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Fake News and Implications for Democratic Governance

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Ahead of Ghana’s 2020 elections, concerns of spiraling rise of fake news and its osmotic penetration into public discourse was feared to become the conduit for character assassination, falsehood peddling and publication of dated information already debunked as false. As anticipated, fake news and malicious information were kneaded into the information ecosystem, thus staining and denting information the general public is exposed to on legacy and new media platforms.

Given that elections are about the struggle for power, information shared by political parties are meant, largely, to influence the decision of the electorate to vote in a particular way. Though there are divergent schools of thought on the potential impact of fake news on the behavior of voters (Cantarella, Fraccaroli & Volpe, 2019; Wang, 2020; & Lee, 2020), what is not in doubt is that fake news is perceived by some individuals as a true reflection of reality and they will not bog down to accept views contrary to what they have heard, seen, or read from platforms with which they share similar beliefs and ideologies (Nguyen, 2020). Verification of information by media audiences is often not given priority, thus exposing consumers of information to well-crafted messages intended  to distort reality and ultimately misinform a target community. While verification has become somewhat a challenging task for many, fake information continues to fester; feeding on the vulnerability and gullibility of individuals.

Media platforms, particularly social media, have been singled out as the breeding ground for fake news. According Mavridis (2018), fake news about current social or political issues is regularly circulated on social media with tremendous speed and these fake stories are created to misinform or deceive audiences, influence people’s views, push a political agenda or cause confusion and can often be a profitable business for online publishers

In an era where media audiences are not merely observers and readers of information but have become active contributors, content generators and publishers in the news feed (Bell, 2014), there is the expectation, however, that the practice of information verification will be adhered to. This, often, goes awol, giving a window for fake information to sneak in and eventually populate media platforms. The gatekeeping role played in traditional newsroom set-ups has contributed immensely in double-checking of information before media audiences are exposed to it. Editors and proofreaders have and continue to perform that verification role aimed at ensuring that news presented is devoid of misinformation (Born & Edgington, 2017). 

Beyond the opportunity presented by online spaces to media users to create and share their own content to their audiences, the fundamental right of individuals to free speech is also bolstered by a medium that seeks to provide the platform for many to express their opinions and contribute to socio-political discussions on national issues. In Ghana, the constitution grants the right to all persons to freely express their opinion (Endert, Moore, & Suuk, 2019) and this right is consistent with other international protocols on freedom of expression (O’Flaherty, 2012) that Ghana has signed on to. In the wake of widespread fake news, majorly on online platforms where media users post, share and re-share information they have, often not verifying its authenticity, many observers are beginning to shudder on the potential implications of fake news on a fledgling democracy like Ghana. How much effort and measures can be put in place to either control or exterminate fake news in this young democracy remains a daunting task for policy makers, especially when such a step may potentially lead to some sort of censorship or an outright blackout of persons or group of persons from exercising their right to free speech? 

While it is expected that the exercise of one’s right to free speech is consciously carried out without abuse, much of the evidence (Anderson & Rainie, 2017; Fletcher et al, 2018)) observed on online platforms points to a situation where media users have found social media as an extension of their voices to propagate, intentionally or unintentionally, misleading information that has the propensity to arouse anxiety, create fear and panic and doubts in the minds of the citizenry.

Fake News as a News Industry 

Business organisations have products and services they market, primarily, to rake in income and make profit. For media organisations, the product marketed is information. That information must be newsworthy and must have the element of currency, relevance, oddity, prominence, timeliness, proximity, and sometimes accompanied by controversy. The news media, until recently, was basically newspapers, radio and television. Often, the underpinning motivation behind news publication is to inform, educate and entertain (Le Jeune, 2009). These canons have been a guide for all media houses and media professionals who ply their trade in the media terrain.  

However, in recent years, the emergence of fake news disguising itself as factual information has challenged and continues to challenge the status quo of what mainstream news is expected to achieve. Fake news as we see today circulating on all media platforms do not inform, rather they are either intentionally or inadvertently published to misinform (Dentith, 2017).. Gradually, fake news is gaining roots in information dissemination and has taken a niche within the spectrum of the information ecosystem.

The unrestricted access to media use coupled with the difficulty in regulating content especially on online spaces have made it extremely challenging for many policymakers and other stakeholders to find a solution to this festering canker. The danger, however, is that this growing phenomenon has raced into public conversations on key developmental issues. Creators and perpetrators of fake news though may have failed in upholding the principal canons of journalism, the level of attention given to it by those exposed to it makes the fight to exterminate it an arduous one.

