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GHANA’S 2020 ELECTION: CAN FAKE NEWS INFLUENCE VOTING BEHAVIOUR?

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Introduction

Since the return to constitutional rule in 1992, Ghanaians have been going to the polls to elect their president every four years. The president, so elected, can seek reelection for another four years after the expiration of the first term.

Ghana’s fourth republic has witnessed seven (7) successive elections with five (5) different presidents sworn into office. As Ghana prepares to go into another election on December 7, 2020, political party candidates, officials, affiliates and assigns crisscross the length and breadth of the country to canvass for votes. At the heart of campaigning are messages targeted at the electorate to persuade and woo them to vote for presidential and parliamentary candidates.

Famously, these campaign messages during election periods are often interlaced with innuendos, insults and lately, fake news. While fake news is generally not new to public discourse, its endemic strain that has managed to meander and permeate every aspect of political discussions have often been flagged as a potential danger that could blur the lines of choice between what is credible news information and what is not.

The 2016 America’s presidential elections is often referenced as the conduit for rejuvenating, nurturing, blossoming and embossment of fake news in political discourse in American body politics and consequently its spread across the globe. The spread gradually webbed America’s new age of politics and in no time political messaging and campaign strategies were swarmed by the canker of fake news. From 2016 onwards, the political state of play has changed – campaign messages and social media buzzes that preceded the 2020 American elections were indications of what battle the world has in its hand in an effort to douse the conflagration whizz of information disorder.

As another election beckons amidst a coronavirus pandemic, Ghana, one of the trail blazers of democratic ideals on the African continent is trapped in a mixed bag of heightened anxiety and a brace for battle to counter the effect of festering fake news in its body politics. Identifying sources, putting together formidable structures and a sustained effort to sanitize the information ecosystem is quintessentially a precursor to restoring sanity and credibility in public discourse and all political conversations.

What is fake news?

Hindman & Barash (2018) define fake news as content that has the appearance of credible news stories, but without going through the process of verification. They further assert that fake news is fraudulent not just because it is factually false (though of course it usually is), but because it skips the procedures that make real news trustworthy.

Scholars have shared varying perspectives of what constitutes fake news and this has often given grounds for a lack of an agreed working understanding of the definition of the term. According to Mukerji (2018), fake news is simply a false news story shared on media platforms, particularly digital media for the consumption of audiences. Gelfert (2018) on his part interrogates the intent and the design of fake news stories and posits that fake news is the deliberate presentation of (typically) false or misleading claims as news, where the claims are misleading by design.

Bates et al (2017) assert on the other hand that fake news is news that is supposed to convince readers that it is real when it is not. It may look just like a real news article but it contains information that is not true. Their article argues further that the term ‘fake news’ is used to describe falsehoods which are presented as news and that the term itself is an oxymoron, a contradiction in itself, because news cannot actually be fake. Underpinning these definitions is a pointer that fake news is an information that is a departure from what is factually accurate. 

How popular and widespread is fake news?

According to Watson (2020) news audiences are at higher risk than ever of encountering and sharing fake news in an age where the internet is frequently the main source of information. She explains that a greater majority of audiences rely heavily on media for daily updates on news across the globe and often they take for granted that what they read, watch or listen to is truthful and reliable.

She asserts that ‘Identifying fake news is made harder by the fact that it is rapidly becoming an industry of its own, with individuals paid to write sensationalist stories and create clickbait content to increase site traffic. Misinformation, fiction masquerading as fact, and deliberate lies can be made to look legitimate and can easily spread among thousands of users in a matter of minutes’.

Available statistics show that the 2016 elections in the United States of America had an estimated 126 million Americans, roughly one-third of the nation’s population, receiving Russian-backed content on Facebook during the 2016 campaign. Twitter also reported 36,746 automated accounts — or bots — that were linked to Russia between September 1 and November 15, 2016. The accounts tweeted 1.4 million times and were seen 288 million times.

A report published by Digital Education in January 2020 mentioned that fake news has become more ubiquitous in recent years and it is making it difficult for all persons including juveniles to spot the disorder in news items. In 2017, a Guardian report revealed that “Fake news” has acquired a certain legitimacy after being named word of the year by Collins, following what the dictionary called its “ubiquitous presence” over the last 12 months. The report said the word had increased by 365% since 2016.

How partisan is Fake News?

According to Hindman and Barash (2018), fake news assumed political coloration during the 2016 presidential race in America. The contest saw a proliferation of fake content emanating from pro Trump camps targeted at the Democrats all in a bid to discredit their campaign messages and their presidential candidate. The report asserted that though fake news was heavy in the message design of the Republican campaigns, the Democrats were neither saints at it. The avenues for propagation of these messages were however on social media particularly twitter and Facebook.

The Constitutional Rights Foundation (2017) shares similar views and makes the point that the spread of fake news is predominantly motivated by politics; and political figures share such information in groups created on social media platforms in a form of echo chambers. Lazer et al (2017) intimate that the current social media systems provide a fertile ground for the spread of misinformation that is particularly dangerous for political debate in a democratic society. The study alludes that social media platforms provide a megaphone to anyone who can attract followers and the tendency to follow like-minded people leads to the creation of echo chambers and filter bubbles, which exacerbate polarization.

