Analysis: Fact-check Label and the Future of Disinformation

On Tuesday, May 27, 2020, Twitter glued a fact-check label on a tweet from President Donald Trump. This came after several criticisms from media experts that big tech companies are not strictly applying their policies on powerful world leaders.

The move led to a clash between Twitter and Trump, with the U.S. president threatening to “strongly regulate” the company for interfering in the U.S. upcoming election.

“Republicans feel that social media platforms totally silence conservatives’ voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen. We saw what they attempted to do, and failed, in 2016,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning.

Trump, who has more than 80 million followers on Twitter, on Thursday, signed an executive order seeking to strip social media giants of legal immunity for content they carry as a follow-up to his threat.

In its reaction to the U.S. president, Twitter said the label was in line with its new policy and approach to combat disinformation and misleading information posted on the platform.

“We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make,” tweeted the CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey.

Tech Companies Differ

Although the CEO of Twitter pledged to continue the war on disinformation using the same approach as the one used on Trump’s tweet, the CEO of Facebook promised not to follow the same route.

The Founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, was reported to have stated that his company would “not be the arbiter of truth of everything people say online”.

Dorsey had already responded to the allegation by stating that the new fact-check label policy “doesn’t make us arbiter of truth”.

He added: “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”

Combating disinformation is one of the major goals of big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter although they differ on approaches to be followed by all.

Donald Trump tweet violating Twitter rules

‘The Production of Confusion’

The fake news phenomenon has highlighted the importance of being conscious of information consumption and making sure the news one receives or shares is credible.

Information evaluation is becoming a necessary skill to help in sorting facts from fiction before allowing them to drive one into taking decisions.

Internet is saturated with much information, most of which are false to the extent of being harmful, malicious and sometimes dangerous.

Before the blink of an eye, misinformation, disinformation, false claims and conspiracy theories make the round without being confirmed and continue to float online.

Fact-checks have proved to be less effective in countering harmful content. Even if disproved, the damage musgrave been done as the “first knowledge” illusion of the audience has already been set.

Analysts describe this as an era of post-truth, when information consumption is guided by subjective sentiments, personal beliefs and emotions as opposed to the seeking information that is factual and objective.

Social media has contributed to the production of confusion with an avalanche of false and misleading claims being shared on the platform. Fact-checking journalists have been warning people about that and experts call upon them to consider being multi-literate.

Governments Want to take over

In 2019, Hootsuite, a social media management company, reported that 24
million Nigerians were active on social media and 85 per cent of them used WhatsApp, 78 per cent used Facebook, 30 per cent used Twitter and 7.4 per were on Instagram.

Politicians are seen as major beneficiaries of social media. Analysts and observers believe that President Muhammadu Buhari and Trump largely benefited from the power of social media platforms toward assuming their posts.

However, after ascending to power they considered the same approach they followed to win elections as nuisance that needed to be controlled.

In 2019, the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria introduced a bill aimed at punishing social media activists who the parliament accused of peddling “false or malicious information”. The bill was sponsored by Senator Muhammad Musa from Niger State and supported by supporters of Buhari, including his wife.

The controversial bill, originally titled, “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019”, faced several criticisms and condemnation from many angles.

Activists and organisations regarded the move as an attempt to censor speech and infringe the freedom of expression enshrined in the constitution of the country.

Local and international organisations also joined hands in condemning the bill, calling it “a work of plagiarism” from Singapore to muscle freedom of speech although the senator who sponsored the bill denied that the bill was a work of plagiarism.

What Civil Society Organisations Demand

In Nigeria, there have been several calls from Civil Society organisations and think thanks to big tech companies to regulate the flow of information on their platforms as politicians continue to peddle false news to manipulate the populace.

A post-election report by Centre for Democracy and Development in 2019, recommended that tech companies should have internal regulation that could help in combating disinformation and misinformation.

“Tech companies such as Facebook need to be far more engaged in helping to make the Nigerian information space more open and truly commit to combatting disinformation there, particularly during elections with better content moderation, research and focus on Nigeria and beyond, in Africa and the Global South,” misinformation.

The call came after a thorough understanding of the fake news ecosystem in the country which includes not only some “political actors” exploiting the “air of uncertainty” for their own benefit but their “online soldiers” helping them in the production of confusion.

Nigeria’s disinformation ecosystem comprises fake news pedlars using social media at local level. They are called “Sojojin Baka” in Kano State and “Shekpe” or “Data Boys” in Kogi State.

Media outlets and fact-checking organisations listed some of the misleading and false information spread by politicians and their aides.

Lauretta Onochie, a media aide to Buhari, tweeted a picture that was fact-checked as “recycled and miscontextualised”. Lauretta claimed that the picture was taken at a PDP rally in Sokoto during the 2019 election campaigns.

Ngozi Okonja Owela, a former Minister of Finance, was also recently spotted tweeting a recycled picture claiming it was “responsible food distribution with social distancing” in Rwanda. The tweet was seen as attempt to criticise Nigeria’s palliative distribution.

What Tech Companies Can Do

The coronavirus pandemic has shown that big tech companies can do lots to stop the spread of false information, conspiracy theories and misinformation.

With promotion of reliable information from genuine and reputable sources amidst the deluge of false claims, the attention of social media users can be diverted to getting right information from credible sources whenever they are seeking for it.

However, as with Facebook, many big tech companies do not want to engage in politically motivated disinformation and misinformation so as not be seen as arbiters of truth.

Although Facebook has independent “trusted partners” who are also external fact-checkers, removing contents flagged as false or malicious do not stop the disinformation from further circulation, especially if already shared on other platforms.

The Twitter’s approach to put a claim and counter-claim side by side can help in combatting disinformation and possible manipulation of citizens with false and unsubstantiated claims.

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Aliyu Dahiru

Aliyu is an Assistant Editor at HumAngle and Head of the Radicalism and Extremism Desk. He has years of experience researching misinformation and influence operations. He is passionate about analysing jihadism in Africa and has published several articles on the topic. His work has been featured in various local and international publications.

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