Where…laws or regulations are used to prevent the continuing spread of harmful misinformation, as was the case against financial hoaxes in Uganda and dangerous public health misinformation in South Africa, it’s plausible they may directly reduce harm. However, punitive laws do little to deter and nothing to correct false information and thus curb harm…
“In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like ours, ‘fake news’ is a time bomb”, Information Minister Lai Mohammed warned journalists at a briefing in 2018. “In recent weeks, many anarchists have been doing everything possible to detonate the bomb.” To disarm the bomb, his government would educate Nigerians to identify fake news at source. “We do not intend to resort to coercion or censorship,” the minister pledged. Instead, he proposed ways the public could identify false information: “These simple measures may not end ‘fake news’, but they will go a long way in stemming its spread.”
A few weeks later, President Macky Sall of Senegal went further, calling publicly on his education minister to come up with a plan to promote media literacy in schools. This would “counter ‘fake news’ and other false information, because the Internet is becoming sabotaged by bad practice”, the president declared.
Since concern rose worldwide in 2016 about the effects of misinformation – from provoking vigilante violence in Ethiopia to the use of ineffective medical treatments for Ebola and COVID-19 – calls for new knowledge and skills to be taught in schools as an antidote to falsehoods, have grown.
Last year, seven colleagues and I examined what has been done since in policy responses across Africa. In two linked research reports published this month, we found that governments in 12 countries studied had in fact resorted to punitive laws, censoring public debate and, in six of seven countries studied, done almost nothing to promote misinformation literacy in state-run schools.
A near doubling of laws on “false information”, no reduction in misinformation harm
As we discovered, between 2016 and 2020, 10 of 11 countries surveyed – Benin, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda – introduced or amended laws or regulations penalising the publication of “false” information. The other country, Senegal, used existing laws for the same purpose.
If or when media literacy is taught, it bears little relation to the knowledge and skills needed to identify misinformation, with topics ranging from civic education and behaviour in Ghana to self-awareness and problem-solving in Kenya. If it is to succeed, it needs to build on work done by colleagues last year on news literacy…
Where these laws or regulations are used to prevent the continuing spread of harmful misinformation, as was the case against financial hoaxes in Uganda and dangerous public health misinformation in South Africa, it’s plausible they may directly reduce harm. However, punitive laws do little to deter and nothing to correct false information and thus curb harm, once the false information is in circulation. More than that, ten of the 31 laws or regulations we studied require no evidence that the “false” information (if it was false) caused or risked harm, before it is penalised. A further six related to “harms” such as the “annoyance” of ministers, which are not legitimate under international law.
The laws fail to address the different types of misinformation, what and who drives them, and the effects they have. One of their biggest causes is the lack of easy public access to reliable information. This is not acknowledged in these laws. Like the flawed approach proposed in Europe, requiring tech platforms to take down “illegal” content or face heavy fines, they are tackling only part of the problem. As Christine Czerniak, of the World Health Organisation’s “infodemic” team said recently: “I think universal access to credible information is really the goal here. It’s not just about staying in that reactive space… but trying to proactively amplify helpful information”.
One glimmer of light is that some countries seem to recognise this. Countries such as South Africa, with legal frameworks that allow independent fact-checking initiatives to work, enable an effective means of correcting misinformation, reducing harm. Malawi, in 2016, introduced a new law obliging broadcasters to air “counter-versions” from those “affected by an assertion of (a false) fact”. Senegal, in 2017, introduced a new self-regulatory press code aimed at raising standards against misinformation.
In the Western Cape, a first step toward teaching ‘misinformation literacy’
By contrast with the zeal for punishing “false” information, our second report found that in six of seven countries studied – Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda – traditional media literacy was barely included in the main state school curricula. Obstacles to teaching media literacy start with bureaucratic challenges and political will – from the underfunding of schools and poor teacher training to the perception of planners that curricula are already crowded. Media literacy “is not the responsibility of any existing discipline,” curriculum expert Professor Amadou Camara in Senegal told us. In Uganda, media literacy is not a priority, Dr Grace Baguma, Director of the National Curriculum Development Centre said. “The focus is on getting the learners literate in numeracy, literacy, science mainly,” she explained.
If or when media literacy is taught, it bears little relation to the knowledge and skills needed to identify misinformation, with topics ranging from civic education and behaviour in Ghana to self-awareness and problem-solving in Kenya. If it is to succeed, it needs to build on work done by colleagues last year on news literacy, and promote knowledge and skills in a sub-set of media literacy that we call “misinformation literacy”.
In a bleak picture, it was encouraging that a first step has been made towards teaching misinformation literacy in South Africa. In 2020, the Western Cape introduced a new “online safety” programme, aimed at establishing a mindset of “click restraint”, the ability to evaluate the credibility of websites…
Misinformation literacy – knowledge and skills to identify misinformation
- Context: the context in which misinformation and accurate information are produced;
- Creation: who creates misinformation and who creates accurate information;
- Content: the main types or forms of false content, and how to identify key features distinguishing this from fair and accurate content;
- Circulation: the processes by which false and accurate information circulate, and can thus be identified;
- Consumption: the reasons for which individuals, ourselves included, consume and believe false information;
- Consequences: the consequences of believing and sharing false information.
In a bleak picture, it was encouraging that a first step has been made towards teaching misinformation literacy in South Africa. In 2020, the Western Cape introduced a new “online safety” programme, aimed at establishing a mindset of “click restraint”, the ability to evaluate the credibility of websites and the understanding of the effects of misinformation, Ismail Teladia, senior curriculum planner for Life Orientation, told us. It does not cover all we know of harmful misinformation but brings a focus no previous curricula has done. It’s a start.
10 steps to reduce misinformation harm, without curbing freedom of expression
- Introduce misinformation literacy in school curricula;
- Provide teacher training, resources and support;
- Make assessments (with benchmarks) for misinformation literacy skills and knowledge;
- Engage with traditional and social media to promote the key knowledge, skills, required;
- Enabling public figures and institutions to set higher norms of accuracy, honesty*;
- Activate standards-based independent systems of media regulation;
- Improve access to official information on important topics;
- Support systems to promote the accuracy of official information
- Work with other countries on a transparent, standards-based approach to content moderation by global tech companies
- Revise “false information” laws to comply with international law and apply only when severe harm or risk of harm is proven
*This is optimistic, we know.
Peter Cunliffe-Jones is a visiting researcher at University of Westminster and the founder of Africa Check.
The other seven colleagues on this project include Assane Diagne, Alan Finlay, Dr Sahite Gaye, Wallace Gichunge, Dr Chido Onumah, Cornia Pretorius and Dr Anya Schiffrin.