repeated use of “alternative facts”. On social media, the circulation of fake news stories designed to back or smear candidates became a running theme. Politics has always been a dirty game, where the truth is often twisted and stretched; but the Trump campaign became the first to have won on a campaign based almost entirely on bare-faced lies. Post-election, a host of social media companies, many of which like to be thought of as founded on liberal values, have made moves to combat the spread of fake news stories on their websites in an effort to stem the flow of spurious and often decisive messages circulated in support of political agendas. Amongst these is giant Facebook, which has stepped forwards proposing a solution to the fake news problem on its platform.
However, under close examination, it is questionable whether Facebook’s solution will work for users in Africa. Facebook (a company which currently has a quarterly revenue of $7bn) is unwilling to shell out on fact-checking software or staff, meaning the responsibility lies with a handful of carefully selected fact-checking groups who will provide voluntary services in exchange for an increase in traffic to their websites, created as people click one ‘fact-checked by’ links, that will be posted at the bottom of certified bona-fide articles on Facebook.
If users doubt the credibility of a story, they can tick a ‘fact-check’ box at the bottom of the post. If enough users flag up the article as concerning, it will be forwarded to the fact-checking teams for closer inspection. It’s looks like win-win situation: Facebook cracks down on fake news at no extra cost, and the fact-checkers gain more advertising revenue due to increase web traffic. Simple, right? However, there is one small problem.
For argument’s sake, let’s look at what each of these handpicked organisations have in their extensive fact-checking databases on Kenya, East Africa’s 2nd largest economy and longstanding US ally. A quick search of the keyword ‘Kenya’ returns the following:
On Snopes: A host of articles, all relating to Barack Obama’s heritage and disputed birth certificate.
On Politifact: Mostly Obama, or Trump’s travel restrictions. A discredited claim by Ruto about the risk of cancer vis-a-vis malaria (dating to mid-2016) and a jumble of Africa-wide health statistics misquoted by US politicians
On ABC News’ fact-checker (based in Australia): Zilch. Nada.
On The Associated Press: See all of the above.
And on Factcheck: Obama, US Immigration, Obama’s half-brother, Obama’s birth certificate…
…you get the picture. Now, there is nothing wrong with US organisations having a US bias. The problem is that this does nothing for the 146 million+ Facebook users on the African continent whose countries’ politics are more likely to be influenced by spurious data on Nigerian immigrants than claims about Obama’s birth certificate. There are also questions about capacity: the fact-checking teams are generally small, with one organisation’s including only 6 full-time members of staff. Every day, over 4.75b pieces of content are shared on the site, making it clear that the fact-checking teams will not have the capacity to deal with every article that is referred. As long as Facebook approves mostly US-based organisations and the program is run on a voluntary basis, the likes of Politifact will have to prioritise stories and can be expected to verify those which are most relevant to their (largely) American audience.
There is no shortage of African fact-checking organisations- Kenya’s PesaCheck and AfricaCheck are just two examples of organisations taking on politicians and propagandists who make a habit of being economical with the truth. Equally, fake news is a very relevant issue in many African countries. The recent violent attacks on and burning alive of Nigerian immigrants in the country indicate the very real context in which the fake ‘Nigerian immigrants’ story was shared. Only last month, the existence of a supposed smear campaign, largely composed of fake news, was uncovered in South Africa. The materials were alleged to have been produced by the ANC under the direction of a team whose office is ominously dubbed ‘The War Room’. South Africa’s leaders are not the only ones acutely aware of the power of social media to sway public opinion: from Burundi to Ethiopia, leaders have been quick to close networking sites at times of crisis for their regimes.
Likewise, in 2007, messages and fanatic reports fanned the flames of post-election violence in Kenya. Just last week, a fake tweet purporting to be from US presidential hopeful Ben Carson did the rounds on Twitter, with the ex-surgeon apparently weighing-in on the doctor’s strike to back Kenyan medics. The associated hashtag, #ASystemIsComingDown, seems laughable on reflection- the very un-presidential tone of the tweet makes it surprising that it lasted that long before being discredited, but that is the worrying thing; when people are fed up with an institution, it is very tempting to suspend disbelief.
Facebook is a global social network with a universal algorithm- a user in Harare is just as likely to see phoney news in their feed as someone in Connecticut. A solution to fake news that only serves the US market is a major shirking of responsibility. The corporate argument in Facebook’s defence also falls flat on it’s face; it has corporate responsibility too, because it will soon make huge sums of money from projects in sub-saharan Africa. It is currently investing in solar-powered wifi with 'Aquila' planes; drones that will bring many more people in remote areas of sub-saharan Africa online and swiftly conquer the data market in this part of the world.
Organisations like Ushahidi and AfricaCheck do valuable work, but will struggle to compete with the ubiquity of major social networking sites. Fake news is a problem that extends well beyond the US’ shores, and for Facebook to neglect that is completely irresponsible. And that’s a fact.
Catherine Tilke is the Editor of Msomi. She can be reached here.