While the west slowly manoeuvres to combat the radicalisation and polarisation caused by inflammatory fake news, misinformation is driving atrocities in Myanmar, so-called WhatsApp murders in India and ethnically-motivated conflict in Nigeria.
The BBC World Service is demonstrating fake news' impact beyond the English-speaking world and pressuring tech companies to take action to surface respectable news outlets more effectively.
Jamie Angus, editorial director of BBC Global News, is leading a charge on fake news in its largest international markets, Nigeria, Kenya and India – places where untruths can directly cause loss of life. As a trusted broadcaster that reaches a weekly global audience of 346 million people across 42 languages, Angus believes it has a unique perspective on the issue and can identify levers that will help reduce its severity.
Angus and his team are keen to highlight that ‘fake news’ is not solely a western phenomenon. Speaking to The Drum, he says: "What frustrates me is that fake news gets treated as a media talking point, particularly with president Trump and CNN. Fake news and its associated phenomena is causing real-world consequences for our audiences.”
Beyond the west, and even beyond English language news, misinformation is influencing, and sometimes directly causing, loss of life – particularly, according to Angus, in South East Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Angus points to "hysteria scares around child abduction gangs" on WhatsApp in India, intercommunal violence in Nigeria and Facebook enabling Myanmar military hate speech and massacres.
He says: "There are half a dozen examples around the world where people will lose their lives.
“One of the reasons I set fake news as a key strategic priority for the BBC World Service group is that almost all the large markets we operate in outside the UK, fake news is growing or already large.”
The root of the problem
Research from the BBC released late in 2018 found that nationalism is one of the main drivers of fake news in Kenya and Nigeria.
As part of its Beyond Fake News initiative, Angus’ team dug into the psychological anchors motivating people to share fake news. In India, 'nationalistic messages’ were often distributed to large private chat app groups with less scrutiny. Content promoting “Hindu glory” was prominent, with sharers often saying they felt duty bound to pass on the message.
In Kenya and Nigeria, there was more of an emphasis on sharing breaking news with friends, families and communities, as a means of sharing information to those with limited access. The BBC's report said “a sense of duty to democratise access to information is also seen to be at play here”. It found that in Nigeria and Kenya, Facebook users were just as likely to consume either fake or legitimate news sources. They were not entirely concerned by the quality of the source either.
Last year, BBC Africa ran a Twitter thread in exhaustive detail, investigating an execution it found was carried out by Cameroonian soldiers on the border of Nigeria. This extensive report, plaudited by some, was still dismissed as fake news by some critical parties despite all of the evidence being laid out on a platter.
In July 2018, a horrifying video began to circulate on social media.
2 women & 2 young children are led away by a group of soldiers. They are blindfolded, forced to the ground, and shot 22 times. #BBCAfricaEye investigated this atrocity. This is what we found... pic.twitter.com/oFEYnTLT6z
— BBC News Africa (@BBCAfrica) September 24, 2018
Meanwhile, fake cancer cures and political smears were commonplace from other media, according to the report.
During the BBC’s event Nigeria 2019: Countering Fake News earlier in January, professor Wole Soyinka, Nobel laureate, half-jokingly said: "If we are not careful, World War III will be started by fake news and that fake news will be probably generated by a Nigerian."
Angus reflects on this comment: “He was making a serious point that fake news has real-world consequences. It is more than just 'look what president Trump has done now'.”
Reading the situation
Media literacy is one of the problems letting falsehoods take hold online. One solution identified by the broadcaster is teaching children to be critical of the media and the information they consume in schools. To this end it has set up some pilots in India to help drive this message, tailoring academic content already in circulation in the UK as part of the BBC Young reporter scheme. It is in pursuit of partners, governments and philanthropic organisations to help it extend the scheme internationally.
While the likes of Facebook and Twitter have largely been scrutinised for the fake news that rises on their networks, Angus outlines concern with massively popular, end-to-end encrypted messaging services that take viral fake news into massive, untraceable networks where it can’t be directly challenged or corrected. In short, the fake news issues on the largest social networks are in the very least visible.
He says: “All of those [chat app] features are particularly liable to the spread of low quality or fake news or disinformation. It is unsearchable. Facebook and Twitter are indexable, can be searched by machines, chat is unlike that. It is only when it is too late that you find out a partially toxic piece of fake news has been shared in chat.”
The solution is opening up the platforms for trusted broadcasters like the BBC according to Angus. For example, he proposes working with WhatsApp during the Indian election to push established facts, pledges and news directly into feeds to improve the health of debate. Such partnerships could be more widely applied globally.
“It is a complex issue, there needs to be action on global media literacy, cooperation and collaboration between quality news publishers and tech platforms to ensure the best stuff floats to the top.” Regulation, he said, should be a final resort if broadcasters and platforms fail to come to a resolution. “Journalists want to see a news economy that raises up the good to the detriment of the bad.”
He optimistically notes that the tech platforms are starting to move on the issues. “In the last 18 months, some of the big platforms have woken up to the fact it isn't a problem that's going away.”
In addition to surfacing trusted sources of news, the tech platforms should also pay to support them for populating the networks with trusted information.
“They should be working with the BBC and other quality commercial publishers to make sure that high-quality journalism pays better. We are commercially-funded internationally, we understand this space and the quality that publishers need to have a sustainable operating model in order to do good work.”
Youth outreach remains the biggest priority of the group, broadly, and in combating fake news. To do so, the BBC has had to reposition from platforms where it enjoyed a supreme share of voice like radio and TV to accommodate new audiences in voice, chat apps, social, digital and more.
“We can't rest on our laurels and assume that audiences will come to us, because the evidence is that they won't'.
“In the digital space, the BBC could get lost in the cacophony… there's not a shortage of high-quality independent journalism in the world - it is just that the digital pipework that links audience interested with that with the content providers has somehow got broken and jumbled up because of the huge digital disruption that we are living through. I remain quite optimistic that over time we will get to a better place."
We spoke to Jamie Angus and a host of media and information experts for our March magazine issue, which explores information warfare, cybersecurity and digital conflict. Make sure you get your copy by subscribing here.