October 23, 2018 was unfortunate day for two longtime friends who went to their hometown to conduct a medical research.The research results and its aim would have been a great deal for the local community. However, their effort and aspiration was cut short with a tragedy that claims their lives.
They were beaten to death by an angry mob in West Gojjam Zone, Amhara Regional State.WossenTafere, a researcher and a PhD candidate at the Ethiopian Institute of Water Resources and his friend, Mandfero Abi, were killed while conducting a research at a school in West Gojiam.
According to reports from the area, things took a turn to worst on that fateful day and it was allbecause of unfounded rumors or fake news reportedly circulated in the social media on the day of the killing.
The rumors were first began in the social media and then found their way into the town, according to those close to the case.
According to these accounts, a group of youth in the area spread a rumor about the two researchers saying that they were administrating injections and vaccinations to students.
The youth also disseminated a false claim that the students who received the injections form the researchers were filling ill and dying, according to multiple sources from the area.
Following this, hundreds of people went to the school where the researchers were taking samples and began attacking them. They were attacked by stones and dragged on to the streets.
In the same token, other researchers who went to study the level of HIV Prevalence in Bahir Dar were also attacked.
Apparently, theincidents had far reaching consequences for the health sector. Since then, health workers in various regions are facing problems to practice their usual routine, and it is all because of fake news in the virtual world, particularly facebook.
With the popularity of the social media and the growing penetration of the internet, the conventional media platforms such as radio, television and print media is diminishing, experts argue. Now, people have more access to those news platforms, largely facebookfor news.
However, this new platform came with its own danger where anyone can disseminate any information freely; whether it true or not. But, the more burning issue is the fact that people are inclined to believe the information or news reports on these platforms without questioning their trustworthiness.
This has a created a new era of fake news in the world politics. And no one is shielded from this raging fire. In fact, sometimes these new mediums are seen turning to platforms for hate speeches where in countries like Myanmar they helped fuelthe act of genocide on the minority Muslim Rohingya by Buddhist majorities.
In fact, according to a number of news reports, known personalities in Myanmar stormed facebook and used the platform to attack the Rohingyas.
A number of fake news items which talks about the killing of Buddhist and the raping of Buddhist woman by a Muslim Rohingyas were some of the unfounded allegations which led to the massacre of Rohingyas.
Africa was also a victim of fake news,although not as deadly as Myanmar, the impact was still felt in the lives of many people. Nevertheless, reports have also shown that the quickly spreading fake news reporting was not only limited to social media. In fact, main news outlets were either misled or were perpetrators in the fake news phenomenon, in recent times.
For instance, according to news report by BBC Africa entitled: “A year in fake news in Africa “on November, 2018, there was a number of news items which was circulated in the social media.
In this regard, new reports from an Ethiopian outlet was also implicated in such incidents where by a video footage which has allegedly shownan alleged killings of Somalis by Oromos, whichnot only circulated in the social media platforms first butalso crossed to a broadcast by a U.S based Ethiopian television station, Ethiopian Satellite Television (ESAT).
According to reports, the footage has created tension among the two ethnic groups at the time and might even have resulted in the harassment and beating of Oromos who live in Djibouti. The same report by BBC also proved that the same footage was first used in Cameroon. Granted, the US-based ESAT vehemently denounced the allegations going as far as writing a letter of complaint to the trust that governs the British outlet: BBC.
Such trends in different formsare also growing from time to time sometimes becoming an immediate reason for violence and clash among communities.
More particularly such dissemination of fake news in the virtual world has become more popular over the past few months when it comes to the case of Ethiopia.
Just few weeks back, fake news which said to narrate the rally in Mekelle was circulated by activists in the social media. The news was said to be compile by the Washington Post and reported the rally as if it was mainly organized by protestersagainst Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (PhD).
Later, it was proved that Washington Post has never done any reporting about the rally and the claim was totally a fabrication.
Elias Meseret, a local correspondent for Associated Press, was in fact the first to disprove the fake news disseminated regarding the rally in Mekelle. Elias beside his profession in the main stream media is active on social mediaand recently has taken it up on himself, to hunt similar fake news reports and to disproving them.
The trend is also making journalists job difficult.
“Verifying information has now become an added job description for me because that was not a major issue when I started practicing journalism some eight or nine years ago,” Elias told The Reporter.
“ It also makes me wary of every information that comes my way these days because I have to verify, and study the source of information, rethink the movies behind it and then decided whether to use it or not before I started the actual story writing,” he said.
Such unhealthy activity of fabricating false news mainlyinvolves creating a duplicate facebook accounts which are similar with known media houses.
Media houses such as Fana Broadcast Corporate S.C was a victim of such malicious practice where until recently there were a number of facebook accounts with similar names. These accounts usually made up a number of fake news reports using Fana’s name.
Later, the media house decided to verify its account which led to the fake accounts with similar names to be shutdown.
But still, other media houses such as Walta Information Center, some TV stationsare suffering from such problems. In fact, there a number of fake accounts with Walta’s name with the fake pages having more likes than the original: the fake Walta page, for instance, has 106,841likes while the original is not more than 90k.
“This is creating a problem for us,” said AbrhamDreje, media expert at Walta Information Center. He has been managing the website and social media forWalta for the past three years.
“Usually,a number of people send us a message on facebook, to verify particular news in the social media posted under our name,” he said. “We have tried to report our complaints to facebook but it has been difficult to clear put the issue.”
He indicated that such trends of fake news and using duplicate accounts is becoming common practice over the past six or seven months given the political sensitiveness of the country.
Tamiru L Kitata, is one of the many facebook users, who was tricked by such duplicate fake account. He said he wasn’t sure which one was the real account forWalta.
Given the number of fake news in the virtual world, he always tries to use different method to cross check the authenticity on the news.
“I was motivated to do such follow upsafter a fake footagecirculated in the social media,” he said.
Given the complexity of the problem and its global trend, there are only few countries that have laws to regulate fake news, thus far. In this regard, just recently France has introduced a law which will regulate articles which are fake news.
However, the move to regulate fake news is also becoming controversial following a concern that the laws might be used to effect censorship on freedom of expression.
In this regard, Elias suggests Ethiopia to have its own legal framework to deal with the trending problem.
“It makes me scared when I think what will happen when the internet penetration level reaches the likes of Egypt and South Africa,” he said. It’s for the lawmakers to determine what that legal framework may look like, but I strongly believe there should be one in place before it is too late.
“With regards to fake news, I believe the solution lies in tracking, exposing, blocking/or penalizing and educating. One solution could be penalizing; preferably through a nongovernmental independent body in order to deter others from continuing on this path,” Tara Al-Kadi (PhD), a lecturer at Department of Journalism and Mass Communication in The American University in Cairo, told The Reporter.
“This could mean paying fines and getting a warning that would escalate if repeated or whatever fair system an independent body would seek,” she said.
In addition, the so called journalists or sources of such materials tend to make a lot of financial gain through the fake news. The cycle could be broken if we manage to block or reduce the financial rewards. This would mean advertisers and sponsors should be deterred as well, he argued further.
In relation to this, the Office of the Attorney General is somehow trying to come up with some sort of deterring mechanism for fake news.
“We are now preparing a proclamation which will regulate the dissemination of hate speech,” ZinabuTunu, communication director with the Office told The Reporter.
“Soon the law will be functional,” he said.