From fake news to infodemic: ain’t it high time we used social media responsibly?

On 14 May 2020 at 07:03

As the world fights COVID19, we must also unite against the dangerous epidemic of misinformation said António Guterres, the UN Secretary General in a tweet posted on April 18th. A statement with a similar concern was made in mid-February 2020 by the WHO Director as he addressed a gathering of foreign policy and security experts in Munich, Germany. We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic, warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus referring to fake news that spreads faster and more easily than this virus.

The alarm raised by the two UN high ranking officials is substantive and worrying at a time when the world is grappling with an "invisible enemy" that has spread like a wildfire in a forest across the borders of developed and developing world, disrupting life for the rich and the poor alike in big and small cities and plunging world economies.

Users of social media platforms in Rwanda have witnessed cases in which institutions in the country had to intervene to urge the public to disregard false information circulating on social media and some internet sources.

There were many, but the most recent and notable among them is a false statement of cabinet resolutions that spread from one WhatsApp group to another while there was no such a meeting at all. Fake news also went as far as spreading rumors that Rwanda had registered the first death related to Covid-19.

The level at which false information “fake news” spreads around the world has reached an unprecedented level because with the increased internet connection, instant messaging services, and social media the world has become like a wired village where communities are closer to each other, and individuals much connected to each other that even a simple whisper can get far.

The Global Digital Report (GDR) 2020 indicates that 4.54 billion (59%) have access to the internet and the number of active social media users stands at 3.80 billion which is 49% of the total world population.

The latest figures by the Internet World Stats, a website that provides reports on internet access in the world, indicates that 5,981,638 Rwandans have access on the internet which makes them potential users and consumers of information on social media and other internet based channels. The most frequent social media used in Rwanda are Facebook, WhatsApp, twitter, youtube, Instagram

The number of social media users is also expected to continue rising thanks to the Connect Rwanda, an initiative aimed at distributing smartphones to families that cannot afford to buy one. During the Connect Rwanda campaign, the Ministry of ICT and Innovation revealed that out of 2.8 million households existing in Rwanda 14% have at least one smartphone.

According to Rwanda Media Barometer 2018, produced by RGB, the fiber-optic cable laid around the country is gradually increasing public access to “new media” or Social Media and other high-tech driven sources of information among other advantages.

The benefits are immense. Service delivery is becoming faster and cost effective, communication, and information much easier, accountability, and transparency enhanced. And more importantly, people were able to work from home and deliver services during the lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

On the other side, the irresponsible use and abuse of the information technologies and social media is also on the rise. With the new media, a user is both a content creator and publisher; they can record an audio, edit a video, create a text including any information they want, true or false and send it to the public through social media channels.

In the case of the false information reporting the first Covid-19 death in Rwanda, a voice of someone pretending to be familiar with the case was shared on several WhatsApp groups until the information was refuted as a rumor.

Some users tend to consume the information they get uncritically, go on to share it with friends, classmates, workmates, village mates. It could be hard for some users to detect false information because the authors use fake accounts of real institutions, photoshopped stamps, and letterheads that in some cases look like genuine ones.

Some rumors are also created around existing issues, realities, and occurrences like in the case of the statement of cabinet resolutions that members of the public were anxiously waiting for. Lack of digital media literacy is also contributing to the lack of questioning over content consumed. People must carefully verify the sources of information whether they are credible before duplicating by sharing.

Among the new media sources of information, we cannot ignore to talk about the explosion of Youtube channels some of which work as television stations. Some of the content carried using videos is fictional.

We have seen some videos where the producers claimed they met with the devil eye to eye (Twiboneye satani imbona nkubone). These are fake news that are unethical and punishable under cybersecurity laws.

Content creators on Youtube channels can increase their viewers without indulging in falsehoods which sometimes even instill fear among the population. In Rwanda’s case, Youtube content creators can make more profit than mainstream media if they concentrate on customized content that is valued by the audience.

As I conclude, social media may be an effective tool or a harmful tool depending on how we users want it to be. However, as I observe it today, the problem lies in that there is a growing number of people using it irresponsibly. It is high time we learned to use social media responsibly and consume content shared thereon in a healthier way.