Should you believe the news on social media?

There is a rush to be first with the news and get popularity for it

In Summary

• A 2020 survey found 60 per cent of youth do not trust news on Facebook, WhatsApp 

Social media sites
Social media sites
Image: FILE

News of the death of Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli first broke on social media, once again proving its growth as a powerful source of information for many people. The problem of false information, however, remains unresolved.

The lack of an official statement when rumours began swirling of President Magufuli’s demise provided fertile grounds for the spread of speculative information. Some of the rumours turned out to be true, but a lot of the information circulated at that time is yet to be proven. With people hungry for information regarding the president's health, the public was willing to believe every bit of news they found on social media.

The term “fake news” became widespread following the November 2016 elections held in the United States. There was a belief that fake news posted on social media had negative influence on the choices of voters at the ballot box. President Donald Trump, who won those elections, spent his four-year tenure of office battling claims of posting misleading information on his social media platforms. Trump's social media accounts had all been suspended by the time he left office in January.

Social media is designed to “reward” those who share information. The rewards come in the form of views, likes, comments and shares (engagement). The more engagement you generate, the bigger your following grows. Sean Parker, one of Facebook's founders, revealed in 2017 that social media is designed to "consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible".

“Someone liked or commented on your photo or a post. That's going to get you to contribute more content, and that's going to get you more likes and comments. It's a social-validation feedback loop, exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology," Parker said.

As more people spend their waking hours on social media, the desire for social validation is the real motivation behind creating and sharing content. Through trial and error, social media users get to know which type of content attracts followers. Being popular on social media creates a psychological euphoria – a sensation of feeling high, which encourages some social media users to deliberately do or say provocative things to get a reaction from followers.

“In social media, there is a rush to be first with the news but with limited consequences,” says Nahashon Kimemia, a social media influencer in Nairobi. “People want to get as many likes, reactions and shares as possible. They also want others to believe that they are in the know.”

Kimemia believes social media users are more prone to sharing any type of information because, unlike journalists in mainstream media outlets, they are unlikely to face any punitive consequences.

“If there were no consequences for traditional media, they, too, would post anything to get ratings or push newspaper sales. Social media has a reduced level of consequences, so our impulse to post anything is stronger than in the traditional media,” he says.

Taita Taveta Governor Granton Samboja recently fell victim to misleading news instigated by a national political operative who has a huge following on social media. The rumours were that the governor was sick with Covid-19 and that he was in intensive care at a hospital in Nairobi.

It is not that people have lost trust in traditional media outlets, but it is because today, social media breaks the news first
Dennis Kiplimo

Speaking to a vernacular radio station, Samboja said he was shocked when his distressed mother called his wife, wanting to know whether the information was true. The governor blamed the rumours on political rivalry. “Death is a reality but it is unfair to falsely claim that someone is dead,” Samboja said.

Analysts say though social media may appear as a channel for unverified news, it complements the mainstream media. “Social media is not the best place to find factual news, but when there is something breaking, something sensational happening, then social media is where the majority go,” says Dennis Kiplimo, a social media influencer based in Nairobi.

“It is not that people have lost trust in traditional media outlets, but it is because today, social media breaks the news first," Kiplimo says. The weakness with social media is that only a few people will make the effort to verify the news.

Social media is increasingly becoming a big source of news to many people. A survey carried out across Africa and whose results were released in 2020 showed that social media was the main source of information for 54 per cent of respondents. The survey, which was commissioned by a South African foundation, found that trust levels for news from social media were low. More than 60 per cent of Kenyan youth said they do not trust Facebook and WhatsApp as sources of news.

One of the biggest challenges is the presence of social media accounts meant to resemble that of well-known media outlets. “There are a lot of fake or parody accounts on the Internet and most people can't distinguish them from official accounts. They end up believing in fake news and even spreading it further,” Kiplimo says.

Despite the presence of fake news on social media, the platforms give ordinary men and women the opportunity to question official narratives. This was very evident when people raised doubts over the little information coming out of the Tanzanian government, when rumours about the departed president began to swirl.

"We still believe in evidence regardless of whether it comes from the mainstream media outlets or social media. If things don't add up, social media gives us the space to question it," Kimemia says.

Social media platforms and mainstream media outlets have settled into an uneasy relationship. Major news outlets run social media accounts with the largest following in Kenya, with some boasting more than a million followers.

Edited by T Jalio