The pace at which misinformation, disinformation and fake news spread in the world has necessitated the need for fact checking skill and competence, especially for journalists and journalism students and interns. Also, acquisition of this skill will help verification of consumed information. This paper presents a discussion on fake news and dearth of fact-checking skills among journalism students in Nigeria. It also establishes distinction among related concepts to fake news and provides recommendations on how to improve students’ fact-checking skills.
Information disorder birthed by the democratisation of access to media content production and dissemination is one of the threats to stability of society in the 21st century. The effects of misinformation are far reaching for the government and the governed. Despite the increasing trend of fact checking and growing conversations in the ecosystem, misinformation, disinformation and fake news continue to grow in leaps and bounds. Fake news is as old as man (Silas, 2021).
Fake news is a combination of two words – fake and news. To be “fake” means not true, false or untrue while news refers to information about events, people or any occurrence reported in the media. In view of this, fake news is any piece of information that is not true or genuine, released or published in expectation to be conceived as being true (Apuke & Omar, 2020).
One major factor for the exponential spread of fake information is social media. With the proliferation of the social media platforms across every nook and cranny of the world, misinformation and fake information have spread like wildfire. According to Apuke and Omar (2020), social media is responsible for the unprecedented rise in information disorder. This is a result of the popularity, ease of use, accessibility and ubiquity of the media among the audiences. A study by Raji (2020a) revealed that social media is the major source of misinformation. The study also revealed that fake news is not only initiated by individuals but also by government corporations, the presidency, government officials, and politicians inclusive.
Fake news or misinformation is capable of inciting violence, can lead to break down of law and order, destruction of the economy, and other forms of social disintegration (Ojebode, 2018). An ill-informed society is prone to economic under-development and social fragility which are part of the trappings of a failed state with far reaching implications on democracy and good governance. Both educated and non-educated Nigerians engage in spreading fake news.
Although there is no empirical research to know the roles of mainstream media in spreading fake news, it is evident that fake news and disinformation have been prominent topics in public and academic debate in relation to the past U.S. presidential election. (Yariv, Boomgaarden, Strömbäck, Vliegenthart, Damstra, and Lindgren (2020).
Also, Dumebi, (2020) asserts that mainstream media in Nigeria have been found culpable in disseminating fake news and has contributed to worsening farmers-herders clashes. He cited a story once ran by most mainstream and online media in June 2018 alleging that Danladi Ciroma, a leader of the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association said, the attacks in Plateau were retribution for the loss of 300 cows with a threat of more if they were not found. However, following protest by Ciroma, only a few of the outlets including Premium Times ran a rebuttal, apologised and took appropriate editorial disciplinary measures to prevent future occurrence.
It is observed that many Nigerian journalists encounter the challenges of information verification and fake news detection, as loads of fake information are shared on a daily basis by individuals, political elites and members of other groups. Therefore, there is a need for journalists and media practitioners to develop fact-checking competence and skill to be able to tackle the menace of fake news (Raji, 2020b).
This necessitated the introduction of media literacy, especially on social media platforms and establishment of fact–checking organisations like Dubawa, Africa Check, and Ghanafact to help with the detection of fake information. For instance, the aim of the Dubawa Fellowship “is to foster a culture of fact-checking in newsrooms and hopefully encourage newsrooms to have fact-checking desks” (Premium Times, 2019). Dubawa, as well as other fact-checking organisations have been collaborating in Nigeria to train and help journalists to develop media literacy skills.
Despite these efforts, fake news and misinformation are still major concerns in Nigeria. It is b that universities and tertiary institutions offering media and journalism studies in the country seldom teach fact-checking skills to students. Hence, it becomes problematic for young journalists leaving schools and those already in practice to screen information for authenticity.