Bearing the semblance of a news organisation, the fake news industry is fast becoming an institution on its own where it has creators of information, its audiences and platforms for dissemination of the created information.  Given the negative impact that fake news could have on individuals, it is expected that perpetrators of such forms of news would act responsibly, bearing in mind not to sacrifice their right to free speech on the altar of sensationalism and mischief. 

Touted as the fourth estate of the realm that holds government and policymakers accountable, the need therefore for information coming from the media to be factually accurate should be a sacred totem that bears on the work of any individual who takes up the responsibility to share information to the general public. However, any effort that deviates from this ideal position is either undermining the work of media professionals or somewhat, staining and blotting the intended impact news information is supposed to have in building strong democracies.

Fake News as a Business Enterprise

As a business enterprise, creators of fake information in the form of click bates, memes, and satires have successfully managed to direct traffic to their web pages in a bid to attract advertisement and attention to their web platforms. These phenomena portray a picture of fake news as a deliberate economic venture (Parsons, 2020) that capitalizes on the curious tendencies of humanity. As a bait, the news item lures readers to a web page to read stories often created by online users to serve as a deviation from the facts of information.

The flip side of the argument, however, is that fake news is occasionally used by competitors in a capitalist market to tarnish the brands of other competitors in the same market. The overarching goal is to cause disaffection for a product or service in favour of a demand for the other in the same market space. Thus, fake news has become the conduit for trade wars and competition for clients in the business arena.

One of the underpinning tenets of democracies is a free market economy where individuals with resources can engage in legal businesses with the aim of making profit. Taxes from such private businesses in most cases have been the financial mainstay used to bankroll developmental activities across the length and breadth of a country. As a cardinal principle, democratic governments encourage private businesses to operate in a free and conducive environment and, by and large, their operation is expected to have a positive impact on the country’s economy, therewith, reducing unemployment and creating wealth at the same time.

Thus, fake news is not restricted to the inky fraternity but spreads its tentacles to the world of business. While media audiences continue to scratch their heads over how to overcome this menace, the business environment is not spared the agony that fake news brings along. As a constituent of democracy, businesses truly need the air to survive and flourish and given the prowling impact of fake news on business survival, the clarion call for perpetrators of fake news to halt their activities has become louder than before. 

Like the media front, exposure to fake information about a product or service offering of a company spreads so fast that even when the information is fact-checked and turned out to be untrue, fewer numbers get to know the truth of the false story first circulated. Ironically, in many instances, the true originators of the stories are unknown yet online users share information without a prompt about verifying the source.

Fake News as a Political Strategy

The politics of fake news is perhaps the most common in most democracies. For example, in the United States of America, fake news gained momentum prior to the coming into office of President Donald Trump in 2016. He often branded news organisations as perpetrating fake news and branded some news information about him as fake. Indeed, in the 2020 US presidential race, the issue of fake news resurfaced and was used by both the Republican Party and the Democrats as well.

In Ghana, the use of fake news as a political weapon to run down competing opponents in either a presidential or a parliamentary race is common.  Political opponents crisscrossing the length and breadth of the country get closer to the electorate and make promises in an attempt to win their confidence for votes. Some of the campaign messages come along with statements that when verified, turn out to be outright falsehoods. Political parties, especially the two main contending parties in the just-ended presidential elections in Ghana, the New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the National Democratic Congress (NDC) had groups online that propagated messages about one another that turned out to be untrue when subjected to the litmus test of verification. A viral video of Ghana’s President Akuffo-Addo, purporting that he was taking a bribe was found to be a  doctored material when the content of the video was subjected to thorough examination by Dubawa, a leading fact-checking organisation in Ghana.

To the extent that political race is ultimately aimed at getting control over power and resources, these fake news in public discourses are often targeted at opponents to tarnish a projected reputation. The democratic system of governance in Ghana allows for the exchange of ideas in any public place of opinion. However, like all the other challenges associated with fake news, the factual basis of disseminated information is often missing, rather, a forceful attempt is made by the peddlers of such misleading information to present the information as true and sacrosanct (Dentith, 2017).

With perhaps no interest to verify information or perhaps, totally naïve about fact-checking, the electorate is likely to be exposed to and further embrace misleading stories in public space or on media platforms. Such fake stories are eventually disseminated to an even more vulnerable population who do not have the resources and the know-how to either do an independent verification or seek assistance from professional bodies to fact-check information. This lacuna created by the limited number of fact-checking organisations in Ghana has, in many ways, given the grounds for fake news to outpace fact-checked information on media platforms.

