Abdulai Mansaray, author

Many people regard journalism as the vanguard of information. Sadly, “fake news” has taken a firm grip on the respiratory organs of news media and outlets. This is more so with social media, where its giants like Facebook, Instagram, and Google etc. portend to give people what they want. You cannot deny the value and benefits from these social media outlets. Among many of these benefits, including spewing out news as they happen, social media has shrunk the world into a globalised village. However, such benefits do not dwarf the underbelly that lies beneath the façade of the information highway. “Fake news” is a major currency and a significant percent has become the palm oil with which information is eaten. The scourge of “fake news” on social media however has left the public vulnerable and susceptible to biases, propaganda and demagoguery.  Sadly, misinformation has unintentionally become a bye product of social media, and side effects for the uninformed.  The jury is still out, on the merits and demerits of social media.

Is social media a curse or blessing?
In a world, where the media in wallowing in the cesspool of “fake news”, the role of the trained and professional journalists had never been more important. However, we must recognise that some “fake news” can be witty and funny. One man’s “fake news” is another’s “gospel”.  Although some can be challenging to some readers, satire is sometimes used in the context of fake news to amuse and cause laughter for the reader. Nevertheless, buried deep in the debris of such amusement, one can find gems that toggle the conscience by revealing uncomfortable truths. The problem begins when readers struggle to differentiate satire from real news. That is where the truth, reality, and fake form a combustible liaison; and often times with inherent consequences. Sadly, people fall for these teasers and share them with religious fervour as truth all the time. Does anyone go back and tell some of these folks “it was all a joke”?

On the other side, we know how powerful social media can be. This is more so on the political landscape, where social media is proving to be one of the most powerful umbilical cords between politicians and the electorate. Every leader seems to have a blog or fan page of sorts, as they replace the proverbial press releases and conferences. Politicians use social media to test the waters, when they want to adopt controversial policies. First, they would float it on their platforms to gauge public opinion. The number of “likes” or type of comments usually determines the outcome for such policies. In cases where the general response of the readers is negative, the government’s spin-doctors hastily revert to their customary deniability mode and tag that news as “fake news”.

Interestingly, we see this trend happening at an increasing rate in Sierra Leone. Our main political parties are locked in their eternal battle for the hearts and minds of the Sierra Leone electorate. As the clocks ticks down to June 2023, the fight has never been more intense. Recently, there have been many social media posts about the registration for the election process. There have been a lot of fake news about the difficulty to register. Some have been verified as “true”, and put down to technological glitches. However, that has not stopped the conspiracies filtering through. Where the public could not decipher truth from lies, the world gets a wealth of information but poverty of wisdom. 

As an example, there is no doubt that “fake news” does achieve its desired effect sometimes. Not many people endeavour to verify the veracity of news. While some would find time to verify such, others take such news completely. The irony is that when “fake news” is repeated through sharing and forwarding, it becomes difficult for the public to decipher the truth from lies. What you have is a public trapped in the cyclical web of the misinformed and the uninformed. With fake news becoming cheaper to produce, genuine journalism is increasingly becoming an expensive past time. There is a seeming contempt for the truth, while fakes news gathers pace as the new menace to society.

So, how do you fight against fake news?
It is obvious that there is no formula to fight fake news. While some social media platforms have resorted to fact checks and truth serum, the world continues with its affliction of misinformation, disinformation, lack of information and utter disregard for the truth, unabated. You could be forgiven to think that telling the truth is a treasonable offence these days. This is thanks to the public’s insatiable appetite for garbage and sensational news items. In those days, journalists and commentators used to report the news. These days, some create the news and tend build bridges where there are no rivers. They even give you a basket to carry water. Some people believe that the best way to fight fake news is to join them in sharing. Others feel that the best way is not to share them; period.

Interestingly, the oxygen for “fake news” is plausibility. Usually, they are steeped in conspiracy theories, which get more mileage if plausible.  Ironically, you can tell that some of these stories are “fake” right from the off.  Recently, there was a rumour that the Chinese leader, Xi Jinpin was overthrown. The rumour coincided with video clips of a large convoy of military vehicles moving towards Beijing. Mr Xi had not been seen in public for days. His absence fuelled the rumour. Others even marinated the rumours that China had cancelled many domestic and international flights. It turned out to be rumours of wishful thinking then.

This is how some platforms lose their credibility. It is the same with WhatsApp groups and forums (fora).  We have all been victims of fake news. We unconsciously participate in spreading “fake news” when we forward them to our contacts. I must confess that I do not read messages from some contacts these days. They have unwittingly become agents of fake news, so much so that I now consider videos or voice clips from them as fake. I just delete them without checking. To all intents and purposes, they could be factual. Ironically, that is what happens when you create an impression of unreliability.

The general elections in Sierra Leone is just months away. The share price of “fake news” is gathering pace on the media stock exchange. As a nation, we need to encourage informed thought and questioning.  Considering that, people deliberately fabricate news to influence opinion, proliferate propaganda, and confuse people, we should be critical about the information we receive and share. This is critical for our democracy. We cannot deny the influence “fake news” has on our political choices. If we are to make such political decisions in June, it is plausible to conclude that our country and democratic principles would benefit hugely, if such decisions were based on facts; among other considerations.

 Where does that leave our political decisions, if the foundations of those decisions are rooted in “fake news”? Most people hang on to fake news because they reinforce their biases. It fits into their unshakable beliefs, much to the detriment of our democratic system. Fake news is now an integral tool in political warfare. Unfortunately, in the pursuit of political space, truth becomes the first casualty. Our democracy would be undermined. Since social media has created so many “social media journalists”, a universal distrust in the media is insidiously taking root.

Oscar Wilde once said that journalism gives us the opinion of the uneducated and keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community. Although some describe journalism as literature in a hurry, there is an unspoken friction between “getting it first” and “getting it right”. You can tell which one appeals to social media. If our democracy should work, we need journalism. While journalism is undergoing some reconfiguration, we cannot deny that its role to produce thoughtful, investigative and well-reported material is in danger of becoming a dinosaur. So, where do we go from here?

Don’t forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room.