In the post-truth age, communication is changing significantly, at both the political and the social level. It has become much more emotional and has no regard for facts. This is evident almost everywhere – and the African continent is no exception. Domestic political actors and external powers are increasingly resorting to disinformation. Large-scale campaigns are exercising political influence in countries such as Uganda, Sudan and Mali. Russian interference, in particular, is often subject to scrutiny by disinformation experts and decision-makers.
Yet, reliable insights into the actual impact of such campaigns remain relatively few and far between. Measuring the social impact of disinformation is a methodological challenge. And the question of how disinformation can be effectively countered – by journalists, tech companies and governments – has still to be answered. We debated these issues with experts, stakeholders and policymakers at the last Megatrends Afrika policy workshop to take place in 2022.
Disinformation spreads where information is lacking. The online world has created new opportunities everywhere for news and information to be consumed – faster, more often and with international outreach. This blurs the traditional distinction between journalists, on the one hand, and activists or advocates, on the other. Both sides publish information, but its framing and quality are strikingly different. And for quality journalism in particular, this changed environment poses a major challenge.
But disinformation is not a purely online phenomenon. It spreads both online and offline. However, the public debate about disinformation often takes place only via social networks.
Such an approach does not reflect the scope of the phenomenon, especially in African contexts. The digital revolution is not yet omnipresent, and the ubiquitous focus on internet-based social media overlooks the continued importance of traditional media, especially radio. A study by the Fondation Hirondelle shows that radio continues to dominate the media marketplace in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar. It is the most trusted medium. Many citizens get their information mainly from local radio stations.
This is due not only to the insufficient penetration of the internet but also to inadequate electricity supply. In the CAR, just 14.3 per cent of citizens have access to electricity. And while more and more people are using the internet, they want to network and keep in touch with others, not find out about something.
It is often major events such as an election or a worldwide pandemic that open the door to disinformation. Such situations invariably lead to polarization and radical opinions – both offline and online. As a result, existing social inequalities are perpetuated in the digital space.
Meanwhile, free access to all kinds of information means that many journalists are deprived of their financial means. Civil society is negatively impacted, too: in 2021, there were 182 internet shutdowns in 34 countries worldwide. Other problems are the lack of data protection, the surveillance of the population and cyberattacks.
At the legislative level, many African states are taking a tough approach. While they prohibit disinformation by law, it is often used as a legal lever to limit freedom of expression.
Beyond these risks and negative trends, new opportunities are emerging: more and more often, news about the latest conflict developments will be disseminated in real time. This facilitates conflict analysis and increases the chances of being able to issue early warnings of escalation. Meanwhile, a growing number of local journalists have joined international media networks and can make their stories accessible to a larger target group.
Social networks are increasingly playing a key role in political mobilization. This is particularly evident during election campaigns such as that in Nigeria, where presidential elections are to be held in 2023. Twitter and Facebook have been very popular in this country for some time now. Political parties in Nigeria are responding to this trend by seeking effective strategies to win over potential voters on these platforms. Political mobilization via the internet can have both positive and negative effects. At best, citizens share their concerns and desires in public and thereby participate in political decision-making processes.
But there is also negative mobilization: disinformation and propaganda are used to stoke fears or discredit political opponents. In the case of Nigeria, there is a conspicuously large number of social bots posing as humans. They have ensured that certain hashtags are trending. Candidates have been able to double the number of their followers within a short period.
In the run-up to the 2021 presidential elections in Uganda, the Museveni government also ran a disinformation campaign that was intended to promote the president’s re-election. About 450 so-called “inauthentic assets” (fake accounts and groups) that supported either Museveni himself or his son were identified on Facebook and Instagram, while opposition leader Bobi Wine was attacked by “assets” disseminating disinformation of various kinds. Research revealed that six government officials, along with two PR firms set up for the sole purpose and one media organization, were involved in the campaign. The tech companies Twitter and Meta blocked the accounts shortly before the election. The government responded by shutting down the internet on election day.
Besides domestic politicians seeking to secure their own re-election, there are external actors who influence public opinion in third countries.
The involvement of pro-Russia forces – especially the Wagner Group – in West African states recently caused a stir. These actors have exploited existing anti-French and pro-Russian narratives for their own purposes. Disinformation spreads not only via the media but also through messaging services such as Telegram. Content from Russian state media is translated into local languages. News reports from both Russian and Chinese media outlets can often be accessed free of charge. But services such as those offered by AFP, Reuters and Germany’s dpa have to be paid for.
According to the panelists, there are essentially two ways of countering disinformation: “debunking” and “prebunking”. “Debunking” is about refuting false information and rumours. This is time-consuming and requires journalists to acknowledge the existence of such information and to actively take issue with it. Another problem is how to disseminate the refuted information as widely as possible.
So-called “prebunking”, on the other hand, pursues a preventive approach. It is not so much about specific facts as about digital skills. Users should be enabled to recognize disinformation and fake news as such. The focus is less on the informational content and more on the system of impacts and the rhetoric. This technique has proved to be particularly effective in the context of radio reporting.
However, generic training in the subject of disinformation is not enough in itself. It often fails to take into account the personal priorities of citizens, who will be more concerned about problems related to security in war and terrorist situations. The experience with mentoring programmes has proved rather different. For example, journalists receive ongoing support on a case-by-case basis while being sensitized to and educated about disinformation.
The French military operation Barkhane has concluded its withdrawal from Mali on 15 August 2022. As it relocates partially to neighbouring Niger, civil society has risen in protest there as well. Additionally, President Mohamed Bazoum’s announcement to increase the Diesel price ignited a public outcry. Megatrends Afrika spoke with Moussa Tchangari, secretary general of the Nigerien non-governmental organisation Alternative Espaces Citoyens (AEC), about the reasons for social discontent, new forms of protest, and possible ways out of the current security crisis.