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GUEST COLUMN: Media has duty to flag fake news online

Alphonce Shiundu

In October, two fake gazette notices surfaced on Facebook, Twitter, Whats App and other social media platforms used in Kenya. The fake documents claimed the Cabinet Secretary for Interior Fred Matiang’i had declared public holidays.

The first “public holiday” was October 14 to celebrate Eliud Kipchoge’s record-breaking feat in running a marathon in under two hours – 1:59:40. The second was about the Hindu holiday of Diwali, for Monday, October 28.

Thankfully, in both instances Kenyan fact checkers, mainstream media houses, online news sites and Matiang’i’s ministry came out to set the record straight: The notices were fake.

Some media professionals asked: Aren’t journalists and mainstream media houses simply spreading the false information far and wide by covering it? In fact, some argued that manifestly false content appearing online should never be reported.

These are valid concerns, but they miss a few key things about how false information spreads.

One, those who create and spread misinformation are interested in reaching the highest number of people within the shortest time. They exploit the relative digital illiteracy prevalent among the bulk of Kenya’s online community and the inherent algorithmic dispersal on social media to get their message as far and as wide as possible.

Two, previous research on the circulation of false information has revealed that many Kenyans who see doubtful information online quickly turn to mainstream media to authenticate the information.

Three, the import of these false gazette notices, declaring ad hoc public holidays on two Mondays within the same month where there already are two statutory public holidays, could not be ignored. The risk to productivity within the economy was real. Because on public holidays many enterprises, including government offices, banks, universities, close down the bulk of their service and focus only on essential services.

Therefore it follows that the decision to fact-check false information circulating online and flagging it as false is a fundamental duty of every journalist and media house and a civic duty for all citizens. For journalists, the public duty does not end there. The correct information too has to be put out, quickly.

Fact checking organisations and media houses must work together with public figures and the public to make them aware of the importance of countering false claims expeditiously. Fact checkers must do more outreach to the public about what to do so as not to be fooled online.

Some of these ideas involve one asking key questions when they see any doubtful information with real world consequences. These include: Who posted it? Is the person an expert or one with credible inside knowledge?  Is the person in a position to know, and if not, do they say how they know what they just posted? In other words, can they vouch for the accuracy of the information?  Is the information available on credible media channels?

It usually doesn’t take much to ask these questions. If the official channels and mainstream media houses are silent, just call/text/whats app someone in a position to know and ask.

Don’t send “as received” to a Whats app group. Also don’t post unverified information and ask, “Is it true”?   As many fact checking campaigns have said, if you see something that triggers emotions – makes you happy or sad or angry – stop, reflect and verify. As a rule, don’t share anything you haven’t verified.

The author is Kenya editor at Africa Check

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