Written by Yossabel Chetty
One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear is that we are under a serious threat from online falsehoods that have real life consequences and the ability to put strain on the bottom line of businesses. In the Global South certain structural contexts contribute to the spreading of these online falsehoods. This is what Professor Herman Wasserman and Dani Mardid-Morales explore in their recent book called Disinformation in the Global South.
While countries in the Global North have recently started to highlight the problem with online and offline mis-and disinformation narratives, countries in the Global South have long since grappled with the systemic issues posed by these social phenomena. In Disinformation in the Global South, Wasserman and Madrid-Morales have thoughtfully curated 13 research papers that steer away from the well known examples of mis-and disinformation in America and the United Kingdom. These papers focus instead on the cultures, histories and theories that are specific to countries in the Global South to provide readers with a way of identifying and addressing some of the hurdles that citizens face in these regions.
This is important because attempts to curb the spread of mis-and disinformation cannot be done by a one size fits all approach. This is especially the case in countries with low political and economic stability. In these spaces, ruling political elites and the military often target media that goes against the “official” narrative. Arab journalists for example are seen to adopt a survivalist approach toward their career roles as it has become practically impossible to sustainably practice credible journalism in these regions. In India, using WhatsApp groups to spread news that aligns with a particular political party has become commonplace in the electoral strategy of politicians. This has forced WhatsApp to incorporate key checks and balances that are detailed in this book. Google and Facebook in India have had to similarly take steps to assist journalists in the region process the information that they are faced with on a daily basis so as to limit erroneous reporting. In Southeast Asia, media systems exist broadly in 3 categories. Here the media can function as “government mouthpiece”, “limited public informant” or “watchdog for the public”. Understanding the media system of a country can be useful as this is a factor that determines the extent to which a particular piece of disinformation can spread.
Looking more closely at Africa, the book contains a chapter that considers an ethnographic argument in Kinshasa. This argument claims that the creation and circulation of falsehoods are embedded in the Kinois society, which values distortion and indirect ways of communication. Due to a long history of censorship in this area, the book explains that the Kinois don’t expect their leaders to tell them the truth. The idea of trust is discussed often in the research papers that comprise this book. The example of the Chilean riots in 2019 may help to shed some light on the action (or inaction) taken by political leaders in countries like South Africa when similar looting and riots spread through its cities and threatened to destabilise the country’s economy. Today in Chile, individuals trust information that they see on social media more than they trust traditional media sources. This is problematic because research shows that in the early days of the social unrest in Chile, voice notes with false accounts of attacks on power plants, potable water and gasoline pipes were spread via WhatsApp. Both journalists and people who are highly literate in the digital world struggled to stay abreast of the latest happenings because of the intensity of the flow of information. Social media is able to generate a buzz organically and spontaneously, something that traditional media outlets struggle to keep up with because of editorial processes. Even numbers today are regarded with a great deal of scepticism. Research shows that in African countries, there is a lack of trust in the numbers that are presented by the institutions that are in charge of development policy. Sadly the lack of trust appears to be fuelled at times by hostile or unresponsive officials, like the police chief in Nigeria who grossly overstated the number of people killed in an attack, so that he could request a higher budget for his region.
If you are a media and journalism student, an academic across most disciplines, including the health sciences, or someone who works in the fact-checking or disinformation space, this book is highly recommended for you. Not only will it equip you with examples to use from an African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American cultural and historical context, it will also allow you to engage with responses to mis-and disinformation tactics from a globally Southern perspective. Outside academia and NGOs, business leaders and politicians who are searching for more ethical reporting practices and an end to the Infodemic may also find this book to be a worthwhile read.