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Misinformation literacy, not punitive laws, needed to combat fake news

research-paper by Peter Cunliffe-Jones, published by Daily Maverick

African governments have resorted to new laws against false information, that don’t reduce harm. They also don’t promote media literacy in schools, which could.

“In a multi-ethnic and multireligious country like ours, ‘fake news’ is a time bomb,” Nigerian Information Minister Lai Mohammed warned journalists at a briefing in Abuja in 2018. “In recent weeks, many anarchists have been doing everything possible to detonate the bomb.” To disarm this time bomb, his government would educate Nigerians to identify it at source. “We do not intend to resort to coercion or censorship,” the minister pledged. Instead, he proposed ways the public could identify false information. “These simple measures may not end ‘fake news’, but they will go a long way in stemming its spread.”

A few weeks later, President Macky Sall of Senegal went further, calling publicly on his education minister to come up with a plan to promote media literacy in schools. This would “counter ‘fake news’ and other false information” because the internet was “becoming sabotaged by bad practice”.

Since concern rose worldwide in 2016 about the effects of misinformation — from provoking vigilante violence in Ethiopia to the use of ineffective medical treatments for Ebola and Covid-19 — calls have grown for new knowledge and skills to be taught in schools as an antidote to falsehoods.

In 2020, seven colleagues and I* examined what has been done since in policy responses across Africa. In two linked research reports published in April, we found that governments in 12 countries studied had in fact resorted to punitive laws, censoring public debate and, in six of seven countries studied, done almost nothing to promote misinformation literacy in state-run schools.

A near doubling of laws on ‘false information’, no reduction in misinformation harm

As we discovered, between 2016 and 2020, 10 of 11 countries surveyed — Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda — introduced or amended laws or regulations penalising publication of “false” information. The other country, Senegal, used existing laws for the same purpose.

Where these laws or regulations are used to prevent the continuing spread of harmful misinformation, as was the case against financial hoaxes in Uganda and dangerous public health misinformation in South Africa, it’s plausible they may directly reduce harm. However, punitive laws do little to deter and nothing to correct false information and thus curb harm, once the false information is in circulation. More than that, 10 of the 31 laws or regulations we studied require no evidence that the “false” information (if it was false) caused or risked harm before it is penalised. A further six related to “harms” such as the “annoyance” of ministers which are not legitimate under international law.

The laws fail to address the different types of misinformation, what and who drives it and the effects it has. One of its biggest causes is the lack of easy public access to reliable information. This is not acknowledged in these laws. Like the flawed approach proposed in Europe, requiring tech platforms to take down “illegal” content or face heavy fines, they are tackling only part of the problem. As Christine Czerniak, of the World Health Organization’s “infodemic” team, said recently: “I think universal access to credible information is really the goal here. It’s not just about staying in that reactive space… but trying to proactively amplify helpful information.”

One glimmer of light is that some countries seem to recognise this. Countries such as South Africa with legal frameworks that allow independent fact-checking initiatives to work, enable an effective means of correcting misinformation, reducing harm. Malawi, in 2016, introduced a new law obliging broadcasters to air “counter-versions” from those “affected by an assertion of (a false) fact”. Senegal, in 2017, introduced a new self-regulatory press code aimed at raising standards against misinformation.


In the Western Cape, a first step toward teaching ‘misinformation literacy’

By contrast with the zeal for punishing “false” information, our second report found that in six of seven countries studied — Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda — traditional media literacy was barely included in the main state school curriculums. Obstacles to teaching media literacy start with bureaucratic challenges and political will — from underfunding schools and poor teacher training to the perception of planners that curriculums are already crowded.

Media literacy “is not the responsibility of any existing discipline”, curriculum expert Professor Amadou Camara in Senegal told us. In Uganda, media literacy is not a priority, Dr Grace Baguma, director of the National Curriculum Development Centre, said. “The focus is on getting the learners literate in numeracy, literacy, science mainly,” she explained.

If or when media literacy is taught, it bears little relation to the knowledge and skills needed to identify misinformation, with topics ranging from civic education and behaviour in Ghana to self-awareness and problem-solving in Kenya. If it is to succeed, it needs to build on work done by colleagues in 2020 on news literacy, and promote knowledge and skills in a subset of media literacy that we call “misinformation literacy”.


Misinformation literacy — knowledge and skills to identify misinformation

  1. Context: the context in which misinformation and accurate information are produced;
  2. Creation: who creates misinformation and who creates accurate information;
  3. Content: the main types or forms of false content, and how to identify key features distinguishing them from fair and accurate content;
  4. Circulation: the processes by which false and accurate information circulate, and can thus be identified;
  5. Consumption: the reasons for which individuals, ourselves included, consume and believe false information; and
  6. Consequences: the consequences of believing and sharing false information.

In a bleak picture, it was encouraging that a first step has been made towards teaching misinformation literacy in South Africa. In 2020, the Western Cape introduced a new “online safety” programme, aiming to establish a mindset of “click restraint”, the ability to evaluate the credibility of websites and the understanding of the effects of misinformation, Ismail Teladia, senior curriculum planner for life orientation, told us. It does not cover all we know of harmful misinformation but brings a focus no previous curriculum has done. It’s a start.

10 steps to reduce misinformation harm, without curbing freedom of expression

  1. Introduce misinformation literacy in school curriculums;
  2. Provide teacher training, resources and support;
  3. Assessments (with benchmarks) for misinformation literacy skills and knowledge;
  4. Traditional and social media promote the key knowledge, skills;
  5. Public figures and institutions set higher norms of accuracy,  honesty**;
  6. Standards-based independent systems of media regulation;
  7. Improved access to official information on important topics;
  8. Systems to promote the accuracy of official information;
  9. Work with other countries on a transparent, standards-based approach to content moderation by global tech companies; and
  10. Revise “false information” laws to comply with international law and apply only when severe harm or risk of harm is proven. DM

** Optimistic, we know.

* Peter Cunliffe-Jones, University of Westminster; Assane Diagne, Reporters Without Borders; Alan Finlay, University of the Witwatersrand; Dr Sahite Gaye, l’Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar; Wallace Gichunge, Centre for Media & Information Literacy, Kenya; Dr Chido Onumah, African Centre for Media & Information Literacy, Nigeria; Cornia Pretorius, North West University; Dr Anya Schiffrin, Columbia University. 


Photo by Andrew Medhat on Unsplash



Peter Cunliffe-Jones


Peter Cunliffe-Jones worked as a foreign correspondent and editor of foreign news for the AFP news agency in Western Europe, the Balkans, west Africa and the Asia Pacific for 25 years from 1990-2015; serving as a correspondent in Bosnia and Croatia during the Balkan wars, Bureau Chief in Nigeria during the end of military rule in the country, Chief editor for Asia-Pacific overseeing coverage of the Asian Tsunami of 2004 from Hong Kong, and Stylebook editor and Head of Online News in London. In 2012, he set up Africa’s first independent fact-checking organisation, AfricaCheck.org, expanding it to four countries (South Africa, Senegal, Nigeria and Kenya) and leading it until May 2019, making it a leader of the new international fact-checking movement. In 2016, he became the first chair of the advisory board for the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) and in May 2019 was appointed IFCN’s senior adviser. His first book, “My Nigeria: Five decades of independent” published in 2010, was declared “a triumph” by the late Professor Chinua Achebe. He was a fellow of the Shuttleworth Foundation from 2016-2019.


9 June 2021
Published By
Daily Maverick
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