How can Africa and Europe work together to tackle disinformation and protect human rights in the digital age?
14.11.2022Read the blog by the first-place winner of the #D4Dblogging competition
As globalisation continues to gain prominence through the spread of technology and the Internet across the world, disinformation takes centre stage as states struggle to tackle this problem.
Disinformation is defined as a type of false or misleading information, which is created and shared with the intention of deceiving, manipulating, or inflicting harm on people. This can have a variety of harrowing consequences, including undermining democracies, polarising discussions (in a time where unity is ever needed), and endangering the welfare, stability, and lifestyles of people in different parts of the world.
Social media platforms have become important means to spread disinformation the past few years, with detrimental consequences for their users.
While this blog is geared towards offering real-time solutions that can help Europe and Africa to effectively tackle disinformation, I also highlight ways in which disinformation is spread, its agents, dangers, and why it matters.
Recent events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, and the subsequent vaccination campaigns, gave rise to an unprecedented spread of disinformation and misinformation across the world. In many places, false or misleading information about the virus led to hesitancy, and in some cases, refusal to take COVID-19 vaccines. In recent times, pro-Russian sources have also spread disinformation across Africa and in the European Union (EU) in the wake of the country’s invasion of Ukraine. Disinformation has also become a political tool for both governments and opposition parties to discredit their opponents.
As we face this issue globally, one question emerges: how can we tackle disinformation? This is a tricky question because solutions should be based on human rights, in particular freedom of speech.
In the last few years, several countries have used tackling disinformation as an excuse for shutting down the internet, including in some countries in Africa. In my home country, Nigeria, Twitter was banned in 2021. While governments in several parts of Africa have taken punitive measures to tackle disinformation, research conducted across West Africa shows that such kind of restrictive measures have been ineffective in many ramifications.
While Europe has taken a different path (which includes investing in new technology for fact-checking and cooperating with online platforms), I think that there is still more work to be done.
Effectively tackling disinformation
There are several ways Africa and Europe can work together to tackle disinformation on both continents. Below I list some of the options that I suggest:
First, there must be an increase in media literacy amongst people by regularly equipping them with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions and fostering their capacity for critical thought. This can also be embedded in school curricula. For instance, students in high schools usually participate in several student-run clubs. A club on “debunking disinformation” could also run alongside these clubs and interested students can participate. Periodically, the club can decide to host events for the entire school community which will involve training other students on how to detect and report fake news. This could prove pivotal in raising the next generation of well-informed citizens that are hard to penetrate with lies and disinformation.
The academic environment regarding digital media communications should also be strengthened on both continents. While there is work currently going on in this area, there should be more investment in research and collaborations between African and European scholars on disinformation. These academics can work together to produce evidence-based facts on the disinformation landscape in both continents with policy recommendations to government agencies.
Furthermore, it is important to strengthen the work of civil society organizations and NGOs in fighting disinformation. Currently, while there are several NGOs and EU-funded initiatives working on this in Europe, most NGOs in Africa still focus more on “traditional” development areas, such as poverty alleviation, education, food security, or health.
While the above work areas are pivotal and timely, some of these grassroots organisations can also be strengthened and incentivized to expand their work to training on disinformation and extending this to the people they impact. Local influencers in countries of the EU and African Union (AU) can also be used in spreading the dangers of disinformation to create awareness among the people that look up to them in their communities.
There should be a stronger partnership between the AU and the EU specifically on tackling disinformation. I suggest this because the EU has made significant efforts to tackle disinformation. While there is still a long way to go, African countries can learn from what is being done in the EU to strengthen the continent’s capacity at home in identifying and tackling disinformation. Periodically, both institutions can con jointly host conferences solely on disinformation and what the next steps should be for both continents. This can be impactful in exchanging ideas on what works and what can be adapted on both continents.
Also, by routinely providing up-and-coming media outlets and online blogs with free training, the EU-AU cooperation may help improve the media literacy of up-and-coming media outlets and online blogs. This is significant because, despite the tremendous growth of media outlets, little is known about the types of training that founders receive prior to launching these channels. Enhancing their fact-checking capabilities could help ensure that the content produced by these channels is accurate.
In addition, there should be stronger cooperation between social media platforms and government agencies or intergovernmental organisations like the EU and AU. Tech giants like Facebook and Twitter have been relatively inactive in regulating local content in Africa. This should change.
While combating disinformation can be challenging, particularly given the thin line between some solutions and the promotion of the right to free speech, a stronger partnership between government agencies, the EU and AU as well as concurrent training programs on disinformation and fact-checking for new media outlets, young people, and civil society organisations can help us take crucial steps against disinformation.
About the author
Winner of the first prize of the AU-EU D4D Hub’s #D4DBlogging competition, Sunday Jerome Salami is a Master’s student at the School of Transnational Governance based at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. He is currently on an exchange semester at the Central European University in Vienna from September-December 2022. Native from Nigeria, he also runs a personal blog where he writes at the intersection of his passion areas (which include poverty alleviation, good governance, quality education, and sustainable development), and has previously published in The Metric and The Mail and Guardian.
The content of this blog is the responsibility of the author. The views expressed do not necessarily correspond to those of the European Union or the AU-EU D4D Hub implementing partners.