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Africa: Information Disorder – Report Harnesses Global South Responses

Information disorder threatens media freedom and democracies around the world. In the Global South, multilevel responses are needed to counter its spread, said Professor Herman Wasserman, editor of the recently released publication “Addressing the Challenges of Information Disorder in the Global South” report. It is based at the Center for Film and Media Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

“World Press Freedom Day [3 May] reminds us how important freedom of expression and in particular freedom of the media is for democratic debate and public participation in democracies for the empowerment of citizens. And information disorder threatens those values,” Professor Wasserman said.

Its report defines information disorder as the “widespread contamination of the public sphere with rumors, hate speech, dangerous conspiracy theories, harmful misunderstandings, and orchestrated conspiracies of deception.” Although misinformation predates the age of social media, today’s digital media landscape and polarized political environments greatly amplify its spread.

Journalism can help counter misinformation, provided it inspires trust. “Journalism must be supported as a public good while continuing efforts to ensure ethical, reliable and quality content,” he added.

“We’ve seen how misinformation exacerbates societal issues, like xenophobia, vaccine hesitancy, or anti-vax sentiment.”

With 75% of the world’s population, the states of the South are generally poorer developing countries with younger and more fragile democracies. Here, problems with information disorder are even older than in the Global North, Wasserman said in an interview ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

“We have seen how misinformation exacerbates societal problems, such as xenophobia, vaccine hesitancy or anti-vax sentiment. It has a real impact that affects us all, not just researchers, journalists and practitioners of freedom of expression – and it’s not going away, rather it’s a challenge that researchers, practitioners and members are all equally invested in.

Wasserman’s report is timely, providing a comprehensive picture of how information disorder is being alleviated by a range of organizations and movements in the Global South. Funded by Canada’s International Development Research Center (IDRC), it synthesizes the comparative reports of four regional organizations: Research ICT Africa, InternetLab (Latin America and the Caribbean), LIRNEasia (Asia) and Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism in the Middle East. and North Africa.

Multi-level responses needed

The report calls for responses at multiple levels, including to protect press freedom.

“There’s no point in trying to counter fake news with fact-checking if you don’t also ensure that citizens can access free media and the press operates freely.”

All of these are interdependent and contribute to a larger set of goals.

“Information disorder is something that affects us all, not just researchers, journalists and free speech practitioners.”

The report was written not only to bridge the gap between academic researchers (most research has focused on the Global North) and practitioners, but also to be accessible to the public, “because the mess of information is something that affects us all, not just researchers, journalists and free expression practitioners”.

“Some of the most visible and egregious threats are those related to government repression of the media, journalism and freedom of expression in general,” Wasserman said. “Ironically, fake news or misinformation has often become a smokescreen for governments to crack down on criticism, activism and free speech – a ruse to prevent criticism or questioning.”

This has been the case in Nigeria, Kenya and India, where disinformation campaigns have threatened to derail elections.

Deluge of information

But there are also other, more insidious threats, Wasserman said.

“People are overwhelmed with information. They don’t always know which sources are reliable and don’t necessarily have the skills to tell good information from bad. It’s also a threat to the free flow of information. .”

Organizations such as Africa Check and Real411 have played valuable roles. Here, people can report misinformation without intimidation or harassment. These entities have also worked to strengthen media literacy among information services.

In some cases, the media themselves have fallen prey to disinformation, or their journalists have contributed to it. In South Africa, cases such as the Tembisa 10 reported by Independent Media have eroded their authority and legitimacy.

“When we talk about freedom of the press, we also have to talk about the responsibility of the press: good journalism. Good responsible journalism is also journalism that adapts to the context,” added Wasserman.

“It means journalism that takes its audiences seriously, that sees them not just as passive markets and audiences, but also as audiences who can co-produce and co-contribute to journalism and free speech. facets.”

Economic threats, weakened ethics

In the African context, media institutions also struggle to survive financially.

“The broader media ecology has changed; journalism no longer automatically claims centrality in news discourses. As audiences have begun to move away from print publications and traditional media towards the online environment where Advertising pools are now dispersed, old business models have collapsed and new ones have emerged to fund journalism.”

Some media increasingly rely on paywalls and subscriptions. In others, institutional donors have stepped in to fund journalism. One such example is the Bhekisisa Center for Health Journalism in Africa, which has done phenomenal work during the pandemic, Wasserman said.

“All these new models are trying to compensate for the collapse of the old business model.”

“In an unequal country like ours, we cannot rely solely on the commercial media to support the public interest.”

So what about public service media?

“Our public broadcaster has unfortunately been very problematic in recent years, due to political and management factors,” Wasserman said. “In an unequal country like ours, we cannot rely solely on commercial media to support the public interest. We need strong and healthy public service media. And community media too.

“In this environment, freedom of the press is something that is not just the responsibility of professional journalists, but also something that everyone can support and contribute to. This inclusive orientation towards society is what we mean by the public interest of journalism.”

In training journalists, we must be aware of this responsibility, Wasserman said.

“When we train journalists, we should not train them as aloof and aloof professional elites, but as people connected to their communities.”

“Part of it is training journalists to have the technical know-how to use new tools to access information and to check facts. But journalism is now part of a much larger media ecology. where media production has democratized. It has diversified. When we train journalists, we should not train them as distant, aloof professional elites, but as people connected to their communities, who know what is going on in the field.