The Dangers Of Fake News

March 19, 2020

Fake news comprises information that are intentionally and verifiably false, designed to manipulate people’s perception of reality. It has been used to influence politics and promote advertising. However, it has become a method to stir up and intensify social conflict.

Stories that are untrue and that intentionally mislead readers have caused growing mistrust among Nigerians. In some cases, this mistrust results in incivility, protests over imaginary events, and violence. Regardless of who posts it, fake news intentionally undermines trust in the news and the government.

Fake news poses a serious threat to Nigerian democracy. During the 2019 elections, fake news was more prevalent on social media than genuine news. Over 50% of Nigerians receive news from social media. This makes a large portion of the public vulnerable because of the way fake news spreads in social media.

People use fake news for different reasons. Firstly, they enhance social conflict and weaken people’s faith in the democratic process their ability to work together. Secondly, they distract people from important issues, leaving them unresolved. When a person hears a statement from multiple people, they are more likely to believe that statement. For example, by simply hiring people and having them post positive messages about Nigeria's economic situation, the government can convince its citizens to be happy with its performance. They could also share a couple of posts at once about a topic and it would likely become more popular or go viral. This is mostly done in times when citizens are most likely to be unhappy or protest. When people believe fake news, it also affects their votes during elections. That way, when elections are close, fake news can impact who ultimately wins and who loses.

Mental shortcuts or cognitive biases also affect the way we use information. Firstly, we tend to act on the basis of headlines and tags without reading the article they are associated with. Secondly, social media conveys signals that affect our sense of the popularity of information, which leads us to greater acceptance. Thirdly, fake news takes advantage of the most common political mental shortcut: partisanship. Finally, there is a weird tendency for false information to stick around, even after it has been corrected. Accompanying the increasing amount of fake news and misinformation online, platforms like africacheck.org authenticates, verifies, or fact-checks the truthfulness of news stories. The limitations in their effectiveness in helping dispel fake news seem to come from their being under-used.

We do not expect everybody to verify everything they read, but we strongly recommend they fact-check before they share, like, or comment on a news item, in social media. It is important to get into a habit of fact-checking, given the cognitive biases that make us receptive to fake news. When people articulate opinion based on something they claim is real or is a fact, it would be a good idea to check how real it is.

We should learn to question the reliability of facts even when people we know and like provided them in their own good faith. Given the diversity of resources, reports, sites, and systems available for us to verify information, it is also important to spend enough time weighing one information source against another and develop sufficient insight that will assist us in preventing the spread of fake news in the future.