“Information is power. Disinformation is abuse of power.”
This statement has never been more pertinent. Today, many leaders and institutions around the world use false information intended to mislead to advance their own interests, whether for financial or political gain. In both Europe and Africa billions of citizens are subject to disinformation.
Emerging technologies are sometimes used unethically by agents of disinformation to shape cultural, societal, and political discourse, both in Africa and Europe – a bug that hampers mitigation and prevention efforts on both continents.
To begin with, Africa and Europe have put in place fact-checking organizations. Their remit is to counter myths and identify disinformation. This also requires building the capacities of various stakeholders and engaging government partners to develop policies that prevent disinformation. A few examples in Africa include South Africa-based Africa Check, Kenya’s Pesa Check, and Nigeria’s Fact Check Hub; while Europe has EU Disinfo Lab, EU Fact Check and Ferret, among others.
Second, tech companies such as Meta and Twitter have also put in place measures to tag or remove disinformation as part of their internal policies. For instance, Facebook Community Standards and Twitter Safety Rules. However, these organisations have been accused of being slow to respond, or sometimes even of violating data and freedom of expression. There is a need for amendment of some of these policies to accommodate various views that protect digital rights. This can be done through open, transparent, and inclusive public consultations.
Recognising that both Meta and Twitter’s business models may be dependent on emotional content and potentially even keeping hate speech online, governments must address this through effective legislation. A public consultation would also be an opportunity for all stakeholders to envisage how social media companies might be motivated to reshape their business model and provide better protection to users.
Third amongst these measures is information removal or labelling. Some tech companies have created mechanisms for labelling information and facilitating its removal. For example, the Facebook and Instagram Covid-19 Center, and labelling and removal of disinformation and misinformation by Spotify via Spotify Platform Rules that has segments of "Dangerous, Deceptive, and Sensitive" Content. More initiatives like this could be rolled out in an automated fashion using Artificial Intelligence.
Understanding actions and actors
For disinformation to be countered, mitigated, and prevented, more efforts need to be implemented, and others strengthened. Below are the measures that both continents can apply (some of these suggestions may already exist)
- Effective fact-checking: Fact-checking institutions in Africa and Europe should invest more in building strong fact-checking teams, and conducting capacity building for journalists, content creators, bloggers and internet/social media influencers. Furthermore, the two continents need to ensure their fact-checking and countering of disinformation is strategic, and solution-based. This can be fully achieved through the empowerment of social media gurus and journalists’ capacities for them to write and become engaged in more impactful content such as fact-checks, explainers, social media/internet health reports, and online advocacy sessions. The role of journalists to educate their audience about disinformation is highly critical.
- Europe and Africa fact-checking collaborations: Fact-checkers and organizations in the continents need to find synergies and build strong partnerships, both financial and in-kind to have one voice and agenda. This will ease access to experts, opinions, and resources. Competent and knowledgeable actors in fact-checking, and digital literacy advocacy institutions are needed.
- Academic efforts needed: Academia (universities, think tanks, and independent researchers) is also required in this fight to fill information gaps. Ideally, this could include conducting research and drafting policy papers regarding disinformation for the stakeholders to have access to data to make policy choices easy, adaptive, and impactful.
- The role of civil society in fighting disinformation: To reach the voiceless and the major recipients of disinformation, civil society should participate in stamping out disinformation. This can be done through advocacy and the formation of Europe/Africa disinformation consortiums. The aim would be to access joint funds, build strong bridges, and expand common advocacy initiatives for projects that counter disinformation.
- Governments should also play a role: Many fact-checkers and other Internet users lack access to information. This is due to online censorship, slow Internet connectivity, or difficult access. In turn, this affects fact-checking and advocacy work, leading to inefficiency and the spread of disinformation. To close such gaps, there is a need for governments on both continents to cooperate and share open data and access to information.
- Hold private sector and tech companies accountable: Governments and various relevant stakeholders need to make the private sector accountable. Companies profit from disinformation – whether this is unintentional or intentional. Regardless, governments must draft legislation across Africa and Europe that ensures businesses are motivated to stop the spread of disinformation. This requires a detailed root-cause analysis and understanding of who is spreading disinformation, who is profiting from it, and what are the consequences and impact of this type of content living on these platforms.
- Inclusive data protection and cybercrime laws: Some countries, mostly in Africa, have not enacted data and cybercrime laws. This has caused many agents of disinformation to exploit the opportunity simply because there is no law to hold them accountable. Thus, it’s important for such countries to adopt said laws. However, the drafting and development of those laws should be transparent and grassroots-inclusive and ensure that critical human rights such as freedom of expression are respected. For instance, this just occurred in my country, South Sudan. According to research by the think tank CIPESA, the Cybercrime and Computer Misuse Provisional Order was signed into law by the Office of the President without proper public consultation, or the involvement of the cabinet or parliament – a law that allows infringement of personal digital rights and should be discouraged.
Stepping up our collaboration
When it comes to how the two continents could step up their collaboration, the African Union could highly benefit from the EU Disinfo Lab funds to match the campaign informally.
Second, the establishment of a Europe-Africa disinformation alliance could help coordinate disinformation projects and work smoothly.
Third, the two continents could create a joint campaign where they should feature ethical and prominent online influencers and leaders who could use their platforms to reach millions of followers with the intended message.
Finally, Europe and Africa should work with alternative and mainstream media. Most importantly, it is necessary to engage with the ignored alternative media, which has considerable outreach, to protect the most vulnerable against disinformation. They need capacity building and the use of their platforms to reach this audience.