IDWAC 2021: Scholars, Professionals Offer Solutions to Information Disorder in Africa

The desirability or otherwise of regulating social media platform came to the fore again as Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) gathered stakeholders recently to brainstorm for sustainable solutions during the Information Disorder West Africa Conference (IDWAC) held at the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, Nigeria on the 17th and 18th of November.

The argument for and against regulation of both mainstream and social media was the centre of attraction at the conference with the consensus that the sanctity of the freedom of expression and the press must be maintained, irrespective of where the pendulum eventually swings.

This would later be discussed extensively by panelists and guest speakers at the IDWAC attended by researchers, fact-checkers, government officials, politicians, activists, and tech giants.

The acting Executive Director, and the Editorial and Research Director respectively, Dr Tobi Oluwatola  and Professor Ropo Sekoni opened the debate in their respective welcome addresses with emphasis on the evolution of information disorder predating the digital era.

They argued that it was wrong to solely blame technological advancement for the avalanche of mis- and disinformation in the public sphere as the world deals with what Professor Sekoni called “multiplicity of the truth.”

This proposition opens the floodgate to further interrogate the phenomenon as Jamiu Folarin moderates the panel discussion by the Kwame Karikari Research and Postdoctoral Fellows drawn from Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

Tackling Information Disorder through Research: Dubawa Research Fellowship Experience

In my preamble to the panel discussion titled: “Addressing the Challenges of Information Disorder Through Research: The Journey So Far,” Folarin noted how research gave birth to the Dubawa Fact-checking project of PTCIJ and setting up of the Information Disorder Analysis Centre (IDAC) as a response to concerns that there are little or no interrogation and research intervention around mis- and disinformation in the Global South, especially in Africa.

This was the reason Dubawa set up IDAC to bridge this gap and expand the knowledge on which the challenges of information pollution could be tackled in Africa. This was well spelt out on its website: “IDAC is an initiative of Dubawa targeted specifically at unravelling the complexities and methodologies of Disinformation and public consumption, patterns, preference and behaviour.”

One of the approaches adopted by Dubawa in populating IDAC with quality and society-tailored research contents is the Kwame Karikari Research Fellowship, which offers researchers the opportunity to interrogate issues relating to information disorder in West Africa.

In the last three years, PTCIJ has hosted over 20 researchers who published over 30 research articles to fill the identified research gaps and provide answers to the questions relating to the dynamics and complexities of Information Disorder in West Africa.

The panelists were Dr. Ganiyat Tijani-Adenle, a lecturer at Journalism Department of Lagos State University’s School of Communication, Nigeria; Dr Francis Sowa, a Mass Communication lecturer at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone.

Others are Mr Rashid Gbambu of the Department of Communication, Innovation and Technology, Faculty of Communication and Cultural Studies, University of Development Studies, Ghana; and Mr Edward Samuel, Programme Officer, National Orientation Agency (NOA), National headquarters, Abuja, Nigeria.

While Dr Tijani-Adenle and Dr Sowa look at the future of journalism and the media institution as a virus or vaccine in the information disorder ecosystem respectively, Mr Gbambu and Mr Samuel exposed the intersections of national security, political process, governance and information disorder in West Africa.

In his study focused on Sierra Leone media institutions, Dr Sowa concluded that the media is complicit in the production and dissemination of dis- and misinformation as they serve as the pathogenic agent for the spread of the “fake news” virus.

He concluded that media institutions ought to adopt the model of Solutions Journalism, get inoculated or immunized against the virus of information disorder, and “stay at home” in order to flatten the curve of the information disorder.

A related study carried out in Nigeria by Dr Tijani-Adenle hypothesised that the trust in media institutions is dwindling as the traditional gatekeeping process characteric of journalism is ripe for strengthening through further integration of verification and fact-checking in journalism work.

The area of divergence in the discussion between the two postdoctoral fellows was whether (in)adequate information flow was responsible for the spread of mis- and disinformation in Africa.

Mr Gbambu from Ghana who presented the findings of his study titled: “Information Disorder in the Media: Implications for National Security in the West Africa Sub-region,” noted how information gap and mismanagement have impacted security issues in the continent.

He cited scenarios where high levels of ignorance, inadequate media literacy and agenda setting through the (non)release of security information on the part of the security agencies impacted on national security in the sub-region.

On his own part, Mr Samuel examines “Misinformation and its influence on voters’ electoral decision: A Case Study of 2019 Presidential Election in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, Nigeria.”

Mr Samuel observed that the spread of misinformation through the social media can be injurious to democracy, the voter, peace, unity and progress of Nigeria and future elections. 

The finding of his study indicated that 58 percent of the respondents submitted that misinformation does not have influence on voters’ electoral decisions, while 42 percent of the respondents from the FCT, Abuja said that the misinformation narratives influence their voting decision in the 2019 general elections.

Similarly, another postdoctoral fellow who is based in Germany, Dr Lucky Ugbudian, noted while interrogating the dynamics of disinformation and electoral violence in Nigeria that the purveyors of disinformation are motivated by economic, social, religious and political gains.

While tracing the political history of Nigeria, Dr Ugbudian established a relationship between disinformation and electoral violence in Nigeria.

