Fake news: If it’s too bad to be true, maybe it is


In June 2015, 21-year-old Dylan Roof walked into the Emmanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot 12 bible study participants at point-blank range. Nine of them died.

On Christmas Eve 2017, US President Donald Trump retweeted a mock-up showing a bloodied CNN logo under his shoe. Unable to separate fact from fiction, Brandon Griesemer of Novi, Michigan took the laws into his own hands. He threatened to gun down CNN staff in Atlanta for spreading fake news until he was apprehended.

In October 2017, Southeastern Nigeria was abuzz with fake news that the military was planning to forcibly inject school children with monkeypox. The news went viral on social media and other channels, causing panic attacks and mass withdrawals over what was at best a practical joke.

But the plight of Abhijith Nath and Nilotpal Das was not so hilarious. Earlier this month, they were slain in the suburbs of Assam, India. False community news trending on Facebook and WhatsApp claimed child kidnappers would besiege the area. Residents were on alert. They pounced on the unsuspecting youths when their vehicle was within range. The duo were the unwilling victims of mob justice fuelled by fake news.

Fake news is not restricted to any geographical boundary or time, but the effects are just the same. It feeds on sensationalism to peddle falsehoods targeted at achieving a particular advantage which may be political or financial.

In its 2018 survey on the subject, market research and business intelligence portal Statista disclosed that 14 per cent of respondents admitted they had deliberately shared a fake political news story online. This makes curbing the scourge a Herculean task, hence the growing popularity of fact-checking sites in the United States and elsewhere across the world.

Fake News Trends

Fake news was mostly associated with tabloids before the advent of the internet which has spawned citizen journalism. The result is that just about anyone with a laptop or mobile phone can create, aggregate or simply repurpose the news to serve their own selfish interests. In this era of programming, social bots (fake social media accounts) can be programmed to continually tweet or post a particular message until it goes viral and wins public confidence.

Here in Nigeria, WhatsApp has grown to become a vehicle of choice for spreading news or website links. Oftentimes, harried consumers hardly take the time to fact-check the information they receive on the platform before sharing with their contacts. In the recent past, for instance, fake chain messages have been shared claiming that WhatsApp will begin charging for its services and warning users to share the information with a minimum of 10 contacts to avoid the fee. Others have asked users to click on a link that would upgrade their WhatsApp to a ‘Gold’ version which includes a suite of new and exclusive features proven to be false.

Instructively, fake news is not just textual. It includes audio, video and photo content meant to misinform the public. Advanced video and photo content creators are quite popular. But Artificial Intelligence (AI) has gone a notch higher with tools such as the Adobe Voco (dubbed Photoshop for human voice), Lyrebird and Google’s Deep Mind. Anyone of these tools can mimic human intelligence. Adobe Voco and Lyrebird can dub, edit and clone human voices that may be attributed to an unsuspecting individual if eventually launched into the mass market.

How to Identify Fake News

There are a host of convoluted ways to spot fake news, but the following suggestions are some easy ones for busy ‘netizens’ with little time on their hands to consume information before moving on to the next big thing.

Sensational Headlines: Most fake news bear ‘shouty’ headlines with exclamation marks or capital letters meant to catch the attention of readers. This is one time when the adage ‘if it’s too good to be true, maybe it is’ holds true. Factual information is often objective and balanced and therefore does not have to resort to sensationalism to grab public attention.

Misspellings/Grammatical Errors: It goes without saying that fake news purveyors share write-ups riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors. They have little time for the editing/proofreading process that credible news platforms take pains to achieve so their readers can have a pleasurable experience.

Hazy Sources: In journalism, it is often said that ‘a writer is only as good as his/her sources.’ Fake news very often excludes authoritative attributions that can be held to account for the statements credited to them. For instance, if a famed politician is reported to have died but a close family member, associate or medical expert does not confirm this, then the information would most likely be false until proven otherwise. Most fake news sites cannot be bothered about this.

SM-based News: The rule of thumb is to take any textual, audio, photo or video content shared on the social media with a grain of salt. With the proliferation of blogs, Adobe suite and other content creation platforms, just about anyone can create and pass off false information as true. But the catch is, a reputable news site would verify and even post a variant of the same information on their platforms in a matter of hours if it is indeed factual.

One-Source Information: It is advisable to be wary of information only accessible on Google or social media that is not debunked or supported by any other news platform. The reason is simple. If newsworthy, credible news can have a viral effect just as much as fake news. So the information that is limited to one source is most likely so because other news sources have investigated and disproved it.

Francis Jakpor is the Programme Manager (Election Fact-Checking Project), Paradigm Initiative.