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Fake news: menacing electoral nightmare

Information communication technology, often touted as a catalyst for national and global development, is turning into a loose animal, especially now that one can just sit down, take a picture of a ballot box that was used in the May 2014 Tripartite Elections, caption it ‘Open ballot box found in Mchinji’ and share it on social media. The damage caused by such a careless act can be irreparable to the highly emotive May 21 Tripartite Elections. In this shaker, JAMESON CHAULUKA sheds light on what threatens to be one of the nightmares facing electoral stakeholders: fake news.

In mid-March this year, a fake ballot paper— which had Malawi Congress Party presidential candidate Lazarus Chakwera on top, with Democratic Progressive Party candidate and State President Peter Mutharika at the bottom — went viral on social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp.

The fake ballot paper caused unnecessary buzz among social media consumers until the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) told electoral stakeholders to ignore it.

The ballot paper was followed by yet another piece of fake news, to the effect that Mutharika was on the neck of Mec Chairperson Justice Jane Ansah over his positioning on the ballot paper, as he, purportedly, felt being last on the paper would compromise his chances of having another go at the presidency.

Before long, social media propagandists were at it again; this time, producing a supposedly Mec-endorsed list of purported shadow members of Parliament of UTM.

Mec quickly disowned it, too.

As if this is not enough, countless adverts of vacancies purported to be up for grabs at Mec have been making the rounds ahead of the May 21 Tripartite Elections.

This time, Mec came out strong.

“The Malawi Electoral Commission has noted with serious concern that there is an increase of fake news and job recruitment vacancies being shared on social media, purportedly coming from the commission. The commission strongly condemns this unbecoming behaviour by a few irresponsible individuals.

“Mec uses its official channels such as newspapers, radio, television and emails from the commission’s designated public relations officers for communicating information with electoral stakeholders and the general public. All stakeholders are urged to exercise caution and always crosscheck with the commission before acting on any information received from unknown sources,” the electoral body said in a statement.

Mec further warned that law enforcers would track those behind elections-related fake news and subject them to the boiling pot of justice.

However, it seems that such warnings have done little to stop the malpractice.

Just recently, social media platforms were awash with reports that Prophet TB Joshua, who is head of the Synagogue Church of all Nations (Scoan) and Emmanuel TV, had predicted that State Vice President and UTM leader Saulos Chilima would win the forthcoming elections.

The church, which has steered clear of politics, was forced to get into the political ring to dismiss such claims.

“The man of God has not made a prophecy regarding specific persons on Malawi election and therefore any messages circulating on social media do not come from Scoan or its official channels.

“All activities of Scaon and Emmanuel TV, including any prophetic messages, are communicated through the official channels and never on any other channels,” the church said in a statement.

What could be clear is that, as the May 21 Tripartite Elections draw closer, there is hunger for elections-related news.

This is despite that the elections, which stakeholders have described as watershed, remain emotionally charged and fake news on sensitive matters like ballot boxes being found somewhere have the potential to upset some overzealous party followers.

Mec Director of Media and Public Relations, Sangwani Mwafulirwa, conceded that fake news could undermine the credibility of elections.

He said the commission implores electoral stakeholders to be cautious when commenting on breaking news disseminated through the social media.

“The same applies to media houses; before they publish anything [relating to the elections], they should ensure that they subject it to scrutiny and authentication.

“The moment politicians or CSOs (civil society organisations) throw their weight behind something that is not true, it makes it difficult for the commission to have the public believe its version,” he said.

Mwafulirwa said this is so because social media has eroded the gate-keeping process.

“Everyone can publish whatever they want anonymously and get away with it. The social media is also facing stiff competition in the quest to break news,” he said.

Suffice to say the problem of fake news is not exclusively for Malawi.

A poll conducted by BBC World Service across 18 countries in 2017 showed that there is growing concern among global internet users about fake news online.

An article by BBC’s Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan Jones, titled ‘Fake news worries are growing, suggests BBC poll’, further says there is mounting opposition to governments stepping in with regulation.

In the survey, 79 percent of respondents said they were worried about what was fake and what was real on the internet.

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