Africa

‘Witch crash lands’: why the rise of fake news should concern us all

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OPINION: Overwhelmed and despondent by the constant flow of news after the US election, I sought refuge at a beach near Accra, and turned my cellphone data off.

I was still reeling over Trump’s win. I needed just one news-free day.

As a journalist, if I am awake I am either listening to the radio, reading news sites or reporting news.

John was in support of my switching off – there was one stipulation though: “If there’s any terror attack in West Africa or an earthquake in New Zealand, then obviously this plan is off,” I told him.

Just half a day into my break, on Sunday 13 November, I couldn’t resist checking in to make sure nothing drastic had happened. While drying off after swimming in the powerful Atlantic waves, the notifications came flying in.

A massive earthquake, felt across New Zealand.

My parents had sent a message on Facebook telling me they were okay in Nelson. A Whatsapp group with my best friends all from New Zealand, but spread across the world were checking in and making sure those on the coasts back home where adhering to the evacuation orders.

People were marking themselves as safe on Facebook and posting well-wishes and offers of accommodation for anyone who needed it. The #EQNZ tag was trending on Twitter.

Radio New Zealand and stuff.co.nz were pushing out rolling coverage of this latest, huge earthquake, and have produced stellar content since. Proving that, as much as people love to bash journalists, the ones we have at home generally embody the best of our national traits – incredibly hard-working, stoic when they have to be, but emphatic enough to be able to enact real change.

Unless you’ve personally worked as a journalist, it’s pretty hard to appreciate what goes into this job. The pay is generally low, the job security slips everyday, and the hours are long. You always feel this great sense of responsibility. You can’t really switch off.

Against an ongoing backdrop of cuts, pressure and low pay, it feels like a survival of the fittest, which is why New Zealand has such great, dedicated journalists. The standards are high across the board.

Over here in Ghana, not so much. Generally, there is little adherence to fact-checking or balance. Of course there are exceptions, one of my favourite journalism heroes of all time is from Ghana, undercover sleuth Anas Aremeyaw Anas. There are others across the stronger media houses fighting the good fight here.

But fake news stories are rife.

One of the worst I’ve seen this year was on one of the country’s most read news websites, which generally republishes news from other media, and this one was everywhere, about a “suspected witch crash landing” in a town.

Media actually published a story that said a woman “reportedly fell down heavily from the sky on a tape at a block factory” (the meaning of on tape in this context – I have no idea).

There was another related story around the same time where another woman “had taken the form of a bird before turning into a human being after crash landing.”

I don’t know if this was published across media because people really believe it could be true, or if it was something to just gain clicks, or fill space.

Either way, fake, careless “news” like this drives me up the wall. And, as we saw over the US election period, it’s not just Ghanaian sites that push this nonsense.

Facebook was and still is full of fake news, conspiracy theories and blatant lies packaged up to look real.

There was news of Trump’s candidacy being endorsed by the Pope, and a story claiming an FBI agent investigating Clinton had been found dead. There was the recent fake story, born from a photo of buses, which someone decided meant anti-Trump protestors were bused into rallies in Austin, Texas. Trump tweeted about it, it was later found to be untrue. The buses were for a conference.

It’s been made clear this year that Trump is dangerously critical of my profession. Through the election and since he has targeted the mainstream media. He has mocked and bullied reporters and press houses. He avoids the press pool – which flies in the face of democratic transparency and tradition.

But, I have hope. Despite the barriers Trump will put up, reporters will keep doing their jobs, but they need support. With budget cuts across the globe and dropping revenues, it’s falling more and more to consumers of media to pay for decent reporting, both at home and abroad.

I would love to see more money channelled into Radio New Zealand, and an increase in revenues for the likes of Fairfax and the NZME so they can keep producing work that matters.

If you feel the same, then support your local media. Buy the paper, don’t use ad-blockers. Pay for online subscriptions if you can. Support those who advertise with news outlets.

When it comes to the international press there’s more of a call for donations and subscriptions, like the UK Guardian, New York Times or NPR. I often wonder how far New Zealand media will be from this tactic.

However you can, act today to protect yourself from a dystopian future of media clampdowns by the Trumps of the world, where ‘flying witch’ stories are sold as fact.

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