By Kin Kariisa
In August 2021, a customer took to social media with claims that she had been served a milkshake with a rat in it at one of the many outlets of Café Java’s, Uganda. For a company reputed for its high culinary and hygiene standards, the saga soon escalated into a PR crisis. Social media outrage against Café Java’s rose to a fever pitch.
Three days later, Café Java’s released a statement, coupled with CCTV footage of that particular client’s order, both of which demonstrated the unlikelihood of a rat making it into a Café Java’s milkshake.
The company’s forthright, evidence-based response soon convinced the Court of Public Opinion of Café Java’s innocence. The social media furore died out, with Café Java’s regained the trust of its clients.
This Café Java’s debacle illustrates several important facets of the issue of fake news: the damage it can wreak on organisations and the importance of reacting in a timely and appropriate manner to counter dangerous narratives.
But what is “fake news”?
Fake news has been defined as “purposefully crafted, sensational, emotionally charged, misleading, or fabricated information that mimics the form of mainstream news.”
While the phenomenon is not new, the diversification of media platforms, the emergence and influence of social media, and the speed with which information is propagated render the fake news challenge much more insidious today.
According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, two thirds of youths say that fake news on social media hampers their ability to stay informed. Yet another study indicates that 71% of adults worldwide use social media as a news source. These are significant findings, considering the role of timely access to accurate, reliable information in empowering citizens to participate effectively in the democratic processes of the country.
Incidentally, timely and accurate provision of information is where Government tends to struggle.
According to the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance, Government has suffered a significant loss of trust among a substantial chunk of the population due to uncoordinated communications and misinformation. In many cases, Government bodies and personnel do not communicate in time or simply do not communicate at all.
We have often witnessed cases of contradiction in communication between different Government officials or institutions, the most recent being the public rebuke of Police Spokesperson Fred Enanga by the Minister for ICT, Chris Baryomunsi, over remarks the former made about the late Speaker Jacob Oulanyah’s father.
Whatever the genesis of such blunders, they result in a loss of public confidence in the Government and create a space for alternative unregulated media sources, which often profit from propagating fake news.
Fake news has far-reaching impacts; it causes harm to human lives, cripples trade, and even potentially leads to the ousting of a Government.
Fake News tarnishes the country’s reputation and undermines public confidence in Government’s plans and actions. The perceived success of Government programmes like Vision 2040 and the National Development Plan depends on how they are communicated to citizens. When fake news enters the equation, people disbelieve, diminish or don’t see reported Government interventions. This obscures even the most genuine of Government interventions or achievements and demotivates diligent civil servants.
Therefore, it is vital that Government communications be handled in as proactive a manner as possible: volunteer information that concerns the public, packaged in as accessible and attractive a manner as possible. Transparency from the outset, without waiting to react to a false accusation, would go a long way in establishing public trust.
However, fake news will always pop up, regardless of how careful anyone is to forestall it. How should it be handled in such instances? Again, the experience of Café Java’s is instructive: a quick, easily digestible response backed by proper evidence. This deflates the build-up of negative perceptions and, if done correctly, will win over those with goodwill and expose the detractors bent on attacking regardless of the facts. Fortunately, the majority of the population falls in the former category.
Our experience at Next Media bears out my position.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Uganda in 2020, there was an avalanche of fake news ranging from word of possible cures for COVID-19 to statistics and even political propaganda. However, one of our most popular innovations at the time on NBS Television was Canary Mugume’s “Fact Check,” where, every day, he debunked fake news circulating about COVID-19. Our audience loved it! This is an indicator that the public is actually thirsting for accurate information.
We in the media have a key role in the fight against fake news and thereby improve the quality of democracy Uganda can and deserves to have.
I am particularly happy that, despite some challenges, Government too recognises the task at hand and has set up a youthful task force led by the ICT ministry to advise on how best to counter misinformation that casts a bad light on the country.
We all need systems to counter fake news promptly – whether as Government, individuals or companies – When we take it upon ourselves to fight fake news and unmask the faces behind seemingly pseudo accounts spreading this vice, we together shall contribute to a better Uganda – we can only achieve this working together. Let us #FightFakeNews together.
The author is chairman, National Association of Broadcasters (NAB)