The role of media practitioners, citizen journalists in promotion of peace and security in an era of fake news

The COVID-19 vaccine jabs are a sophisticated effort by the West to emasculate and recolonize Africa.

· Madagascar has developed a concoction to cure COVID-19

· Dr Kwame Nkrumah had a shrine at the presidency which enabled him run his administration

· The executive has tabled a motion before the parliament to pave the way for President Nana Akufo Addo to seek a third term.

Honestly, what do these screaming headlines have in common?

Certainly, few will think through these news items, some indifferent, a few more will completely disregard these claims bursting into laughter but be rest assured, a good number of the recipients of these news articles will deem them to be the gospel truth and worth sharing.

Again, what do you make of such headlines? For us here present, I believe we all conclude these to be absolutely fake news, without any shred of doubt!

Our world is rapidly advancing and so is the news that accompanies that progress.

The question is, how is this news possible? What is the motive for such news items? And who is behind these stories?

What cannot be fake news is that Ghana boasts of some of the well-trained journalists and media professionals on the continent of Africa and conspicuous is the feat chalked by the exemplary late Komla Dumor who hoisted the flag of Ghana on the global stage of media practice. The successes of the living legend, Anas Aremeyaw Anas, of Tiger Eye PI is worth praising. Then, one would shudder to wonder why then fake news, rumors and hoaxes gaining fertile grounds in Ghana?

Well, let’s be quick to point out that, even the West with some of the most sophisticated tools of communication are not immune from the threats of fake news.

This means that it is a worldwide phenomenon which ought to be combatted beginning from that level.

What is fake news? It is a fancy word for lies, against which our various religious communities strongly preach in mosques, shrines, temples and the Ghanaian society as a whole.

Our presence here today is simply seeking to answer how journalists and the media can fight big, fat and deliberate lies to engender peace and security.

The caution here to note is that, this lie comes to the listening, reading and Internet surfing public in the most unsuspecting forms making it easier for the average person to swallow.

With regard to fake news, there is a popular saying that, a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. And this is the very nature of fake news.

It has at this critical moment become imperative for our media to seek to churn out facts and truths at all times safeguarding our fledgling democracy and protection of the state. This is because the media has the power to make and break our country, Ghana, thanks to information we broadcast and share which transcend the subconsciousness of the people.

What then is a precise definition of fake news and why should we be concerned?

Fake news is when news, rumors or hoaxes are deliberately created and purposely spread to misinform or deceive people. They develop in three different forms namely Misinformation – spreading of information containing mistakes without knowing , Disinformation – the deliberate sharing of fabricated content for an intended effect and Malinformation – the deliberate publication of private information for personal or corporate rather than public interest.

Don’t be deceived, fake/false news/stories have long been with humanity as long as we have existed and countless number of innocent people in our society have paid for the excesses of falsehood with either their reputation or with their dear lives. The sad end of Major Maxwell Adam Mahama, the slain soldier quickly comes to mind.

No, it’s not a word coined by Mr. Donald Trump, ex-President of the United States of America but he amplified the existence of this crazy phenomenon. While it’s true news that Mr Trump rightly called out fake news platforms and media houses, he didn’t do himself any good when he claimed COVID-19 could be cured by drinking disinfectants, at a point the world was desperately in search of solutions.

Fake news has gained currency, thanks to largely the recent advances in communication and technology. In Ghana today, almost every individual above 18 years of age has access to one form of communication gadget or another, with internet penetration steadily increasing. Therefore, information that would have taken days to reach the intended recipients will today be received in a matter of seconds.

This means the society is ever getting interconnected with almost anyone anywhere being able to access, share and receive information of any kind. Obviously, this then becomes the loophole in which fake news thrives.

As a right protection and promotion organization, the Human Rights Reporters Ghana (HRRG), will resist any attempt by the powers that be, to limit the right to information and freedom of speech as granted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and Ghana’s 1992 constitution, especially chapter 5, under the pretext of fighting debilitating fake news, hoaxes and false stories intended to dampen the hopes of our society and have effects similar to terrorism.

Who creates fake news and where does the traditional media fraternity get involved?

The growing media liberalization, thanks partly also to the repeal of the Criminal Libel Law on the 27th of July 2001, means that there are multiple channels of news items and content broadcast.

Specifically, Jokers, Scammers, Politicians, Conspiracy theorists and Insiders are generators of fake news for public consumption. Primary enablers of fake news are our unsuspecting relatives and celebrities with large social media followings.

This is true in the sense that nowadays, news of any kind will reach you first by people close to you, be it a mother, younger sibling or friends via messaging applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook or Telegram before you even confirm them on traditional media sources.

