The era of ‘fake’ news: How is the internet influencing politics in Africa?

The negative impact of social media cannot be ignored, for it is where fake news is shared and without fact-checking, it spreads widely on such platforms. / Sam Ngendahimana

The influence of the media is part and parcel of contemporary politics.

But the upsurge of social media platforms has given rise to, among other aspects, circulation of false narratives- staining the media industry with yet a confusing image, and this bears consequences.

Fake news, also known as junk news, is a type of propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation spread via traditional news media or online social media.

This mishap has caused great upheavals in the political arena and is unfortunately impacting the mode in which political affairs play out within masses.

Communications specialist, Flora Kayitesi says fake news is a threat and is certainly not something to take lightly noting that the disaster is actually worse during elections.

“We are now seeing fake front pages of newspapers being published on different social media channels, lies and fake announcements and so on. This I think is a major threat to meaningful and legitimate political discourse,” Kayitesi says.

She said there wasneed to first bear in mind that these days, people get their news from social media which is increasingly becoming open to the spread of fake news, mainly because on social media there is limited regulation and quality control.

“It’s basically impossible to apply any editorial standards on social media. News on the different social media platforms spreads like wild fire. And in Africa which is home to the world’s youngest population, it becomes very easy to influence young people on social media,” she adds.

Barrister Felix Kayihura argues that with fake news, whether on traditional media or social media (internet), is certainly negative energy on politics.

Africans generally don’t vote issues but emotions and as such, elections and governance generally is monopolised by immediate gains like money and salt to the extreme peasants whom bribery is usually centred on, he says.

He adds that the youth are led by emotional attachment which is usually fueled by cultural feelings such as tribalism and as such, for one to acquire their following they must create internet propaganda that is usually ethnic-centred in form of fake news that trends and attracts their emotional following.

“It’s usually next to impossible to win an election in Africa if you don’t appeal to ethnical emotions of the voters, so fake news is the easiest way to drive that as it spreads faster than anything,” Kayihura said.

He strongly believes that political propaganda can only be moved using the internet.

Fiona Kamikazi, another communication specialist,is of the view when the social media wave started most joined hoping for the best mostly.

She sees it as a platform that could play a major role when it came to holding leaders in both private and public offices accountable and accessible to citizens.

And for this, Kamikazi said, social media has done its best to accomplish it.  

“Our country has become more efficient because we have witnessed many executive decisions being made because of a simple tweet,” she says.

As for the continent, such influence is growing even bigger. We have seen how Zimbabweans used social media to mobilise mass protests against former President Mugabe in 2016, we have heard about the “Arab Spring” and now we are all following what is happening in Sudan through the #SudanUprising Hashtag, she notes.

Kamikazi observes that though smartphone penetration is on the rise and transforming Africa, Africans should not ignore that this is still a luxury that many can’t afford.

“We can’t also forget the negative impact of social media where fake news is shared without fact-checking yet this spreads widely on different platforms that are available to us. We need to be careful and double check what we see online and refrain from instilling fear unnecessarily,” she says.

A pinch at democracy?

Blogger Prudence Nyamishana contends that some African politicians are using the internet to spread fake news and propaganda.

She says, on platforms like twitter, some leaders have an army of ‘bots’ that fight to diffuse dissenting voices. These ‘bots’ spread mis-information, outright lies and half-truths. Misinformation spreads like a wild fire in illiterate populations.

This, Nyamishana says drives people into making decisions based on lies and also keeps oppressive dictators in power.

African Union youth volunteer, Grace Ubaruta agrees that the internet is playing a huge role in African politics.

She also cites an example of ‘The Afro-Arab revolution’ that gained a global audience through wide spread social media publicity and coverage.

Social media platforms do have negative aspects for example promoting populism or extremism, adding to political violence, she says.

With this, comes fake news that has contributed to the post-truth era, hence many perspectives impacting public opinionsnegatively, she added.

Ubaruta notes that there are inadequate platforms with authentic information, yet in this era of fake news, Africa is a continent with a greater youth population.

“Internet is impacting and shaping youth’s opinions, shifting conventional politics to making it mere tech-based politics.”

She believes that adding new subjects or raising importance of issues like climate change, gender and youth among others can be helpful in shaping new political constituencies.

Political analyst, Lonzen Rugira labels the internet as that which has always influenced politics.

I would also say fake news has always been there. The only difference is that platforms for its dissemination have increased dramatically as a result of the democratisation of information technology.

“Democracy doesn’t always bring responsibility. These are side effects of democratising information technology. IT in the hands of ignorance and malice is dangerous.”

Wilson Rukundo, veteran journalist, notes that there are pros and cons with the availability of internet, especially to young people in urban areas.

On one side, it’s good because information and communication moves faster, hence having an informed citizenry which can help the population to make decisions from an informed point of view, he explains.

He is also quick to add that fake news also moves faster and reaches many people in just a blink of an eye, hence, causing confusion and rumours thus negatively affecting people’s ability to make good decisions.

“People (I mean citizens) should be sensitised about the availability of fake news and its negative impact. Additionally people should be taught to analyse issues and always cross-check with various sources to make sure, one has right information,” Rukundo advocates.

“Of course democracy is all about making choices from the information that one gathers. Therefore, if fake news reaches someone who can’t make proper analysis, they are hence bound to make wrong political choices, hence electing wrong leaders, leading to poor democratic governance.”