A view from Malawi | Combating fake news and the ‘infodemic’

Wednesday, 13 January 2021 11:48 GMT

REUTERS/Adriane Ohanesian

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Combating fake news and the infodemic is proving difficult despite most countries having enacted laws that criminalise peddling false information.

Part of the problem is because governments have no control over social media platforms where fake news is mostly shared. This limits the influence of instruments to enforce the law and deal with suspects. Therefore, there is a need for close cooperation between governments and tech giants in Silicon Valley for success in reducing the spread of false information via social media.

Malawi, like any other country, has also suffered a fair share of fake news. It must be noted that levels of fake news soar with particular events. Between 2019 and 2020 Malawi has experienced high traffic of fake news due to fresh elections and the COVID-19 pandemic.

During elections, candidates, political parties and (special) interest groups produce more fake news as they try to woo voters using manipulative messages. The pandemic produced more fake news because it is new. As such, there were many information gaps regarding its origins, signs and symptoms and treatment. Perpetrators took advantage of this gap to provide information, most of which turned out to be fake news. 

For those involved in the fight against fake news, it has been an interesting time and a learning process at the same time.

We have learned that bad governance can give impetus to the spread of fake news. This is because when there is bad governance, people lose trust and confidence in both the government and political authority. When that happens, people resort to fake news as a way of protesting, venting anger and attempting to discredit and remove the government.

This scenario played out in the fresh elections which took place in Malawi in June this year. Leading up to them, Malawi was faced with a dilemma: to hold elections amid the pandemic and risk infections or defer the elections and prioritise taming the pandemic.

The government led by former president Peter Mutharika wanted to prioritise fighting the pandemic and hold elections later. But the opposition and a majority of Malawians wanted the elections first and to deal with the pandemic later. This conflict provided a fertile ground for the spread of fake Every time the government, through the Ministry of Health, published figures of new infections, a majority of Malawians disregarded the figures, eyeing them with suspicion. Most people felt the government was deliberately amplifying the figures to build a case against the elections. People felt this was a plan by Mutharika to prolong his stay in power.

This lack of trust in the government and political leadership contributed to the spread of fake news. At one point a rumour spread that the former president Peter Mutharika was no more. Some people publicly disputed the results of their COVID-19 tests in the media because of mistrust in the government. This completely undermined the national response against COVID-19.

At one-point, former head of state Joyce Banda told people at a rally that there was no COVID-19 in Malawi. In the end Malawians paid a price as infection figures increased dramatically after the elections. Trust in the government only returned after a new government was elected to power, led by news. Lazarus Chakwera and Saulos Chilima, under the Tonse Alliance Party. People started taking COVID-19 messages seriously and observing preventive measures.

These are some of the challenges involved in fighting fake news. Good governance can help reduce fake news. Even civic education can work only in an environment where citizens trust their political leaders.

-   Kandani Ngwira, newspaper journalist, Malawi, Thomson Reuters Foundation Alumnus

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