“Fake news” is the modern shorthand for humankind’s ageless penchant to engage in rumor, hearsay and gossip – all of which can harbor deadly consequences during a public health emergency. Like now.
Pandemics have been strongly linked to the spread of fake news which can often pique the curiosity of audiences through unusual content – whether it’s wild exaggerations of contagion levels or stigmatizing suspected carriers or the promise of miracle cures. Traveling up to 70 per cent faster than reliable news, erroneous information can be harmful not only to one’s health by encouraging unproven health practices, but also to the trust populations have in authorities or public institutions.
IOM’s Niger Community Cohesion Initiative (NCCI), together with partner GeoAnalytics Center, launched this week a nationwide online campaign “Fake News”, with the goal of reducing its proliferation across the country.
The GeoAnalytics Center is a Nigerien NGO whose purpose is to strengthen technological programmes in the fields of education, gender and governance. The NGO works on the premise that when adapted to local conditions, technology can serve an essential role for communication, and empowerment.
The NCCI programme addresses key drivers of conflict, including youth unemployment, increased reach of violent extremist organizations, and feelings of exclusion among different ethnic groups. It has been implemented with support from the United States Agency for International Development/Office of Transition Initiatives (USAID/OTI) starting in 2014.
Although it trails neighboring countries in internet penetration, Niger has been advancing steadily, expanding its 3G networks and making smartphones more affordable, increasing the use of social media, especially among the young.
As beneficial as digitalization is, social media also unleashes harmful consequences – such as spreading hate speech, radical messages and anti-migrant sentiments.
“Harmful disinformation is rapidly spreading on social media,” said Alan Bobbett, NCCI Chief of Party and Programme Manager in Niger. “We hope through the launch of this online nationwide campaign to promote critical thinking around the consumption of fake news.”
In the context of the current global health crisis, Niger’s GeoAnalytics Center notes, it’s crucial to share accurate information to raise awareness in the difference between real and fake news.
Under a previous effort with NCCI, the NGO trained a hundred young civil society leaders from the Tillabéri region in the use of social media, as well as in critical thinking and the detection of fake news. Nigerien filmmakers previously trained by the NGO have encouraged other young people to participate in the creation of campaign videos.
“Without trust, basic interactions between people collapse and polarization in societies increases,” explained Eduard Peris Deprez, the centre’s director.
In its Fake News campaign, audiovisual products are created and disseminated online. Short videos and “memes” address themes using humor and a vocabulary adapted to the target audience.
Videos are being produced in local languages with French subtitles – and made available in low resolution to ensure a wider dissemination despite internet connectivity issues in some of Niger’s regions. To create a snowball effect, audiovisual material is to be published via WhatsApp and Facebook, Niger’s most popular social networks.
WhatsApp remains the most popular application among the young people surveyed by the NGO (85% of men, 91% of women), independently of the level of education. This is due particularly to the audio option offered by the app, which allows illiterate users to access it with ease.