By Haile-Gebriel Endeshaw
The story “Fake news killing turtles” is a very interesting one (Capital April 28/2019) not only for its newsworthiness but also for its timely appearance to nudge me in to thinking of writing this piece on the subject. Fake news is used to refer to fabricated news. Available source indicates that fake news is also known as ‘junk news’ or ‘pseudo-news’. It consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media. Fake news being circulated through social media in particularly has become a number one enemy to human beings. These days there are many innocent people who have been injured, lost their lives and properties because of fake news. A year ago, we heard about a news report released from India that two individuals were killed by a mob that was misled by fake news circulated in the area.
“On the evening of June 8,  a 29-year old sound engineer and a 30-year-old businessman were on their way to a picnic in India’s north-eastern Assam State when they stopped at a village to ask for directions. The villagers had been told, in a video circulating on WhatsApp, that child kidnappers were roaming the country. Believing these strangers were the ones they’d been warned about, the villagers formed a large mob, and, before the men could convince them otherwise, beat them to death.” This was a very alarming report that shows how human beings turn in to beasts because of groundless news. The astounding thing is that the video the killers had seen was an instructional safety demonstration made in Pakistan. It has nothing to do with any incidents happened in India! It was however shared through social media with some text warning about kidnappers in India.
Similar incident happened in our country, Ethiopia. Two young medical practitioners, who were on research tour in a rural school around Gojam Zone of Amhara State, were clubbed to death by a mob that had been misled by fake news. The cause for the killing of the young medical practitioners was a rumour that was circulating across the entire state claiming the prevalence of a hidden agenda of sterilizing females. The people in the area mistakenly took the young researchers for implementers of the said agenda. The widespread rumour of giving medicine to young females through vaccination in a bid to stop them from bearing children caused fear and anger among the community. That’s why the mob perpetrated the pathetic killing.
Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture said in February 2016 that the deliberate publication of false information especially via social media poses a greater threat than insurgency and militancy. According to him, the fake news has the potency of setting people against one another based on religion and ethnicity.
On 23 of June 2018 a serious of horrifying images began to circulate on Facebook. This created aroused tension in one corner of Nigeria. “One showed a baby with open machete wounds across his head and jaw. Another – viewed more than 11,000 times – showed a man’s skull hacked open. There were pictures of homes burnt to the ground, bloodied corpses dumped in mass graves, and children murdered in their beds. The Facebook users who posted the images claimed they showed a massacre underway in the Gashish district of Plateau State, Nigeria. Fulani Muslims, they said, were killing Christians from the region’s Berom ethnic minority… But some of the most incendiary images circulating at the time had nothing to do with the violence in Gashish. The image of the baby, which was shared with a call for God to ‘wipe out the entire generation of the killers of this innocent child’, had first appeared on Facebook months earlier. The video in which the man’s head was cut open did not even come from Nigeria, it was recorded in Congo-Brazzaville nearly a thousand miles away, in 2012.”
What happened after the circulation of these horrifying images? Let’s read here only a story about an incident. He is named Ali Alhaji Muhammed. He was a potato seller. This man, a father of 15 children had to travel to a town to meet some customers. It was a journey he had made many times. After his business, he started going back home in a shared taxi. Minutes after, the taxi was made to stop at a spot blocked by a wall of burning tyres. A mob of Berom (ethnic group in Plateau State) men armed with knives and machetes were interrogating drivers, looking for Fulani Muslims. The day was not good for poor Ali who is a Fulani Muslim. He was drugged from the taxi along with another unfortunate male passenger… Ali’s charred remains were reportedly discovered three days after the incident happened… His body was so badly mutilated that his wife refused to see it…
Similarly, a few days back here in Ethiopia an individual happened to post on Facebook a photograph that shows plastic-shrouded corpses of human beings. The individual claimed that a killing was perpetrated by a certain ethnic group against innocent people from another ethnic minority in Benishangul Gumuz State. The amazing thing is that the photograph was taken from the internet. It shows the dead bodies of “African migrants shot dead by smugglers on Libyan coast”. It was stated on the original news document of March 10, 2017 that “police initially believed the migrants had been shot because they refused to board the human traffickers’ boat during bad weather”. The guy posted this photograph for his devilish purpose of causing conflicts and killings among innocent people. If it were not for some active individuals who exposed the fake news, unexpected massacre could have been flared up because of this baseless fake news.
These days politicians in many countries seem to engage themselves in establishing fake news industry. Director of Abuja-based Centre for Development, Idayat Hassan said that Nigerian politicians have been involved in creating ‘fake news factories’ where paid employees, both local and international, create content with the aim of bullying, intimidating and sometimes cajoling the public to accept it.
In the same way some untrustworthy political parties in Ethiopia have gone to the extent of organizing a group of Facebook warriors who are paid to disseminate false news and rumours that cause conflicts in areas where ethnicity is radicalized.
An online survey conducted in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa shows that those who are exposed to fake news can hardly trust the traditional news media. “African audiences have low levels of trust in the media, experience a high degree of exposure to misinformation, and contribute – often knowingly – to its spread”. The finding is that many people have been exposed to fake news. Therefore, rebuilding trust in the mainstream media can be taken as remedy. Educating people about the dangers of fake news is not enough. It has also been suggested that media organizations would have to work at rebuilding relationships with the audiences. Raising awareness among the society or providing training on media literacy should also be taken as a good approach. What Taiwan has done is a good example in this regard. A new curriculum was designed in that country beginning 2017 to teach critical readings of propaganda and the evaluation of sources. This is what we call media literacy. It is of paramount importance to provide training in journalism in the new information society.
Deceitful people who have been engaged in fabricating fake news are posing serious threat to us all. We all should act responsibly whenever we read news (that seem exaggerated) highly circulated by unknown sources or senders. Let’s consider the source of the fake news. Let’s read beyond the headlines… check the author and date… assess supporting sources of the fake news… I feel that we must be very suspicious of the photographs and video footage that show mass killings, conflicts and property damages. Watch out! The least you can do is that do not share or like such fabricated news. If you click ‘share’ or ‘like’, you may be a cause for unexpected killings of many innocent citizens and property loss…
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