By Kandani Ngwira:
The May 21 Tripartite Elections will be remembered for many things, apart from tippexed figures on results sheets, which are now the basis for a legal battle to nullify the entire electoral process.
Most importantly, it will also be remembered as the election that was haunted by dizzying traffic of fake news on social media platforms – more than any other election.
And almost a month after polling day, one victim of fake news, a lecturer at The Polytechnic, University of Malawi, Mayamiko Nkoloma, is still traumatised after his life was turned upside down through a fabricated story.
While attending a workshop in South Africa, Nkoloma received frantic phone calls from his family in Malawi, asking him to explain what was going on in connection with social media allegations that he had been hired by Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) to rig the elections.
“I was shocked and surprised. I asked them to send me the story and, when I read it, I laughed because it was completely fabricated. I noticed there were many mistakes including my very name, which was misspelled,” he says.
Nkoloma says he was worried for his family and his own safety. He says when he flew back from South Africa, he took extra care in his movements to avoid exposing himself to danger in view of the post elections protests.
“Elections are very emotional affairs and to be associated with rigging allegations left me traumatised. The week police teargassed MCP [Malawi Congress Party] headquarters, I was in Lilongwe attending a workshop but I could not concentrate because I had a nagging fear, wondering what could happen to me if I met the angry protesters on the streets,” he narrates.
Even now, Nkoloma is still worried for his life and business: “Reputation is very important in business. Once you lose credibility in the eyes of your clients, your business suffers. I don’t want that to happen because somebody fabricated a story about me.”
Nkolama’s case is one of hundreds of fake news cases which Fake Watch Africa (FAW) addressed during the election period between May and June 2019.
Fake Watch Africa debunks fake news
Fake Watch Africa is an extension component of the media monitoring project under National Democratic Institute and Institute for War and Peace Reporting. FWA has been tracking and debunking fake news during this period.
Project Coordinator, Andres Ilves, says the Fake Watch project came into being after noticing a gap but says although it was implemented at short notice, it turned out to be a big success.
“Between May and June, Fake Watch Africa has debunked over 100 fake stories. Some of them very damaging, with potential to cause harm to individuals, spread panic and chaos,” Andres says.
From the Malawi Electoral Commission Chairperson Jane Ansa’s fake twitter handle that perpetrators used to announce fake results to State Vice President Everton Chimulirenji’s three fake Facebook accounts that were positing quite irritating information almost everyone was targeted from those in ivory towers to the ordinary.
Politicians and their supporters tried to tarnish the image of their opponents through fake news to gain advantage in the election. Not to mention the United States President, Donald Trump, whose penchant for tweeting was fully taken advantage of by perpetrators, alleging Trump had endorsed one presidential candidate over others.
Renowned international media brands such as the BBC, CNN, Sabc and local media houses such as Zodiak Broadcasting Station have not been spared as clones (lookalike fake names) of these media houses have mushroomed to hoodwink unsuspecting citizens to believe them.
Even the Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra), whose mandate it is to regulate internet, was also targeted with fake news through rumours that it was intending to shutdown the internet.
For the first time, we witnessed organised fake news peddlers –what in cyber language are called cyber troops – being used by political parties to sway public opinion and support to their advantage.
The use of cyber troops is not intrinsically evil in itself because it is an accepted social media tactic of persuading public opinion and garnering public support for many good causes used by governments and even corporate institutions across the world.
But it becomes toxic and problematic where cyber troops, also known as zigoba in local language, hide identities, fabricate stories without regard to the amount of damage it may cause such as endangering lives of innocent people, tarnishing somebody’s/institutions’ image, damaging relationships and igniting chaos.
This is what we are witnessing in Malawi. Social media has been hijacked by rogue elements that are operating with neither ethics nor remorse.
FWA detected these stories and subjected them to a rigorous verification process with authoritative figures connected to the stories to establish the truth and expose lies. When found wanting, the stories were quickly water marked with a fake news red mark and posted on Fake Watch Africa blog site, Facebook page and it’s Twitter handle to alert people.
Unfortunately, it was not possible to reach everyone with the correct information once debunking had been done because our platforms are new.
But, despite this challenge, Ilves is thankful to stakeholders such as the Malawi Police public relations department, Macra and even political parties that have been forthcoming in giving information used in debunking fake news.
For greater impact, FWA has now teamed up with media houses such as radio and television stations to reach out to as many people as possible. FWA has also produced an animated advert to warn people against sharing unverified information.
Is Cyber Law solution to fake news?
College of Medicine associate professor in Clinical Psychology, Chiwoza Bandawe, says, to find a solution to fake news, we must understand the mentality of the perpetrators.
“Those who peddle fake news are driven by selfish desires to make an impact. They get gratification from seeing something they started being circulated. Sometimes it is wishful thinking; they have their own view of how things should be and create fake news to give credence to their sense of false reality,” he says.
Bandawe says, in most cases, it works because there is a gullible audience out there willing to read and believe. He says perpetrators exist in a group of like minds, with a collective consciousness, who easily accept and believe the information without questioning.
“In an election period like this, for example, where opinion is divided along party lines, perpetrators take advantage of the situation to propagate fake news according to what a particular group of people want to see happen and hear. The solution is to civic-educate audiences to question news credibility before believing and sharing it. It is everybody’s responsibility,” he says.
There is also the Electronic Transaction and Cyber Security Act of 2016 which criminalises the act of spreading fake news in Malawi.
The conviction of Innocent Nzunguzeni in Phalombe District for a post that said “Albino for sale” has probably sent shivers down the spine of perpetrators. Nzunguzeni became the first person in Malawi to be convicted under the 2016 Cyber Act and was slapped with a four-year jail term.
Macra Director of Broadcasting Services, Fegus Lipenga, says, twice, the Facebook team has been in Malawi to sensitise the media and other operators to how they could work together to fight fake news.
Lipenga also believes civic education in local communities is a key component when it comes to fighting fake news.
Facebook is planning to deregister fake accounts as one way of reducing fake news. The days of zigoba could be over. Whether this will be enough to curtail the spread of fake news in Malawi is a question for another day.
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