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The spread of falsehoods across information ecosystems in West Africa is growing. Although enabled by increasing access to social media and the internet across the region, the flow of fake news is not simply confined to online spaces but moves between offline and digital environments with regularity and ease. A rumour that is started by an online influencer on Facebook, once trending, can become a topic of debate and discussion for television or radio talk shows, broadening its audience. These debates, in turn, are then discussed and debated in gathering spots such as markets, atayah bases, okada stages or grins enabling them to disseminate through well-established word of mouth rumour networks. Completing the circle, these offline rumours can then be transposed back online and can either be further skewed to disinform or simply reinforce an already circulating falsehood.

The way information flows between online and offline networks is critical for understanding how fake news spreads and influences actions across West Africa. So
too is trust. Information that a recipient deems to be from a trustworthy source – be that the original source of the information or the individual who last shared it – remains fundamental to decisions about what is true and what is not, along with whether the information aligns with existing beliefs and biases. These factors are increasingly well understood by those involved in the
purposeful spreading of falsehoods online across West Africa particularly on issues relating to politics and health.

This report draws on the findings of 15 studies undertaken in 2021 covering all members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Information was gathered through desk-based research, key informant interviews, focus group discussions and the authors’ experiences of using social media platforms. This regional report draws out some of the key trends from those studies. It highlights the individuals or organizations involved in the spread of falsehoods, the tactics they seek to employ, and the influence and impact that they are having. It then draws attention to the range of approaches adopted so far to respond to the ‘fake news’ threat. It concludes by offering recommendations to key stakeholders about what more can — and should — be done.

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