Fake news is not just a Western problem

Cambridge Analytica played a nefarious role in Africa. In Nigeria, it tried to influence the 2015 election. Photo: Reuters

While everyone knows about Cambridge Analytica – the disbanded data analytics company that allegedly used its software to create and disseminate hateful and inciting messages – in relation to Trump and Brexit, the company also played a nefarious role disseminating fake news in Africa.

In Nigeria, it tried to influence the 2015 election by ‘using graphically violent imagery to portray a candidate as a supporter of Sharia law’, according to The Guardian; while in Kenya, the company is said to have played a ‘critical’ role in the 2013 and 2017 elections, with former managing director Mark Turnbull boasting to Channel 4 News that they had ‘written [the] manifesto’ of the ruling Jubilee Party.

But, as George Santayana wrote, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are bound to repeat it.’

Amid all this panic, we are forgetting that events are never completely new. Communications technology has been a part of mass violence and collective misinformation long before the invention of the internet. In fact, every evolution in communications technology has seen a short honeymoon period followed by a justified panic.

For example, in 1929 an American magazine called The Forum ran a debate titled ‘Radio: Blessing or Curse?’ in which one participant argued that it was ‘just another medium for advertisers to bother us… [where] there is now very little danger that Americans will resort to… thinking’. Yet by 1937, a commentator warned in The Atlantic that television audiences would be ‘more suggestible even than the audience for radio’.

The most important lesson from history is that mass-media platforms cannot be trusted solely to self-regulate

These views were not unfounded. Television was an integral part of spreading McCarthyist propaganda in the 1940s. Print media has been similarly used – anti-Jewish propaganda fliers in the 1930s propelled the hysteria in Europe that enabled public acquiescence to the Holocaust. Mass media has always been integral to the process of spreading hate, violence and fear.

Over time, regulations on broadcast content have reined in some of this excess in the West, but not in countries like Kenya where the state has significant interest in controlling the press. The rise of local language radio and mass texting in the late 2000s has been linked to the 2007/08 post-election violence in which over 1,500 people were killed. But perhaps the best-known example is Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda. Although the station broadcasted for just over year (1993-94), in that time it spread so much anti-Tutsi hate speech that it was an immediate trigger of the 1994 genocide in which an estimated one million people were killed in three months.

The most important lesson from history is that mass-media platforms cannot be trusted solely to self-regulate, nor can the state be allowed to wield unchecked power over these platforms. Countries like Kenya have much to teach on the current crisis on social media platforms about finding this balance. Unfortunately, in the past these regulations have only come into place after the fact, and Western countries – where these platforms are homed – are currently too focused on their own problems to realize that in other parts of the world, the crisis is already hitting.

The free flow of political information is mostly good for democracy, and we can’t undo the forward momentum of communications technology. But we can learn from the past about how and why we can insulate these platforms from humanity’s baser instincts.