Fake News’ Effect on Ethiopian Politics

Fake news means news articles or information sources that are intentionally and verifiably false, and are meant to mislead readers. There are two key characteristics of fake news. First, fake news includes false information and fabricated news reports produced either for profit or political purposes. Second, fake news is created with dishonest intentions. It is deliberately fabricated and disseminated with the intention to deceive and mislead others into believing falsehoods or doubting verifiable facts. As a result, fake news shows circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs.Despite not being a recent phenomenon, Google trends analysis reveals that the term ‘fake news’ garnered wide attention during the United States presidential election in 2016, and has remained popular since. Furthermore, the consumption and impact of fake news has been exacerbated by the declining trust between news media and the public, and the shift from broadcast and print mass media to an increasingly digital and mobile social media. These changes are also inherent in the nature of social media since it is timelier and less expensive to consume news on social media and it is easier to engage with news on social media.

Fake news is concerning because the functioning of democracy relies on an educated and well-informed populace and as such, the spread of misinformation has the potential to undermine both science and society. In an age where almost half of all news consumers receive and share their news from online sources, false information can reach large audiences by spreading rapidly from one individual to another. Consequently, in the “post-truth”era, the risk fake news poses to evidence-based decision-making is apparent.

The boundary between authentic news and fake news is too blurred to mark. Fake news can take different forms and cause harm to different extents. But fake news can be categorized in to three groups. The first is serious fabrications uncovered in mainstream or participant media, yellow press or tabloids while the second is large-scale hoaxes. The third group of fake news includes humorous but fakes news satire, parody, and game shows.

Impact wise, the diffusion of fake news is like the spread of a viral contagion requiring an intuitive solution like a “vaccine”.This act of dealing with fake news by inducing attitudinal resistance against persuasion and propaganda, in a manner similar to biological immunization through “mental antibodies” and information, is called inoculation theory.The theory focuses on preemptively exposing people to a weakened version of a counter-argument, and by subsequently refuting that argument.

Based on recent developments and the ongoing political scenes, it is observed that Ethiopia is no exception to the problem of fake news. Even with the limited access to the internet and social media use, victimhood to fake news is prevalent especially among the young and the ‘elite’. Social media usage in contemporary Ethiopian politics in particular can be seen in two ways. One, the use of social media in sensitizing and mobilizing the young and the vulnerable through grass roots movements for change. Two, in post digital-led revolutionary changes, the use of social media in organizing supporters of different political parties and ideologies, in welcoming their heroes, raising political matters and forwarding political opinions. These activities have often crossed the line of fair game and legitimate use of social media for political gains. Of course, Ethiopian laws on related issues like press freedom, data privacy, and disinformation are yet to be enacted or reviewed to have up to date relevance.

However, what cannot be denied from recent developments in Ethiopia is the impact of social media and the resulting change it has had on mainstream media. A few years ago, locally inhibited media and social media were some of the very few alternative sources of facts in a highly censured press environment. Today, social media has become a major source of fact finding, conspiracy theories and hate speech. With limited mechanisms to scrutinize resources and poor habits of proper verification, it is difficult to contain fake news stories once they have been created. With particular regard to sensitive and contentious matters, social media is used to fuel the spread of fake news in numerous ways.

For instance, one of the most divisive political figures in Ethiopian history is Emperor Menelik II. Despite his Adwa victory, unification of the country and introduction of various technologies and civilizations, what he did with his local expansionist policies was contentious. Some claim that he carried out brutal and degrading acts while others claim he only engaged in war and did what was necessary to win. Looking at what social media has brought to this debate, there are plenty of photo-shopped pictures circulating online that aim to show how the king mistreated people, especially certain ethnic groups. Such practices, intentionally or not, have become more pervasive lately on various political topics.

‘Astroturfing’, also called ‘fake grass root’ is another type of fake news. It is the act of carefully constructing a narrative, by unseen special interests designed to manipulate peoples’ opinion. Complacency in the news media and incredibly powerful propaganda and publicity forces made it easy to spin people and their opinions. Astroturfing is a perversion of reality where political, corporate and special interests disguise themselves to publish blogs, create accounts, make ads or simply post comments to manipulate people. It is far more powerful than traditional lobby mechanisms in fooling people, by making it look as if independent and grassroots sources are speaking. This is very common in developed countries and it is also observed in Ethiopia to a growing extent. Propaganda and bogus media companies aimed at indoctrinating and ‘truth laundering’ is not alien to Ethiopian mass media. Lately, these entities are inevitably using social media and digital means where they have a wide coverage and devotees.

The other type of fake news widely seen in Ethiopian social media are fake accounts established in the name of famous people to influence their fans with evil and misleading missions. Such illegitimate accounts easily spread among the crowd that has less time and willingness to verify their credibility beyond cruising to debate on the topic.

Mobilized denunciation of facts and figures is also common in Ethiopian politics. ‘Mob Truth’ – truth that is appealing to the majority is growing in Ethiopia compared to objectively verifiable truth or absolute truth. This is so because social media masses are often observed in denouncing facts and figures that stand opposite to their ideology and belief regardless of veracity. Equipped with only ‘like, comment and share’ weapons to engage in the war their friends and idols wage, social media users are rarely seen in verifying the truth before engaging. Often the winner is chosen by majority than by factual analysis and this is dangerous to the basic pillars of democracy.

7th Year • Oct.16 – Nov. 15 2018 • No. 67


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