Does fake news influence voting behaviour?

In their work, Does fake news affect voting behaviour?, Cantarella, Fraccaroli & Volpe (2019) argue that the influence of fake news on electoral behaviour of voters is not supported by their empirical assessment. Their study rather asserts strongly that the spread of fake is common to eco-chambers where fake stories being circulated within the group goes to reinforce a biased opinion held by members in the group. The fake news so circulated, effectively aligns with their political beliefs and will ultimately not be the pendulum that will make members in the group sway their votes to other contesting opponents.

A study by Thijssen (2017) on The Effects Of Fake News On Political Attitudes on the contrary make the point that fake news can influence voting behavior especially in a situation where persons exposed to the information believe the fake story to be true. Thijssen however agrees with the assertion that often, the belief in fake news is premised on the reinforcement of a preconceived notion and biases of the individual. The position of Thijssen is re-echoed in the work of Zimmermann & Kohring (2019) who assert that though fake news is able to influence the decision making process of those exposed to it, its causality in influencing voting patterns could not be established. Relatedly, findings of a study by Wang (2020) confirmed that false news affected Taiwanese voters’ judgment of the news and their voting decisions. According to the study, more than 50 percent of the voters cast their votes without knowing the correct campaign news. 

Though extant literature generally agrees that fake news has some level of influence on people’s voting decisions, what studies have not emphatically stated is to establish a direct relationship between exposure to fake stories and its impact on voting behaviour.

What is an eco-chamber?

According Philosopher C Thi Nguyen an echo chamber is a social structure from which other relevant voices have been actively discredited. He explains that eco chambers can be compared to cults arguing that their existence can in part explain what appears to be an increasing disregard for the truth. He further states that like cults, eco-chambers isolate its members by actively alienating them from any outside sources. Those outside are actively labelled as malignant and untrustworthy and the cult member’s trust is narrowed, aimed with laser-like focus on certain insider voices.

Garimella et al (2018) alludes to the fact that the term, eco-chamber refers to situations where people “hear their own voice” — or, particularly in the context of social media, situations where users consume content that expresses the same point of view that users themselves hold or express. Their study explains that eco-chambers are predominantly seen on digital media spaces such as blogs, twitter and Facebook. The members in the chamber agree with messages shared amongst them but discredit messages that are not congruent with their beliefs and strongly held opinions and ideologies.

 Are there political eco-chambers? 

Boyd (2019) reports in his study that political eco-chambers are popular online and are somewhat associated with political groups and political ideologies. He alludes that in these groups, political allegiance has replaced basic reasoning skills.  Members, thus, become trapped and wrap themselves in an intellectually impenetrable layer of like-minded friends and web pages and social media feeds. An eco-chamber member often distrusts the standard sources. Their trust has been redirected and concentrated inside the group. 

Garimella et al (2018) share a similar position and found in their study that partisan bloggers engage with blogs of a narrow spectrum of political views, which agree with their own. Similar occurrence replicated itself on other social media platforms such as twitter and Facebook. The evidence of political eco-chambers was not in doubt in their study, articulating the position of other scholarly studies that make the point that political eco-chambers have become grounds where messages are skewed in a way that reinforces already held biases.

Why does fake news thrive in political echo chambers?

Rhodes (2019) underscores the point that in order to appreciate how fake news and misleading information thrive in eco-chambers, a good assessment of the demographics of the group is germane to understanding the phenomenon. He explains that in homogeneous groups where group members share the same beliefs and ideologies, fake stories are perceived as real and irrespective of how it is presented, group members agree with such narratives. Such occurrences is a far departure from a group that is heterogeneous in character where group members are people of different orientation, beliefs and ideologies. Rhodes argues further that though a homogenous group is likely to believe a fake story as true, the frequency at which the fake story is re-shared to persons outside the group is low.

Lazer et al (2017) argues that fake news was prevalent in the political discourse of the 2016 U.S. election and fake stories were widely shared on social media, a platform that provides a megaphone for many who could attract followers to disseminate their information. The study concluded that the spread rather than consumption of fake stories was very common in political groupings online.

Are there political party eco-chambers in Ghana?

Social media is awashed with varying groups that are aligned to the two main political parties in Ghana – New Patriotic Party (NPP) and the Nation Democratic Congress (NDC). The incumbent New Patriotic Party and the opposition Nation Democratic Congress are visible on twitter and Facebook trumpeting their programmes and policies and sharing varying campaign messages.

As common to most eco chambers, messages shared receive endorsement and total support from other group members thus giving credence to studies that posit that political eco chambers are primarily homogeneous in nature and the messages shared within the group are trusted with no dissension. This is primarily because no matter how misleading the information is, the messages so shared reinforce group members’ biases and largely accentuate their beliefs.