In this case you have fully held on fake news to be true before anything contrary is laid bare before you. In this contemporary world of social media stardom, traditional media no longer makes stars of individuals, rather, social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter do.

Any celebrity with a massive following is a potential disseminator of fake news when they deliberately share falsehoods to their blind fans either for monetary gains or sheer vengeance.

Critically bearing in mind the need for peace and security for our young democracy, the group to exhibit the most circumspection is the political class of Ghana. Any misguided statement or pushing of false news intended to harm the chances of political opponents can just have the unintended effect of plunging the country into chaos if the news, story or headline isn’t verified especially during heated political seasons.

Closely related to this scenario is the situation of certain unscrupulous persons looking to stoke tension between ethnic groups for ulterior motives. Imagine a doctored video of Asantehene passing denigrating comments about the people of northern Ghana. This fake news can easily travel faster than the wind and cause irreparable damage to the existing peaceful relations among the major ethnic groups in the country.

In all these, what is the role of media practitioners and citizen journalists in the promotion of peace and security?

First and foremost, we will sincerely like to ask, has journalism today been reduced to sourcing unverified news items from social media platforms and fake portals, for publication? If it is increasingly becoming the norm, are media houses really investing in their news men and women to go down to the grounds to pick the right information to combat the disinformation spreading like wild fire on phony news portals and social media threads?

As we would have it, laziness and under-resourced news teams will have nothing to offer the news hungry population in terms of publishing authentic news and debunking fake ones, rumors and hoaxes meant to cause fear and panic.

Secondly, are media organizations giving more career opportunities to professionally trained journalists who should command higher remunerations, to run news items or we are left with the disturbing case of handing microphones to untrained relatives and close associates to broadcast information where they’re mostly ineffective in identifying false news and rooting them out.

As widely accepted to be true, we understand bad news sells as good ones. So is it true with sensational news, which weep up the numbers for commercial value.

A perfect environment for fake news to have a field day. In our quest as journalists to satisfy viewers, listeners and readers who yearn for quick answers and scandal mongering news, media practitioners need to be well aware of this peculiar demand, so as to handle news carefully to avoid misinforming and disseminating disinformation.

For citizen journalists and practitioners alike, you know the saying that a picture is more than a thousand words, how more so, for video and a manipulated one for that matter.

Google affords us the process to fight fake news by using a unique and simple tool termed Google Reverse Image Search. This tool is best used to verify the authenticity of an image heralded for fake news purposes.

As responsible news men and women who are not quick to break the news but only exist to publish true news by all means necessary, the Google Reverse Image Search tool is your best bet to combat hoaxes and falsehood. It basically helps you find websites, images and videos related to your image and determine the context within which they were published compared with what your image relates to.

How does it function? Very simple!

While there are several ways around this process, simply go to the Google Image Search, click on the camera icon and upload that particular suspicious image and almost immediately, you are exposed to many other links and images associated with the fake photo to give you the actual stories relating to the image in question.

Fake news exists because of me, you and us all. We have almost overnight been consumed by the need to get news information by the minute and in a manner of seconds shared across all top social media platforms, without first pausing to quiz, where is this news coming from? We as a people can effectively fight fake news, rumors and hoaxes if we insist on sharing and spreading news items from original sources. When you see a wild news story, try to check if all major news channels and websites are carrying those particular stories.

Per a report released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 2018, their study shows 126,000 fakes posts got retweeted 3 million times, which further confirms the long held notion that false news travels faster, deeper and further than the truth.

Interestingly enough, one other result-driven means of fighting fake news is when the internet and its related issues are introduced to children early enough, helping them understand how the whole ecosystem works and training them to sieve out calamitous lies.

This is a truism as studies actually show that the younger generation are more careful and perceptive about news flying over the internet than the older generations who are unfortunately not largely tech savvy.

It is unfortunate to note that fake news and its publications are a growing problem in Ghana but the media, regulatory bodies and government lack a clear cut strategy to tackle this threat.

As political tensions are always high during Ghana’s electioneering periods, we shouldn’t give room for social media to jeopardize our democratic gain.

The power is in your hands. Stop retweeting unverified information. Don’t broadcast and share information you are not sure about and seek for original sources for news and educate others about fake news.

It is a collective effort in realizing that fake news are purely lies, very malicious, damaging and ultimately dangerous therefore all our efforts must be geared towards its prevention at all cost or total eradication if possible.

Columnist: Joseph Wemakor

The writer is a peace advocate, a seasoned journalist, a human rights activist and the Executive Director of Human Rights Reporters Ghana (HRRG).

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