Digital Shelter

Misinformation & Disinformation in Election Times

As the country is getting ready for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, we thought this was a timely and much-needed topic to be discussed by our online community. As often is the case during election seasons, there happens to be a lot of misinformation and disinformation circulating around social media platforms which is primarily meant to manipulate the general public opinion. The risk of misinformation and disinformation does not end in this campaign season or after the election days; rather, it’s something that has become of common trend which needs to be tackled.

For this month, our guest was Abdimalik Adullahi, a researcher and analyst specializing in Somali affairs with a special focus on Politics, Democracy and Governance. Abdimaik has a huge social media presence, particularly on Twitter where he regularly engages his large followers of more than 30 thousand followers. The event brought together academics, researchers, journalists, communication strategists, digital rights activists and several other youths who have a great interest in Somali politics/elections and have a huge online presence. This discussion’s main importance was how to identify, respond to, and mitigate the spread of false or misleading information that may impact the country’s upcoming elections.

Some of the questions that made the discussion lively and prolific were;

  • What is misinformation and disinformation? And what are the differences?
  • What impact can misinformation and disinformation have on public perception during election season?
  • How do you identify and verify whether posts/tweets are fake or not?
  • What the common misinforming posts/tweets to watch for when navigating social media platforms? Etc campaign trails, attacks, abusive comments?
  • How do other countries deal with misinformation/disinformation during election times? Are there examples? (Both negative and positive)
  • How to avoid sharing misinforming posts/tweets? Are there particular accounts to watch?

To give the participants a better clarity and understanding of the topic, Abdimalik started by explaining the difference between Misinformation and Disinformation in which he defined them as;

  • “Misinformation is false information that is spread, regardless of intent to mislead while disinformation was defined as false information deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda. So, disinformation is knowingly spreading misinformation.

He further went ahead by saying, “the spread of misinformation often happens in our everyday lives. We human beings—news flash—are not perfect. We can all make mistakes. We all forget things. We mishear or misremember details. We tell our friends something we heard on TV or saw on social media that wasn’t really true. If you are spreading around wrong information, but you don’t know it is wrong, then you are, well, technically, spreading misinformation.

Speaking about the impact of misinformation and disinformation on public perception during election campaigns, Abdimalik said “The spread of false information can continue to influence beliefs and attitudes and if an alternative explanation does not replace it, it will be hard to fix and can have lasting effects. It tends to mislead the masses hence bring about confusion and anxiety. It also sets a new political divide against each other hence this will have a spillover on the public- division and conflict”

As we have seen recently, unreliable and false information have been circulating in social media platforms that created confusion and uncertainty about the upcoming elections. “Misinformation and disinformation has recently flourished online in Somalia and is expected that it can even intensify further in the run-up to election days. Reducing the circulation of this false information requires the engagement of all citizens, especially those who are part of the elections process,” says Abdimalik speaking about this particular issue.

Another question asked by the audience was how to identify and verify the authenticity of posts/tweets shared in social media platforms. While it’s not relatively easy to spot fake post or tweets but fact-checking tools and websites can be helpful. During the session, Abdimalik shared the following recommendations and tips:-

1- Search online for the information or claim: use search engines to verify if the information has already been posted by a credible news outlet. Check if anyone else has picked up on the story and what do other sources say about it?

2- Look at who posted this content: it is essential to check and verify if the account posting the news/information is genuine. For example, how long this account has been active, and post history to see if they demonstrate bot-like behavior, check their profile and see if they are using a real name.

3- Check the profile picture of the account. Do a reverse image search of the photo in Google or any other image verification tools. If it’s a stock image or an image of a celebrity, then that’s a less reliable source because it’s anonymous.

4- Search for other social media accounts for the person posting the information. See what you can find out about that person, do they have political or religious affiliations that might give them a reason for spreading a particular point of view?

Abdimalik added. “Don’t just believe whatever you see on social media, if you want to evaluate online information, use the SIFT method which stands for – Stop, Investigate, Find better coverage, Trace quotes and media to the original context.”

Disinformation doesn’t only change public perception but also incite violence which can lead to deadly physical violence. One example which was shared in the discussion was how Donald Trump, former US president’s tweet encouraged a mob attack on Capitol Hill resulting death of 6 people. He told a crowd rallying for him to “walk down to the Capitol; you will never take back our country with weakness.” As a result of his actions, Twitter has permanently suspended Trump’s account followed by his second impeachment.

Experts wonder how misleading and false information in Somalia might fuel clan sensitivity and hate speech among the country’s contending parties. If not addressed and avoided at all, this might have serious consequences in the ongoing election process and the country’s fragile peace process at large. A well balanced and unbiased news is now needed to avoid confusion among the public.

The event was closed with networking, interaction and information sharing moment among the attendees. however, the discussion continued online on Twitter with several ideas of tackling misinformation and false information coming from our online community.

This article was written by Abdifatah Hassan Ali, co-founder of Digital Shelter, he can be followed on Twitter: @IamAbdi5


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