Fake News: Setting the record straight
Understanding what fact checking means and its relationship with media literacy cannot be done without explaining concepts like information ecosystem, misinformation, disinformation, malinformation, and fake news. Information ecosystem is used to describe how local communities exist and evolve within particular information and communication systems. It is dynamic and transcends traditional audience research on media access and consumption according to needs and peculiarities of any society. Therefore, an information system refers to the communication structure that exists in a population, relating to how information is produced, spread, retrieved, used and disposed of. (UNCHR, 2015)
Misinformation is described as “false information that is spread, without the intent to mislead”. Misinformation now spreads fast due to advancement in information technology (Folarin, 2020). The key word in this definition is “intent”. The person that spreads misinformation is not aware of the inaccuracy of the information being spread. Disinformation, on the other hand, is false information that is deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country. The difference between disinformation and misinformation is that the former is deliberately publicised to harm a target. Malinformation is referred to as the process of sharing genuine information to harm a person, social group, organization or country. This can be in the form of revealing information to bring the target to disrepute and public condemnation Anipah (2020).
However, Fake news has a long history and could mean different things, depending on the context. According to Wang (2020), the concept of fake news, though still ambiguous, is an evolving field of research drawing significant attention from academics and mass media practitioners. The advent of the internet and social media have considerably changed media reportage and perception, therefore, understanding trends on fake news entail considering the unique social undercurrents birthed by new media technologies.
Pate, A., Gambo, D., and Ibrahim, M. (2019) aver that fake news is a complex concept. In his submission, Ojebode (2018) argues that despite numerous definitions given to the concept, it is “a report of an event that was conjured by the imagination of an individual or group of individuals, hence, it did not happen. That is, fake news is the formulation of false information, shared to the public as if being real but untrue. It is simply a falsified piece of information published to make the people believe it is real.
Wei, Lim and Ling (2018) refer to fake news as an oxymoron because it contains two contradictory words – fake and news. News is supposed to be a factual reportage of events while “fake” implies that the information is not genuine. Therefore, fake news is not rumour within the house or among a close group. With the inclusion of “news”, it became a reported event or information via the mass or social media. In view of this, any report disseminated to the public, which is false, or not a proper representation of actual events but presented as true is fake news (Ojebode, 2018). Fake news thrives across all platforms ranging from audio, images, video as well as textual documents (Philip, Lisa-Maria, and Nayana 2021).
Fact-Checking: Skills and Tools
Fact checking began as part of a process to be sure of the appropriateness of facts in news articles before they are published as an integral part of the journalistic profession. Fact-checking is a procedure of authenticating the accuracy of information. In journalism, this happens internally before publication as well as externally via articles appraising the accuracy of publicly available information (Graves & Amazeen, 2019). According to Anipah (2020), fact-checking (in the context of information disorder) is the process of determining the truthfulness and accuracy of official, published information such as politicians’ statements and news reports. The concept today now entails verification of claims on health, politics, governance to mention a few. She further explained that from 44 in 2014, practicing organisations have increased to 290 by June 2020 across 83 counties and regulated by the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), formed in 2015 to drive standards among the global fact-checking community.
In Africa, since AfricaCheck.org pioneered fact checking in 2014, many more have sprung up including Dubawa.org [Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and recently Gambia]; Agence France Presse (AFP) Fack-Check, Ghanafact.org; Fact-checkGhana.com while many newsrooms have begun to have fact checking desks in addition to partnerships with existing platforms.
Sylvie, Philippe, Julien, Ioana, and Xavier (2018) listed some steps involved in fact checking to include extract claims from some discourse, search for the facts the claims are based on, assess accuracy of claims especially for those backing facts and ensure there is a context for claims there is no forward settlement. They also explained that while technology could make fact checking easier and faster, its efficiency could be undermined by psychological or cultural barriers. However, fact-checking has continued to gain traction to help guarantee truth and is seen as a modern aspect of accountability journalism.
Fact-checking is a new development and has continued to gain popularity in recent times owing to the debilitating effects of fake news in society (Daniel, 2018; Raji, 2020a). Fact-checking is defined as the process of authenticating the accuracy of a piece of information before it is put in the public domain (Graves & Amazeen, 2019). Although it is considered research expenditure outside the academia, programmes, such as fellowships and workshops have been established to train local researchers and journalists in fact-checking competence to detect and discard fake information (Raji, 2020a).
Since fact-checking cannot happen on its own, tech experts have continued to introduce tools and resources to facilitate this process using scientific, non-scientific methodologies and even automation. Alan Greenblatt (2016).
An online tech platform, Investintech.com listed some fact checking tools to include Snopes.com which specializes in debunking the urban legends and misinformation on the Internet; FindExif.com that helps to know if an image is original or wrapped in fake location tags, backdated or hiding something; InVId, a Chrome plugin that helps to verify and debunk videos; Reverse Image Search (TinEye), another dedicated reverse image search engine that can be used to see if the image has been taken from somewhere online; Hoaxy, an online tool that helps to “visualize the spread of claims and fact checking; Wolfram|Alpha, a computational search engine, which performs calculations on the spot, makes comparisons, and provides localized data and twXplorer, a tool that gives researchers more powerful capabilities than Twitter’s search functionalities. On this tool, search for an item begins once you are logged in.
Silas (2020) posited that fact checking competence entails skills on advanced web search i.e. Google search, website verification, Image verification, video verification and geolocation.
According to Georgia State University Library, fact checking resources include FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “consumer advocate” for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics, Snopes.com: A website dedicated to fact checking urban legends, rumors, and misinformation, Politifact: which rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others who speak up in American politics and Allsides: which believes that “Unbiased news does not exist and therefore provide balanced news and civil discourse as well as Hoax-Slayer: focused on debunking email and internet hoaxes and scams.
In a study among professional fact-checkers, Graves (2017) found that information fact-checking requires five steps, which are: “choosing claims to check, contacting the speaker, tracing false claims, dealing with experts, and showing your work” (p. 524). Similarly, Gaye (2021) identifies six criteria for information literacy, which he tagged the “the six Cs of misinformation literacy.” They are the context of information, which creates the information, content of the information, circulation, consumption and consequences of the information. He argues that gaining knowledge in the six areas helps to identify and discard fake news. Busari (2020) identifies some stages of fact-checking in Dubawa. They are sourcing, researching, editing and writing.
Some of the strategies used for fact checking, as identified by Silas (2021), are Google advanced search, website verification, image verification, video verification, and geolocation. There are certain tools used for fact-checking and some of them are reverse image search, photo forensics, demonstrator, noise analysis, cheapfakes and deepfakes. Others are TinyEye, Way back Machine, Invid, video verifier and Wikimapia (Silas, 2021; Busari, 2021). The fact-checking tools and strategies identified by Silas (2021) and Busari (2021) will be adapted for this study.
Beyond the human process of verification, many organisations are already deploying automated systems to maximize impact and get better results. According to Harrison (2020) Argentine fact-checking network Chequeado launched its automated fact-checking bot, Chequeabot in 2018, which deploys transcripts from media organizations to help detect claims for fact-checkers. Harrison who works with the International Fact-Checking Network also reported that British fact-checking organization Full Fact, which has collaborated with Chequado on a number of automated fact-checking projects, has been researching this technology since 2015. According to him, apart from detection, Full Fact has deployed automation to monitor the frequency of a false claim and appropriate response.
The Dearth of Fact-Checking Skills in Academia
Folarin (2020) noted that Fact-checking organisations in Nigeria have made considerate investment in capacity building initiatives for journalists, researchers, and students in the area of building fact-checking, verification skills and promotion digital and media literacy as a way of flattening the dis-misinformation curve in the country. Every nation across the globe, whether developing and developed, has been making efforts to step up media literacy in line with the global advocacy and conversation but how far depends on a number of parameters and indices.
Young adults are the major users of the internet and they use at least one social media platform or another (Pew Research Centre, 2019). Within this age range are tertiary institution students in the Nigerian academic system. Despite their heavy reliance on and use of the internet, the majority of them lack media literacy and fact-checking skills (McGrew et al., 2018). It is reported that the majority of students only rely on Google search results to verify information but rarely make an attempt to check information sources, verify claims about people and organisations and in general scrutinise information using fact-checking tools (Donovan & Rapp, 2020; Wineburg & McGrew, 2017).
What students assess when verifying internet information are web pages, how ideas are presented, references, website logo and how useful the information they are getting is (McGrew et al., 2018). All these do not translate to fact–checking. These are like the basics, not real fact-checking information for authenticity. There are many websites and internet pages that clone information and other sites, present false images, videos and texts in the most convincing way that one hardly differentiate between them and genuine information.
Unfortunately, the Nigerian school curriculum, recently approved for junior and senior secondary schools, featured as of June 2020 limited teaching of ICT/computer including use of the Internet and search engines and data processing, but no other elements of broad media literacy. The absence of any elements of news or misinformation literacy from schools continued despite the efforts of a series of initiatives since 2004 aimed at promoting media literacy in schools and the formation of the African Centre for Media and Information Literacy (Cunliffe-Jones, et al, 2021).
In 2017, there was a fresh attempt to push Media and Information Literacy, MIL into the school curriculum in Nigeria with the establishment of the Media and Information Literacy Coalition of Nigeria (MILCON), supported by UNESCO. MILCON was in 2020 in discussions with the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council on the development of an MIL curriculum for schools in Nigeria. If or when a curriculum is agreed, it would then need to be approved by the education ministry. This is normally a lengthy process. As of June 2020, the only real elements of media or news literacy teaching that occur did so when the few fact-checking organisations come into a handful of schools as outside speakers (Cunliffe-Jones, et al, 2021).
Also, Dubawa, a fact-checking and verification project of the Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ), initiated a programme known as Week for Truth to recruit volunteers for a nationwide outreach to educate students/youth corp members on media and information literacy, basic fact-checking and critical thinking skills.
A research on the survey of student’s media literacy skills in Nigerian universities conducted by Joseph, Christiana, Joel, Chinyere, and Chukwuemeka (2019) showed that majority of the students who have acquired rudimentary computer and internet knowledge and skills did not have substantial critical understanding competence/skills as well as communication abilities required for effective and efficient professional practices in the current digitized platforms. The research further revealed that poor funding, lack of appropriate facilities, inadequate curriculum, incessant strike, poor quality of lecturers and teaching methods are the major factors militating against undergraduate’s media literacy acquisition.
Although journalism students are to be trained to develop fact-checking competence and be able to evaluate information for authenticity and credibility (Hodgin & Kahne 2018), it has also been established that many of them could not identify fake information. (Tejedor, Portalés-Oliva, Carniel-Bugs, and Cervi, 2021). Could this be attributed to lack of facilities in the schools, inadequate skilled fact-checking teachers/lecturers, lack of refresher courses and fact-checking skills among lecturers? As long as these debilitating factors persist, journalism students will not only join the bulk of unskilled journalists in the country, but also join the bandwagon of fake news and misinformation peddlers.
The dearth of fact-checking skills among youths, students and journalism students/interns spell doom for days ahead. This is because they constitute the largest group of social media and internet users and these ICT tools are majorly used to spread fake information. Therefore, it is important to enhance fact-checking capabilities of this youthful population by providing adequate fact-checking training for them. This can be done through developing their lateral reading skills. Lateral reading helps the students to access, scrutinise, examine, produce and use media information (Hobbs, 2017).
Importantly, there is no way students will be trained to develop fact-checking skills if their teachers/lecturers lack the said skills. If the young journalists that are being churned out into the society every year are to acquire the skills, their lecturers must also be trained. Similarly, there is a need to re-evaluate the curriculum for journalism and media studies in Nigeria to align with current development in the media world.
There should be collaboration between fact-checking organisations, like Dubawa and schools in the country. The collaboration between Dubawa and journalists across media organisations should be replicated for journalism and media students across tertiary institutions in the country. Training, workshops, fellowships and other forms of engagement with the students should be facilitated.
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