By Clayton Moyo
The power to self-publish by technology users has inevitably changed the communications landscape in a disruptive way. Those whose trade is to produce and distribute information are still trying to establish order in an environment of unrelenting chaos, or so it seems.
What emerges as quite a threatening challenge of our times is disinformation and predictably, misinformation – a lesser threat.
Misinformation has always been a part of human interaction and dispelling it each time it emerges is not an impossible feat. Disinformation at a time when social media enables just about anything to be amplified and spread like veld fire on networks is what puts professionals like journalists in the spotlight. They are at the centre of this problem, not only because they fall into the trap of reproducing it but because it is their job to counter this problem.
Disinformation is deliberately crafting false information, in its worst form, it involves building up a narrative based on fabrications and misrepresentations. Elections are fertile ground for that. This has been seen just about everywhere – from Zimbabwe to the United States where the Russian state is seemingly invested in influencing political processes.
The conversation should not only be framed around elections as is the trend globally. It goes beyond elections. The phenomenon becomes a brute force when there is a looming poll. Obviously, the stakes would be higher. To understand disinformation beyond elections is crucial.
Disinformation is systematic, unlike misinformation, it can be concealed in a tangled cobweb of truths, half-truths and outright lies.
Perhaps it should be established early that journalism itself has the capacity to withstand and tackle the brokers of disinformation but the same cannot be easily said about journalists.
The worldview of journalists is hued with all sorts of experiences that if unchecked can be fertile ground for perpetuation of disinformation. Race, ethnicity, social class, religious beliefs, political leanings, gender and sexuality all form part of the baggage that tints the way the “truth-teller” interprets the world and subsequently mediates it to others. That is often ignored as professionals point out at fairness, accuracy and some dare say objectivity. Others even speak of neutrality, whatever that entails in a journalistic sense.
UNESCO makes a clear case for what journalism involves and that its practice has become open to those who are not formally recognised as journalists. Media workers and community or citizen reporters now play an increasingly influential role in generating information that ultimately reaches the audience on social media.
In workshops where journalists are brought to comment on these changes that they continually face, two camps usually emerge. Or perhaps a disclaimer – these are workshops that at least I have attended. There are those who think other actors in journalistic practice are raining on journalists’ parade and ruining the profession. That is definitely an unsustainable way of responding to the changing face of journalistic practice. A more progressive way that others adopt is thinking of complementarity and the need to constantly reimagine the role of a professional journalist in the new information order.
That journalism is facing an existential threat is a cliché now. That it is often put as a question doesn’t help it. The question is premised on a misconception. It is those who are in journalistic occupations who bring up existentialism into question. It does not mean that the practice itself is in a precarious state.
There are no easy answers on how journalistic occupations can be saved. If stable economies are grappling with saving these occupations, in the developing world we are certainly not coping on this shifting ground. More so for us here in Zimbabwe where we have a comfortable spot at the bottom of development indices.
The agenda for journalism is clear. Besides providing accurate and truthful accounts of the world we constitute, there is need to aggressively confront and dismantle disinformation efforts that litter the narratives on social media and those that have managed to filter into mainstream media.
Zimbabwean journalists make for an interesting case. Mainstream media are an infamous producer of constant hyper-partisanship. How about that as a brigade leading the fight against disinformation?
Those who generate and sustain false narratives on social media often depend on the mainstream media to solidify and fortify their arguments.
As we observed in the 2018 elections, the public square was severely contaminated. Disinformation is a success when its drivers have set the agenda in the public square. No matter which stance you take, even if it does not conform to their desired narrative, you are definitely distracted. That constrains you from initiating and sustaining rational conversations with other users. What then are the implications on a democratic process like an election?
The biggest threat to any democratic process is not misinformation but the ability of merchants of disinformation to limit the scope of imaginations of alternatives to the status quo. A society that does not imagine itself beyond its present state is one that is surely headed for rock bottom.
Disinformation is organised, it is complex and it is often sponsored. Big funders. Corporates. Governments. Competent public relations gurus. Strong committed journalism can confront such forces.
It can be done. Bell Pottinger fell and so did their well thought out plot laced with “white monopoly capital in South Africa” catchphrases and sound bites.
Since the fall of Robert Mugabe, the regime that emerged, led by President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been trying to court just about everyone who cares to lend an ear. They have appeared on international publications, television news networks and stranger than fiction books have been published. Bright colours were painted. Events have been pretty unkind though, the disinformation wagon has been spectacularly falling off on its own.
What clearly lacks is a journalistic effort to lift off the lid and expose the disastrous concoction.
The Zimbabwean online public square is dominated by noise. Organised disruptive noise.
That the noise is organised is quite worrying. It suggests the presence of bigger forces that work on the creation of narratives or disruption of any efforts to build up consensus on issues of public interest.
Discussions on the Gukurahundi Genocide have been a target of persistent attacks from faceless characters. Any attempts to call for justice are met with a barrage of questions on the pre-colonial order of what is present-day Zimbabwe. This convenient recalling of murky historical events steers the discourse off the path of justice and introduces the chaos of exchanging words over who has done what damage to the other between the Shona and Ndebele ethnic groups. That is how a progressive rational conversation gets derailed by the deliberate noise.
The other issue that is laid out for news consumers is the sanctions farce officially used by the government to explain away the economic catastrophe that is unfolding. The Mugabe regime sucked the sanctions issue dry. It was temporarily put to rest when Mnangagwa came in. Faceless social media accounts and state media have dusted off that narrative and given it a new lease of life. This narrative building is so strong and successful in a way that it has become the agenda.
Sadly, solutions for countering such disinformation do not come as fast the problems proliferate and fester.
One of the ways that have been suggested is the strengthening of fact-checking.
Fact checkers can pay more attention to mainstream journalistic accounts. Much as they correct issues after the fact, their increased influence can curb sloppiness and neglect of verification by journalists.
There is more that can be done by journalists themselves without the intervention of independent fact checkers to “embarrass” them. Newsrooms need to take the task of verification quite seriously. The digital teams that have been set up by media companies need to expand on their duties to specialising on verification exercises, particularly on the use of digital tools to corroborate information.
In 2016 I presented a paper at an international conference on Zimbabwean newsrooms’ verification procedures in light of the “terror” of social media timelines. The paper concluded that the “journalistic gut” is heavily relied on. The familiarity of the news landscape no longer suffices as a verification technique in the face of organised disinformation. Professional journalists have to invest more in technological tools and skills.
A concoction of disinformation, misinformation and dangerously uncritical audience obliterates the necessity of democratic processes as they are reduced into a circus. It would be sad if we continue not looking far for an example of such a circus.
*Clayton Moyo lectures broadcast media at a local university. He can be contacted via email at email@example.com