In addition, a Dubawa postdoctoral fellow who lectures at the Economics Department of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria, Dr Soliu Hamzat, presented the findings of his study titled: “Analysis of Information Disorder within the Context of Nigeria’s Economic Policies.”

In order to identify cases of information disorder, Dr Hamzat evaluate public perception on Facebook of the contents of two economic policies of the government, land border closure and subsidy removal of Petroleum Motor Spirit (PMS) against the codes obtained from section 16(1) and (2) of the 1999 Constitution on how the country’s economy should be managed.

The study concluded that the already held view with regards to how an economy should be run, and hate against the ideological position of the country’s economy mainly account for the amount of information disorder the country experiences with regards to its economy.   

Balancing Regulations and Combating Information Disorder

Just as the Facebook highlighted measures put in place to reduce misinformation on its platform and introduce community standard to bring sanity to the digital public sphere, a panel session which consisted of members of civil society organisations, government officials and politicians discussed the interplay between regulation of the digital public sphere and fighting disinformation.

The panel discussion moderated by the acting Executive Director of PTCIJ, Dr Dr Tobi Oluwatola, included Senator Shehu Sani; Director General of National Orientation Agency (NOA), Dr Garba Abari; Head of Advanement NIPPSS, Professor Sola Adeyanju; and Senior Fellow at Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), Professor Jubrin Ibrahim.

The panelists called for multi-stakeholders engagements, compromise and consensus when it comes to legal or voluntary approaches in addressing the challenges of information disorder especially on the social media platforms.

The stakeholders also requested for more investment in media literacy rather than sanction, developing national information/communication policy, making the journalism profession more professional, and ensuring that any policy or framework to tackle information disorder should not hamper the freedom of expression and the press.

They also called for awareness of the need to address information deficit through proactive release of information and to take advantage of the liberalisation of digital platforms to improve citizens’ engagements.

Fact-checking and other Approaches in Fight Against Information Disorder

The conference also brought together members of civil society organisations, government officials, international bodies, academics, and an umbrella body of fact-checking organisations in the world to discuss multidisciplinary approaches in tackling information disorder.

The panel discussion titled: “The Multidisciplinary Consequences of Information Disorder and Approaches and Experiences in Tackling it” was moderated by Africa Program Coordinator of Witness.

The panelists include: Country Director (Nigeria) of Amnesty International, Osai Ojigho; Dr Doyin Salami, Chairman Economic Advisory Council; Mr Olumuyiwa Adekeye, Special Adviser (Media and Communications) to the Governor of Kaduna State; Dr Abena A. Yeboah-Banin, Head of Department, Communication Studies, University of Ghana, Legon; and Dr Yahya Disu, Head, Risk Communication, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

While sharing their experiences on how information disorder impacted their work, the stakeholders shared the approaches adopted in tackling misinformation.

While Amnesty International said the organisation will continue to play its role as the conscience of the people and help in formulating policies that will add value, NCDC promised to sustain its proactive approaches which was commended by WHO in responding to communication crisis and health misinformation during COVID-19 pandemic.

On the part of the DYeboah-Banin from Ghana, she charged more researchers to interrogate issues associated with information disorder, adding that stakeholders, especially Civil Society Organisations should collaborate with academic institutions to adopt the findings of their researches in tackling information disorder.

The last presentation at the conference which was delivered by Baybars Orsek, the Director of International Fact Checking Network (IFCN), spoke extensively on “Fact-Checking Across the Globe – How Collaborations are Shaping the Fight Against Information Disorder.”

Orsek said IFCN has raised the bar of fact-checking around the world by making the approach acceptable by continuing to ensure that the accountability role of the media is well promoted and protected.

The IFCN Director noted that as the relationship between technology and fact-checking is growing, the government’s attempt to combat “fake news” is translating to censorship and further blurring the line between freedom of speech and reach.

He asked stakeholders to put pressure on social media platforms to review their policies in fact-checking politicians’ claims posted on their platforms.

Fact Checkers to Forge New Alliance against Disinformation

Fact-checking organisations in West Africa have renewed their commitment to jointly fight against disinformation in the sub-region with the guiding principle of collaboration rather than competition.

The editor of Dubawa Nigeria, Kemi Busari, who moderated a panel discussion titled: “Progress and Challenges in the Fight Against Disinformation,”opened the discussion that included representatives of selected fact-checking organisations in West Africa to share their experience.

The panelists consisted of David Ajikobi (Africa Check), Victoria Bamas (FactCheckHub), Joe Wremonger (Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding), and Alie Tarawally (Dubawa Sierra Leone).

The fact checkers described the field covered so far in the fight against information and the collaborations they have entered into in a bid to make the progress so far sustainable.

The West Africa Information Disorder Conference (IDWAC) has offered stakeholders the opportunity to reflect on the danger information disorder posed to democracies and developments, reviewed approaches and renewed their commitments in the fight against the menace with the mindsight of being proactive.

It is expected that all stakeholders in the information disorder ecosystem will act according to the resolutions of the conference in order to achieve Refined Information Flow and Order (RIFO), and bring sanity to the physical and digital public sphere.

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