/ 17 November 2023

Using art and traditional storytelling as tools to combat the infection that is fake news in Africa

Deepfake Concept
Disinformation and misinformation continue to plague Africa due to their digital wide spread through sharing options, retweeting and screenshots.

The 6th to 9th of November have been some of the most exciting days of my life under the flagship of DCN Global (Digital Communications Network). I got an opportunity to rub shoulders with amazing tech influencers, academics, journalists, degipreneurs, media representatives, augmented reality specialists and research enthusiasts. 

Those four days in Lusaka, Zambia, witnessed more than 120 ambitious African professionals sit, network and communicate on how best to solve the complex digital challenges Africa experiences. 

Some of the challenges and opportunities that were shared and discussed included cyber crime, cybersecurity risks, disinformation, misinformation, cyber disorder and human behaviour — fact-checking, combating fake news, the metaverse and human error — in all honesty guys, ladies and gentlemen, youth, lastly Mr President.

Africa is rich with creative, intelligent, knowledgeable and skillful people who in their digital roles are fact checking news, videos and/or stories to validate them, especially those shared on various social media platforms.

For instance, disinformation and misinformation continue to plague Africa due to their digital wide spread through sharing options, retweeting and screenshots. One of the biggest challenges of the two cybercrimes is that disinformation and misinformation campaigns are believed to be funded by either international/private organisations or are government supported, especially when there are internal challenges within the walls. 

Some of the events I associate with disinformation and misinformation are limited to the conspiracy theory of the world ending as we enter into the new millennium — the same sentiments that played out in 2012. 

Yes, the new millennium end-of-the-world was focussed on the theme Y2K, but from what I gathered from being around older people, water drying up was the biggest threat. For example, my mom started obsessing with getting the biggest water storage containers she could find. 

There were many theories of what Y2K was — research revealed it was a computer bug. The Y2K bug was a computer flaw that may have caused problems dealing with dates beyond December 31, 1999. The flaw (or glitch) faced by computer programmers and users all over the world on January 1, 2000, was also known as the “millennium bug”. After that day, and no meltdown occurred, many said it was barely a problem at all. 

Then in 2012, we had another Doom’s Day — the 2012 phenomenon. The site tells us that in 2011, a significant number of people thought the world would end. Research found this was based on a series of “eschatological beliefs that cataclysmic or transformative events now known as the 2012 phenomenon.” It had something to do with the end of the Mayan calendar. 

A good number of people took what others can call bizarre actions, such as resigning or selling their homes/property which today seem absurd. Perhaps some of you have even more bizarre stories of how people reacted to the 2000 and 2012 world-end theories. 

The spread of fake news has long been in existence and it seems like its growth rate is getting stronger. Social media platforms, for instance, play a dangerous role given the space involves sharing and retweeting as well as screengrabs or shots. 

Some of us have witnessed or experienced the impact gossiping has on a person’s self esteem, confidence and safety. The same should be noted when sharing, retweeting or screengrabbing what many people may call news on social media. However, the “world ending” is understood differently among people, generations, nations, societies and communities as a whole. 

Other interpretations of the end-of-the-world theory may be seen as a year or period of change, transformations. Moving from one growth to the next. However, this doesn’t solve the question why so many people are obsessed with producing misleading or false news into a nation, community or society. 

An obvious assumption we all may have is that those responsible for misleading people do it as a way of revenge to the recipient — in politics, it may seem that the responsible parties want to inflict fear in the nation, to alarm them over others making rational, objective decisions and sabotage. 

One of the themes I would like to investigate is whether or not the same actions can be linked to mental health disorders.

One of my responses to the threats and opportunities panel discussion we had at the DCN global event was to emphasise how human behaviour often gets in the way of ensuring that the digital space is safe and trustworthy. 

We feel that because of freedom, we can say or share any content we believe represents how we think and act. And then cybercriminals emerge. Some conflicts start online and then grow until the participants anticipate meeting in real life. Some of us have witnessed social media disagreements on diverse topics that were uninteresting — and those that didn’t end so well. 

Perhaps going back to the traditional way of storytelling — first about threats and opportunities of technology or the digital world — can influence mindsets, attitudes, perspectives, behaviour and understating. Especially to kill the bias that often comes with being stuck in the fixed mindset.

The concept of accountability and responsibility have always followed when we talk about abundance, wealth, intelligence and riches. I quote “to whom much is given, much is required”. 

In the same manner, we can account on how principles of accountability and responsibility have been translated using storytelling — such as Cinderella, an excluded child that was saved by the fairy godmother. Tselane le limo, a Sesotho folktale that teaches about strangers and the consequences of inviting a stranger into your home. And last but not least, Rapunzel — the power of intuition, paying attention to detail and being observant.

Music, art, dance and traditions of storytelling — given a chance — can solve some social challenges such as conflict, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse as well as fake news (current and international affairs).  If explored further, the use of animation, and the Arts as a whole, can be used as a tool to combat fake news. 

Rethabile Tsephe is a freelance content writer and researcher associated with the Global foundation for cyberstudies and research in Washignton DC.