Which political parties are contesting the 2020 elections in Ghana?

Towards the 2020 presidential and parliamentary elections in Ghana, twelve political parts have been cleared by the electoral commission of Ghana to take part in the contest. The parties are, New Patriotic Party (NPP), National Democratic Congress (NDC), Convention People’s Party (CPP), Liberal Party of Ghana (LPG), Progressive People’s Party (PPP) National Democratic Party (NDP), Ghana Freedom Party (GFP), Ghana Union Movement (GUM), an independent candidate; All People’s Congress (APC), People’s National Convention (PNC) and Great Consolidated Popular Party (GCPP).

Who are their presidential candidates?

Incumbent president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP), former President John Dramani Mahama of the National Democratic Congress (NDC), Mr Ivor Kobina Greenstreet of the Convention People’s Party (CPP), Mr Kofi Akpaloo of the Liberal Party of Ghana (LPG), Ms Brigitte Dzogbenuku of the Progressive People’s Party (PPP) and Nana Konadu Agyeman-Rawlings of the National Democratic Party (NDP), Madam Akua Donkor of the Ghana Freedom Party (GFP), Mr Christian Kwabena Andrews of the Ghana Union Movement (GUM), Mr Asiedu Walker, an independent candidate; Mr Hassan Ayariga of the All People’s Congress (APC), Mr David Apasera of the People’s National Convention (PNC) and Mr Henry Herbert Lartey of the Great Consolidated Popular Party (GCPP).

What are some tips for detecting fake news ahead of the 2020 elections in Ghana?

Though studies have indicated that very few people make the effort to verify information they are exposed to before they consume, an adherence to simple protocols could help the electorate , especially not to fall prey to the malice of fake news. The steps below serve as a guide in detecting a fake story within an eco-chamber – whether homogeneous or heterogeneous in character.

  • Read beyond the headline – A shocking, provocative headline might be just that. Read the entire article before believing and sharing it.
  • Know the source – Be sure the website you are on is an actual, legitimate news source. Many fake news sites are designed to look like real ones, even having a url just a letter or two different from its legitimate counterpart.
  • Check the date – Some articles may have been accurate when they were written, but after floating around on the internet for months or years are now outdated and inaccurate.
  • Question the intent  As you read an article, beware of hidden agendas. Is the article designed to sell you something, get you to believe something, or even be shocked or amused? If so, it’s probably fake news.
  • Check your own biases – So often we are inclined to take something as fact when it confirms our preexisting beliefs.
  • Do your own fact checking. We could once trust journalists to do this for us, but in the age of fake news we have to be willing to do it ourselves. If something seems unbelievable, it might just be. Use a fact checking site like FactCheck.org to investigate the validity of a story, especially before you share it. Try sticking to non-partisan resources if possible; again tough to know these days.

Available assistance to detect fake news

You can ask for our assistance if you are unsure of information you receive. Contact Dubawa Ghana via WhatsApp: 0542 81 81 89, on Facebook @dubawa, Twitter @DubawaGh or via email @[email protected] Alternatively, you can check our website, Ghana.dubawa.org for more

References

Cantarella, M., Fraccaroli, N & Volpe, R. (2019). Does fake news affect voting behaviour? 

Retrieved from https://researchportal.helsinki.fi/en/publications/does-fake-news-affect-voting-behaviour

Garimella, K., Francisci, D.G., & Gionis, A. (2018). Political Discourse on Social Media: Echo 

Chambers, Gatekeepers, and the Price of Bipartisanship. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1145/3178876.3186139

Gelfert, A. (2018). Fake News: A Definition. Department of Philosophy, Literature, History of 

Science and Technology Technical University of Berlin Informal Logic, Vol. 38, (1), pp. 84–117.

Lazer, D., Baum, M., Grinberg, N., Friedland, L., Joseph, K., Hobbs, W., & Mattsson, C. (2017). 

Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action. Conference held February 17–18, 2017 Organized by Matthew Baum (Harvard), David Lazer (Northeastern), and Nicco Mele (Harvard).

Mukerji, N (2018). What is Fake News? An Open Access Journal of Philosophy 

http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/ergo.

Rhodes, C. S. (2019). Echo Chambers and Misinformation: How Social Media Use Conditions 

Individuals to Believe Fake News. A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy Washington State University School of Politics, Philosophy, and Public Affairs

Thijssen, Y (2017). Breaking the News the Effects of Fake News on Political Attitudes. Faculty 

of Behavioural, Management and Social Sciences Master Communication Studies, University of Twente.

Wang, T.-L. (2020). Does Fake News Matter to Election Outcomes?: The Case Study of 

Taiwan’s 2018 Local Elections. Asian Journal for Public Opinion Research8(2), 67–104. https://doi.org/10.15206/ajpor.2020.8.2.67

Zimmermann, F. & Kohring, M. (2019). Mistrust, Disinforming News, and Vote Choice: A 

Panel Survey on the Origins and Consequences of Believing Disinformation in the 2017 German Parliamentary Election. Routledge 

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