Reading is hard, but sharing fake news is easy

Some of the most memorable fake news in East Africa include the one in 2018 about President Magufuli appealing to Tanzanian men to “Marry two or more women to reduce prostitution among ladies”.

Another, also in 2018, was about a fellow who said he was the head of an Illuminati chapter in Uganda and went on to announce that people who would camp outside a radio station would receive 5 million Uganda shillings

The more peculiar is the one about Jesus seen walking and dancing in Nairobi streets last year.

There is uncountable such false information, though I don’t recall such in Rwanda. Available research on fake news in Africa is generalised from surveys in South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya.

These countries have some of the most vibrant, no-holds-barred activities on social media platforms. Many of its users are also uncouth and probably criminal in their misinformation, which is nevertheless widely shared.

One example is the xenophobic violence in South Africa in which WhatsApp messages were based on fake news and circulated announcing dates on which foreigners would be attacked.

Some of the recent surveys, such as by BBC and Quartz that were separately undertaken in 2018, look at some of these incidents though they dwell on the trends, including consumption and impact of fake news.

It is obvious that sharing is the essence of fake news. People would not get to know of them if any of the false information didn’t go viral.

Beyond Fake News, the research project by BBC finds that “people's emotions trump reason when it comes to sharing news.”

Most people do not consume their online news in-depth or critically, and many users will share stories based on a headline or image without having digested it in detail themselves. Reading is hard, it concludes, but sharing is easy.

For some who share, it is a civic duty. They will share information, regardless of its veracity, because they want to warn and update others.

Some choose to read known fake news sources simply because they find it entertaining. The reasons vary for the sharer and the consumer. They are also complex. More scientific research finds cultural and social reasons underlying false information.

Including these underlying reason, research in neuroscience shows us how fake news work. It finds that it is novelty — how creative fake news is, that catch our attention. The more outlandish, the more successful in going viral.

The science of it is beyond this column, except to say that whatever we like or share in social media has emotional content, which drives our motivation in our likes and dislikes.

Platforms such as Facebook and Twitter know this and are now designed to provide users with information that they already like or agree with. This has been criticised as strengthening existing biases and political prejudices, in turn creating the “echo chamber”.

This risks the users cutting themselves off from information that they don’t like or that contradicts their prior assumptions.

Drawing from these, other studies show that fake news is not just making people believe false things but also making them less likely to consume or accept information. This less acceptance of other information could be because of losing trust. The BBC research expressed the concern.

It observed how the spread of fake news can undermine legitimate news because it erodes trust. The example of Uganda radio show shows how this trust could be eroded; simply because the 5-million-shilling promise was made in a radio owned by the New Vision, a reputable media house.

The large crowd that included hundreds of motorcycle riders converged at the media and would not leave until they got the money. It took no less that Robert Kabushenga, Vision Group CEO, to convince them that it had been a hoax that the media house much regretted.

It is the same about the fake Magufuli appeal to Tanzanian men. The story was first published in the English language Zambia Observer website. It, however, only went viral after being published in the popular Tanzania Swahili website,, from where it was exposed as fake news.

The one about Jesus turning up on the streets of Kenya was gimmick orchestrated by a Kenyan preacher. Some had initially believed the hoax. 

The views expressed in this article are of the author.

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