The world is driven by information. That is almost an understatement in this era. In today’s hyperconnected world, marked by unprecedented opportunities for innovation and transformation, information stands as the foundation of all possible processes which affect human life and evolution. Staggering levels of information availability and access, spurred by information and communication technologies, have steadily fostered the understanding that the search for information is inextricably linked to the quest for individual and collective security and development.
As the world revels in myriad sources of content, the strain of grappling with what is true or fake is also palpable, especially at this time when we have to survive the COVID-19 pandemic which has spread uncertainty across the world. The world is not only dealing with a pandemic but also has to face what has been described as the COVID-19 ‘infodemic’ – the spread of misinformation and fake news with limited possibilities for attribution, responsibility, and veracity.
As people inevitably go online to look for answers, to have an idea of what is happening, to allay their fears, or better prepare for what they do not fully understand, we become all too aware of the dangers of misinformation. Without the capacity to verify and sift through all they see and hear, they are exposed, and expose themselves and the people around them, to dangerous behaviours and practices based on what they see, watch, hear, and read online, from conspiracy theories to purported announcements from world leaders.
In the prevailing context of information overload, how can various stakeholders empower the world’s population to curb the spread of misinformation?
Social media giants like Facebook have provided technological solutions including limits on forwarded messages and stronger measures to ensure traceability and attribution. Beyond technological solutions, countries which opted to promote media and information literacy through policy would have prepared their populations to handle online content responsibly. The population would be aware of the crucial role they play and their responsibility in the way information is acquired, used, and disseminated. Some media corporations verify online claims and stories, and provide regular reports for the public.
Beyond all these attempts at providing sustainable solutions to misinformation, fake news, and manipulation of information, there is a central role for states which can help buttress all other attempts. States have consistently been reminded of the need to promote responsible behaviour in cyberspace, including through the fight against the propagation of fake news and distorted information, bearing in mind that information and knowledge have been tagged as bearing the seeds of power, and rightly so, considering the link to security.
It is interesting to note that while it wasn’t the case a few years back, world leaders, and in particular African statesmen, are increasingly using social media to communicate, establish their presence, and interact with their population and the world at large. The use of social media can contribute to building the required political aura in view of the number of followers and the associated capacity for influence. Twitter, for example, has emerged as an indispensable political and strategic communication tool for deft wielders.
Despite all the ills on social media, staying away is not a viable solution. Instead, the key lies in promoting a more responsible use of the technology and platforms at our disposal. State institutions and various dignitaries have, against this backdrop, created social media accounts which they opt to manage personally or have a dedicated team to keep the page running with options of interacting with the public or simply posting information.
The options are not limited and depend on the ambition of the owner of the account. Official social media accounts have been used to reach out to the population, to communicate the vision and ambition of the owners, to bridge communication gaps, to promote interaction and the trust in the governance process. These accounts inevitably promote and enhance access to public information. A noteworthy effect on the population is the feeling of being privy to their leaders’ actions and vision, as opposed to when it is relayed by other parties, and this promotes bonding and a sense of closeness to their leaders who use the same platforms that they use.
However, what is most important is that these official social media accounts can facilitate the classification of information at levels which would be useful in ensuring that what is attributed to institutions or leaders, actually emanates from them. Information is readily available online from all sorts of sources. Without insights on where and how to access credible content, it is challenging for a normal user to determine what is true and what is fake.
Information can be relayed by various media houses, and each according to the perspective they adopt, but what is marked as official helps in any relevant verification process. In the Republic of Cameroon, for example, state authorities, from the president of the republic, the prime minister and head of government, to the minister of public health and the minister of external relations, have used social media to ensure mass communication on the national response plan to curb the spread of the pandemic. This includes measures put in place by the government for the benefit of Cameroonians at home and abroad, advice, and statistics on the evolution of the situation. This move is creating a pull towards an understanding of the difference between official communication on social media as distinct from other sources. It moreover demonstrates the accountability and responsibility of the state and its authorities for information that is published.
Increasingly, information is distorted to attribute certain statements and recommendations to renowned organisations, institutions, and personalities. This can elicit trust and action from the target population based on the belief that what is presented is actually the opinion of the person or organisation that is purportedly behind the statement. It is equally true that some official statements could be countered by expert or scientific opinion. However, the availability of official social media accounts and the awareness of their existence can help foster a culture of verification.
A visit to an official page could trigger alarm bells if there are disclaimers, rebuttals, counterarguments, or no trace of the claim attributed to the organisation or individual on their page. This process is further enhanced through technological solutions, including the certification of social media accounts to facilitate attribution, traceability, and responsibility in collaboration with all relevant stakeholders.
Manyi Arrey Orok-Tambe is a foreign affairs officer in the Ministry of External Relations of the Republic of Cameroon. She holds an LL.M. in IT, Media and E-commerce from the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, a Master’s Degree in International Relations from the International Relations Institute of Cameroon, and an Advanced Postgraduate Diploma in Internet Governance from DiploFoundation.