Thursday, May 31, 2018

Social media, fake news and echo chambers in Zimbabwe

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ZIMBABWE, like many other countries in the world, has been blighted by the tsunami of “fake news” for a long time.
By Admire Mare
This phenomenon has become more pronounced as the country gravitates towards the so-called “watershed” elections pencilled for July 30.
The notion of “fake news” has received so much publicity ever since Donald Trump outwitted Hilary Clinton to win the presidential elections in the United States. For the purposes of this article, the term “fake news” is used to refer to stories that are generally false, but have enormous popular appeal and are shared far and wide.
This includes hoaxes, propaganda and disinformation purporting to be real news — often circulated online to drive web traffic and amplify their effect. Also important part of the mix is completely false information that is created for financial and political gains.
There is general agreement that disinformation is as old as writing itself, that the manipulation of public opinion and official records for the benefit of the powerful goes all the way back to the earliest forms of human existence.
Hoaxes and falsehoods have been associated with the Internet since its early days, but it is only in the last two years that organised, systematic misinformation campaigns, often linked to troll armies, have emerged online, and their effect on democracy and society scrutinised.
What distinguishes the current outbreak of “fake news” from its predecessors is the extraordinary ease and rapidity with which information can be disseminated and shared globally over the Internet and social media platforms.
This is mostly done through artificial intelligence, bots and human actors who need no expensive equipment or intensive training.
“Fake news” has the corrosive effect of creating misinformed citizens thereby weakening our democratic institutions. It can also destroy the credibility of media institutions thereby further eroding trust in news and information.
Although “fake news” can also be produced and circulated by mainstream media organisations intentionally and unintentionally, most of the time it is associated with cyber troops, ordinary people and citizen journalists.
While “fake news” circulated by professional media organisations can easily be nipped in the bud, it is not easy to control disinformation produced and circulated by ordinary people.
Once an inferno has been torched, it can go on for hours, days, weeks or even months before an over-supply of ‘real news’ is able to stop it.
Why should Zimbabweans worry about fake news and echo chambers?
Over the past decades, the mass permeation of digital technologies in our everyday lives has been greeted with unmitigated enthusiasm.
Examples abound where the Internet was glorified as the digital “agora” and democratic virtual sphere with the potential to expand the variety and amount of accessible political information.
Furthermore, the Internet and social platforms have been celebrated for creating a more pluralistic form of public debate. In contexts like Zimbabwe with restricted media spaces, digital technologies have played a key role in democratising public discourse, expanding sources of information and enabling the enjoyment of inalienable rights as espoused in the 2013 Constitution.
However, in the past few years the negative side of digital media platforms has come to the fore. There is widespread acknowledgement that greater access to information may lead to selective exposure to ideologically supportive channels.
In Zimbabwe, where most urban and rural youth get access to information and news through mobile phones and other digital platforms, echo chambers are a real concern.
An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which beliefs are amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system.
Given the toxic and polarised nature of our politics over the past two decades, “fake news” often find easy spaces to inhabit because people often prefer to read and share news that confirm their ideological standpoints and views.
Our politics have created unnecessary dichotomies which makes it difficult for anyone to claim to be advancing a non-partisan position on an issue. It’s either you are pro something or you are anti something. There is no one who can afford to sit or stand in the middle.
You don’t need to go far to witness the impact and effects of echo chamber mentality. A cursory analysis of threads on WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags will demonstrate the degree to which our social and political conversations are polarised along political affiliation and ethnic lines.
In such spaces, one purveyor of information can make a claim, which many like-minded people then repeat, overhear, and repeat again (often in an exaggerated or otherwise distorted form) until most people assume that some extreme variation of the story is true.
Because we belong to many mini-public spheres via WhatsApp groups, Facebook pages and Twitter hashtags, it is easier to increase political and social polarisation and extremism. This echoing and homogenising effect on the Internet and social media platforms can also create political or cultural tribalism.
Since social media has become an integral component of the political process during a time of dramatic polarisation and populist politics, there is a genuine concern that the digital world has become a means to filter out opposing opinions from one’s personal online universe in the Zimbabwean political landscape.
Judging from the heated online discussions and cyber-bullying tactics of those who do not support or share our views on certain policies and political candidates, one is tempted to conclude that there is a lack of tolerance, appreciation of divergent views and mature political conversations.
Online conversations are punctuated by vitriol, hate speech, below-the-belt attacks and at times sexual innuendos targeting female interlocutors. For instance, Tsitsi Masiyiwa and Ruvheneko Parirenyatwa were recent targets of these vitriolic online attacks.
In these online filter bubbles, when confronted with divergent views, instead of dealing with the merits of the case, interlocutors often block, delete and hide each others’ comments and profiles as a way of further sheltering themselves from content which question their established world views.
In this climate of polarisation, many social media users choose to avoid confrontation with those with whom they disagree, which begins with ignoring material they find offensive. They also avoid consuming news they find unpalatable.
Although digital media is often presented as spaces for content sharing, collaboration, and shared dialogue, there is a disconcerting absence of diversity of opinion on most online political conversations. We are more and more exposed to tweets, retweets, posts, shares, recommendations and comments from our friends, relatives and family members who often think like us, consume similar tastes like us and support similar causes like us.
Besides rethinking the culture of our politics, there is urgent need to depolarise our political conversations. People must agree to disagree without calling each other names and threatening cause bodily harm on each other.
Critical digital literacy programmes like continuous education must be an on-going concern because as new technologies are developed, new literacies are needed to engage with the content and tools.
On the one hand, digital literacy is concerned with practical skills to access, navigate and use the internet and its ancillary technologies like social media platforms.
On the other hand, critical digital literacy is about empowering users to consume content critically, as a prerequisite for online engagement, by identifying issues of bias, prejudice, misrepresentation and trustworthiness. It also encapsulates the notion of critically understanding the position of digital media technologies in society.
 Dr Admire Mare is a senior lecturer in the department of communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology.