The Use of Social Media in the Propagation of Falsehood in Crises Situation
|JOURNALISM AND MASS COMMUNICATION
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Social media have been welcomed as important tools that contribute to satisfying the daily information needs of citizens in today‘s global society. To many, they serves as an open and alternative source of information especially where the conventional media fail to play their role of serving the public‘s interest first.
Notwithstanding, there has been serious and legitimate concerns about the spread of fake news over social media especially during the 2016 US presidential elections (Allcott&Gentzkow, 2017).
This coincided with the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis (CAC) in which the Cameroon government blamed social media users for spreading false information about the crisis to the extent that government shut down the Internet in the two affected Anglophone regions of the country for 93 days in 2017.
This article therefore, examines the content of information (graphics, audios, videos, texts) posted on two widely used social media platforms (WhatsApp and Facebook) during the Anglophone Crisis, in order to understand how falsehood is propagated especially during crisis situations.
A qualitative approach to analyse data of falsehood during the crisis was used and three major ways were identified through which falsehood was propagated. Principally, social media activists used computer software to distort pictures and superimpose content that depict the messages they wanted to pass across.
They also spread rumors using texts, audio clips and distorted videos. The conclusion is that social media have been awash with falsehood in the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis.
The major recommendation therefore, is that users of social media should make efforts to verify the authenticity of information obtained from such media before consuming and disseminating to others. The December 2014 Law on Terrorism in Cameroon treats such offences seriously and defaulters are severely punished with heavy jail sentences and fine.
BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY
The media as one of the most important institutions of modern society are witnessing dramatic transformation. The advent of the Internet, the rapid growth of mobile technology and the move towards digital convergence have greatly altered the norms of information researching, gathering, processing and dissemination (Ngange & Tchewo, 2017).
With the use of digital equipment, ordinary individuals (citizen journalists) have hijacked the role of conventional journalists by spontaneously reporting news of crisis and other forms of disaster, especially when they happen to be present on the scene, through social media platforms (Allan, 2013).
The excitement to tell the story first has witnessed the non-respect of the norms and basic elements of a profession which demands its practitioners (journalists) to be committed to reporting the truth and the essence of verifying their facts before publication.
While presenting speed as an additional pressure in the digital age, Kovach and Rosenstein (2001, p. 59) argue that ―speed is almost always the enemy of accuracy‖ that journalists face in the news gathering and dissemination process.
They further explain that this pressure is a setback against truth and accuracy and that it increases the likelihood for rumour and misinformation to be transmitted through such an opened network media environment.
Bal and Baruh (2015) also share the opinion that the need for immediacy increases the likelihood of spreading false information more quickly on social media.
The social media, especially WhatsApp and Facebook, became major sources for receiving and transmitting information during the 2016 to 2019 crisis rocking the two Anglophone Regions of Cameroon.
A greater proportion, especially of the youthful population, depended on these platforms for information when the crisis went violent from November 21, 2016. The social media became saturated with information in texts, graphics, audios and videos purported to be updates surrounding the crisis as it unfolded.
It did not take long after the crisis erupted for the Cameroon government authorities to point accusing fingers on advocates of the Anglophones problem in Cameroon and journalists for the publication of misleading and unverified information especially on social media, which stirred and provoked sentiments in favor of the crisis.
The accusations were followed by the complete shutdown of the Internet in the two Anglophone Regions of Cameroon on January 17 to April, 20, 2017 (93 days). The Rambler newspaper edition of Wednesday, January 18, 2017 had on page three a meeting between the President of the National Communication Council, NCC, Mr.
Peter Essoka and journalists in Bamenda. Mr. Essoka cautioned journalists to avoid social media propaganda and on the need to draw lines between factual and fictional writing. It is on this background that this paper content analyses social media platforms in other to understand the propagation of falsehood in such mediums.
The objectives are to establish scientific evidence on how falsehood was manifested on social media content during the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis (2016-2017 laps) and to give an understanding of how this was propagated. To understand how information was distorted and lies were spread, the researchers focused on one main question: how was falsehood manifested and propagated on Social media in crises like the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis?
The history of Cameroon is complex. The country was annexed by the Germans in 1884 (Fanso, 2003) and was later divided into two parts in 1916 when the Germans lost the First World War. 20% was under British control and 80% under the French as mandated territories by the League of Nations. Fanso (ibid) claims that the Anglo-French partition of Cameroon in 1916 created separate nationalist aspirations and movements in the two territories.
After gaining independence in 1960 (for French Cameroon) and 1961 (for English Cameroon by joining the French part), Fanso (2003) adds that it soon became obvious that the cultural, social and political divides between the two linguistic groups were more fundamental and more difficult to bridge than the initial aspirations of the nationalists whose aims were to establish a united and independent Cameroon.
The Federal Constitution arrived at in 1961 by the fathers of reunification kept the two linguistic groups distinct with the people of each community firmly attached to their colonial cultural heritage in terms of education, judiciary, politics and other social aspects.
Notwithstanding, Konings and Nyamnjoh (2003) report that even under the Federal Constitution, the English speaking parts (Anglophones) complained of being marginalised by their French speaking (Francophones) counterparts.
The first president of Cameroon, AhmadouAhidjo (1960-1982), succeeded to kill the spirit of multiparty politics practiced in English Cameroon in 1966 after convincing leaders of political parties in both French (East) and English (West) Cameroon into a one-party system and created the Cameroon National Union, CNU, (Mbu, 2006).