Fake News as a Social Media Phenomenon

Without a doubt, fake news has become synonymous with online spaces. The creation of echo chambers online has given the wheels to the spread of fake news in almost all facets of the socio-cultural aspect of human life. Digital media platforms have become a megaphone for online users who wish to share one information or the other whether factual or laden with factual inaccuracies.

A major characteristic feature with these online users and by extension the echo chambers is that they believe in information shared in the groups they belong to online and no amount of dissenting views they are exposed to will change their already held beliefs (Rhodes, 2019). Indeed, some scholars have argued that the major reason why misinformation continues to thrive is that fake news shared in online groups tends to reinforce an already held biases of the members of the group and no amount of an alternative to their “truth” will ever change their position on an issue.

While successive governments in a country make efforts to entrench democratic ideals, it is expected that journalists and media users share information that is factually accurate and purposefully truthful. A deviation from this norm is indicative of an abuse of the right to free speech that the constitution of the republic grants citizens.

Implications of Fake News on Democratic Governance 

The various pillars of democracy are ultimately aimed at promoting development and empowering the masses to be actively involved in the decision making processes at the grassroots to the national level of public discourse. The right to free speech is expected to be respected by countries like Ghana that have signed on to related international protocols. In recent years, however, the attending challenges that have come with the right of individuals to freely express their opinion on social media platforms has triggered debates among policymakers as to how best to ensure that information shared on media platforms are devoid of untruths.

Three main areas often appear hardly hit by the spread of fake news in most democratic societies where free speech is often a trump card and a hallmark of the country – lack of public trust in information, threat to human lives and lack of public and community support for government initiatives.

Lack of trust in information 

Fake news blurs the lines between the facts and falsehood and often it takes painstaking verification to ascertain the truth in an information one is exposed to. As fake news grows in leaps and bounds, the effect has been a certain lack of interest in information shared on media platforms. This occurrence has a rippling effect on several areas of society including casting doubt on information shared by government sources and other relevant bodies in the country.

The danger in it is simply that where the citizenry is needed to adhere to one information or the other, they may dismiss it; tainting it with doubts. This of course has the effect of stonewalling the efforts in promoting the good ideals of democratic principles in countries such as Ghana. 

Threat on lives

Another challenge from the effect of fake news on the populace is the reluctance to participate in national activities. If fake news succeeds in discrediting a source of information, it equally goes to put doubt on the message coming from the same source. 

One area that perpetrators of fake news have often targeted is the health and wellness sector. In the past few months, the entire globe has been brought to its knees by the rampaging impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Many theories have been advanced about what the cause of the disease may have been and medicines that could cure the disease. Many of the so-called antidotes to the coronavirus infection have proven to be untrue. 

With a recent announcement of a vaccine found to help combat the disease, some conspiracy theories have suddenly flung through the roof with a warning to many to resist taking the vaccines. As governments in many countries make the effort to acquire and immunize their citizens, a potential face-off is likely to emerge where many who have been exposed to information about the toxin nature of the vaccines are likely to abstain and this may derail the effort of many countries to safeguard the lives of its citizens.

Lack of Public and Community Support for Government Initiatives

With information discredited, getting the support of the citizenry to support a government initiative will often come with challenges. Fake news targeting government policies can cause disaffection for the government and its officials and this could translate in lack of support for a successful implementation of one project or programme or the other.

Democracy, as has been famously defined, is a government of the people, by the people and for the people. It stands to reason that any form of governance without the input of the masses is likely to suffer hitches and eventually cause dissatisfaction for a government in power. Given such circumstances, governments almost always make the effort to rally the citizens along with any form of policy initiative. The danger, however, is that, when fake news and falsehood are targeted at running down such initiatives the tendency for it to hit a snag is high because of lack of support from the populace. Propaganda has often been used within political circles to achieve this agenda. The end effect, however, is that intended developmental projects will lag.

Conclusion

Information and exchange of ideas have always been at the heart of building strong democracies. The upsurge in fake news has obviously muddied the information ecosystem and these concerns have triggered attention to find an antidote to confront the growing menace. Fact-checking institutions have come in handy in an effort to ensure sanity in the dissemination of messages on media platforms. Arguably, with many of these institutions available, citizens will have assurances of messages they are exposed to on media platforms and the resultant effect will be tacit support for government projects and programmes and trust in government information will be high.

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