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7 strategies for countering the spread of misinformation

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

Hannah Ajakaiye is an ICFJ Knight Fellow building collaborations among journalists, fact-checkers and social media influencers to combat misinformation about health and other critical issues in Nigeria.


International Center for Journalists

Nigeria has a lively online climate with more than 30 million social media users today. This social media activity, however, along with diminishing levels of trust in the news media among the public, is fueling the spread of misinformation.

Educating citizens about the responsibility they hold to help combat false information is an important step toward stemming its proliferation.

As part of my ICFJ Knight Fellowship, I coordinated a webinar on public accountability in combating misinformation, with the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR). The virtual event brought together former Nigerian Education Minister and Vice President of the World Bank Dr. Oby Ezekwesili, Daily Trust Executive Director Nasiru Mikail Abubakar, Director of the Centre for Democracy and Development Idayat Hassan, and Oluseun Onigbinde, the founder of the fiscal transparency organization, BudgIT, and a former ICFJ Knight Fellow himself.

The panelists discussed misinformation and how to counter it, effective fact-checking strategies and responsible social media use. Here are some key takeaways:

Incorporate behavioral modification

Solutions to combating misinformation should be informed by behavioral modification practices, said Ezekwesili in her keynote address. She proposed an approach based on incentives and disincentives that would reward social media users who leverage their platforms to disseminate accurate information, and penalize those who share misinformation.

Sharing false information is a breach of a society’s moral code, Ezekwesili added. A system that rewards citizens for engaging with facts can help stem the tide of misinformation in a society with low levels of trust.

Overwhelm with factual information

Principles of supply and demand can be useful for tackling misinformation on social media.

“If we are worried that misinformation and disinformation is lethal to society, then we need to overwhelm the market of news with evidence-based reports,” said Ezekwesili. “If we supply more of the right news, then it would overwhelm the falsehoods and the lies, as well as the deceitful machinations of those who seek to destroy trust and the social capital of society.”

Cross-media collaboration is key

News platforms must collaborate in order to effectively counter misinformation. “It is important that this collaborative partnership be looked at as a way of ambushing what has become an infodemic,” said Ezekwesili. “Our cure [for] an epidemic is to counter it with something that overwhelms it. The scale that can do that in this context has to be based on cross-media collaboration.”

Abubakar pointed to an award-winning collaborative investigation into jailhouse informants carried out by ProPublica and the New York Times Magazine as an example of successful collaborative reporting in which two newsrooms worked together as partners, not competitors.

Understand how misinformation is spreading

In Nigeria, where toxic online behavior, including online harassment, runs rampant, journalists and advocacy leaders must familiarize themselves with how misinformation spreads on social media.

“In a climate where misinformation online has become an opportunity to conscript the civic space or tackle people who are advocacy leaders, there is a need to interrogate the spirit of the medium,” said Onigbinde. “We need to understand the medium to know when to engage and disengage, and the best way to do that is to deny fake news oxygen.”

Big Tech has a role to play

The Nigerian Senate is currently deliberating legislation that would criminalize the use of social media to peddle false or hateful content. It’s a move that activists have described as a “backdoor approach” to repress free speech.

Instead of governmental intervention, the major tech platforms must do more on this front, according to Onigbinde. “Leaving that role in the hands of the government would amount to conscripting the civic space,” he said, adding that tech companies should expand their public policy and information management systems. “It’s important for tech giants to invest in strong policies that effectively tackle misinformation and efforts to delegitimize critical voices on a large scale.”

Invest in training and fact-checking

Media organizations must invest in training to help their staff interact and engage with the public more productively online, said Abubakar. Journalists should learn how best to direct members of the public to credible sources of information, too. “In some newsrooms, journalists even struggle to use the internet. How can you shape online conversation when you are struggling to go online? he said.

Newsrooms in Africa should also invest in fact-checking to help members of the public distinguish truth from fiction. “We need to do more fact-checking on a regular basis, and not merely republish the works of fact-checking organizations like Africa Check and AFP,” said Abubakar. “It’s good that we republish their work so that it reaches more people, but it is more important that we initiate our own fact-checking system and pursue it more rigorously.”

Use relatable language

Hassan has dedicated a majority of her work in the last five years to studying the information ecosystem in Nigeria and greater West Africa. Although social media offers citizens a platform to hold elected officials accountable, Hassan urged caution. Efforts to manipulate social media in order to influence public opinion in Nigeria are similar to those being used in countries with more resources, she said: “Oftentimes, these influence operations tend to delegitimize people in order to suppress voters, especially during elections.”

When communicating their fact checks, journalists should use language that is relatable for the audience they’re trying to reach, Hassan continued. “When we do fact checks from Abuja [Nigeria’s capital city], and we want it to trickle down to people in rural areas, it may not resonate,” she said, noting that it must also be affordable. “It has to be as catchy and as cheap as possible such that people can use minimal data to engage with these contents.”

Teaching children and the elderly basic verification and fact-checking skills can also help stem the tide of misinformation in public spaces, added Hassan.

Hannah Ajakaiye is an International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) Knight Fellow building collaborations among journalists, fact-checkers and social media influencers to combat misinformation about health and other critical issues in Nigeria.

This story was first published on the website of the International Journalists' Network (IJNet), a project of the International Center for Journalists. Global Business Journalism is also a project of ICFJ.

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