The Cameroon Federation (of West and East Cameroon) survived till May 20, 1972 when the country became a United Republic and later The Republic of Cameroon in 1984 through a Presidential Decree (Ngalim, 2014 and Echu, 2004).
The dismantling of federalism by Ahidjo in 1972 is believed to have been the major setback which exposed the marginalisation of Anglophone Cameroonians. Nkwi (2004) holds that the replacement of federalism with a unitary state in 1972 brought a systematic erosion of Anglo-Saxon institutions and traditions that were established in West Cameroon.
Wuteh (2014) adds that Article 1 sub 3 of the constitution of the Republic of Cameroon that provides for English and French as official languages of the country (as a measure to promote and guarantee bilingualism) has been violated due to political bad faith.
Wuteh further points out that article 59 in the constitution which states that…the revised constitution shall be published in French and English, the French being the authentic version‖ gives English an inferior status.
Anglophone Cameroonians have, on several occasions, made calls for the return to federalism as a solution to check their marginalisation. Such calls have always been rejected. For example it was reported in Cameroon Post No 104 of April 2-9, 1992 that the Anglophones‘ proposal for Federalism was rejected during a meeting of members at the Constitution Drafting Technical Committee in 1992.
Cameroon Post No 157 of April 7, 1993 also carried a cover story on the All Anglophone Conference that was held in Buea where the Anglophones demanded the recreation of the state of West Cameroon.
Before the crisis rocking the two Anglophone Regions of Cameroon went out of control in November 2016, Common Law lawyers (of English extraction) from the two regions had expressed their frustration to the government in what they termed ―marginalization of Anglophones in the publication of the OHADA Laws, especially the ―Green Book.‖
In a newspaper article published in The Post No. 01763, October 03, 2016, the lawyers claimed to have forwarded numerous complaints to the OHADA Secretariat in Yaounde on the need to have the law translated to English but that the government maintained silence and instead kept circulating the French version. They claimed this act undermined the constitution that prescribes the bilingual and also the bi-jural nature of Cameroon.
Teachers from the English part later joined the striking lawyers on November 21, 2016; thereby, paralysing the Anglophone sub-system of education in the two English speaking regions of Cameroon from basic to higher education.
This day was marked by heavy confrontations between protesters and security officers especially in the streets of the North West Regional capital, Bamenda. News concerning the crisis went viral on social media provoking sentiments.
Many individuals without basic knowledge on journalism practice started sharing news contents that were consumed by the masses with few of them questioning the authenticity of the information.
This only led to the escalation of the crisis which later on (in 2017) metamorphosed into an arms struggle between separatists who now call for a complete independence of Anglophone Cameroon (the Ambazonia State) and government military forces fighting to maintain the unity and peace of the country.
In the process, over 2,000 people have died, 200,000 internally displaced and 50, 000 as refugees in neighbouring Nigeria (International Crisis Group, 2018).
STATEMENT OF PROBLEM
Concerns about the presence and spread of falsehood or fake news on social media have been expressed by both global politicians and technology leaders around theworld (Moore, n.d).
Moore quoted Barack Obama in November 2016 saying that ―if we are not serious about facts and what‘s true and what‘s not and particularly in an age of social media when so many people are getting their information in sound bites and from their phones, if we can‘t discriminate between serious arguments and propaganda, then we have problems‖. Moore goes further to state that German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has expressed similar views on the subject of fake news.
Finally, Moore (n.d) noted that even the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg who had first dismissed the idea that fake news influenced the 2016 presidential elections in the USA, later published a manifesto of 5,700 words acknowledging the role of social media in promoting fake news, and proposing ways in which Facebook can help deal with it.
Silverman (2016) sited in Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) confirms that there were lots of falsehoods spread on social media during the US 2016 Presidential elections with the most popular fake news stories being widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories.
Apart from the 2016 US presidential elections, research on misinformation and the spread of falsehood on social media during the recent Ebola crisis in West Africa countries revealed several widespread rumours that circulated on Twitter (Jin et al, 2014). They noted that falsehood was in the form of lies, half-truths, and rumours.
It is based on the foregoing that the researcher has embarked on this research to find out the root causes of these problems and to propose policy recommendations’ to address the issues raised.
1.3 RESEARCH QUESTIONS
The researcher seeks to answer the following questions which can be categorized under general questions and a set of specific questions.
1.3.1 GENERAL RESEARCH QUESTION
The general question is, how was social media used for the propagation of falsehood in crises situations, case study Anglophone crises?
1.3.2 SPECIFIC RESEARCH QUESTIONS
- What is social media?
- How was falsehood manifested on social media content during the Cameroon Anglophone Crisis?
- What methods can be used to combat the use of social media in the propagation of falsehood in crises situations?
1.4 OBJECTIVES OF THE STUDY
The objectives are divided into general and specific objectives
1.4.1 GENERAL OBJECTIVE
The goal of the research is to critically assess the effectiveness of the laws and institutions in granting divorce in Anglophone Cameroon.
1.4.2 SPECIFIC OBJECTIVES
- To discuss the concept of social media.
- To examine the influence of social media in the propagation of false news in crises situation
- To assess the methods that can be used to combat the propagation of falsehood with the use of social media.
- To make policy recommendations that can address the issues raised and proffer possible solutions on the way forward.