Social media and the fake news menace: Academics as a panacea to restore media credibility
By Dr. Adamu Abbas Adamu
As we have witnessed over the last two decades, technology has impacted almost all industries, from education, automobiles, aviation, media, marketing and finance to tourism and hospitality. Technological tools using artificial intelligence are carrying out tasks such as auto piloting, friends matching, personalised marketing and cashless banking, and robots are providing services in hotels. The list is endless.
With all these interesting and positive developments, one industry that has been impacted most significantly is the media. All sorts of online platforms have been developed to provide up-to-date news to the public in real time. This kind of reporting is popularly known as citizen journalism but we are now seeing a changing trend where just about anyone can be a media outlet. I will come back to this point later.
People now use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to report events that are happening around them. They do it to provide information to their friends and followers about events occurring in their immediate vicinity, but a large part of this kind of information comes from a purely subjective point of view where they mostly provide their own narratives.
With such individuals participating in public discourse and quickly garnering large followings, their followers often end up sharing the content with their own friends and other communities without investigating the credibility of the information or understanding the facts. While they may not have an ulterior motive in sharing other than to keep others informed, they are inadvertently sharing fake news and engaging in misinformation, which is simply the unintentional sharing of false information.
Social media platforms exacerbate this by gathering and analysing data in order to unscrupulously exploit connections for their own benefit. They track users’ behaviour, translating relationships between individuals, ideas and other things into algorithms. One sophisticated feature of these algorithms is the ability to aggregate an individual’s activities online and begin to feed the individual with personal content to echo their sentiments.
This is the work of filter bubbles that stop an individual from getting information from alternative sources. Fake news has been shown to thrive in this space. As the saying goes, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’. It is therefore safe to say that social media algorithms reward content with high sentiment by making them viral.
We have seen extreme cases of fake news during this COVID-19 pandemic as social media platforms bolster echo chambers (environments where people only encounter information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own). More specifically, misinformation about the ineffectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines have spread widely, fuelling vaccine apprehension in the populace.
There have also been instances where people have shared rather sinister content claiming that the vaccines were created to reduce the global population, while others have taken it to the extreme, saying that that certain vaccines were created to exterminate a particular race.
Another good example of misinformation and fake news was during the 2020 presidential elections in the United States. To date, there are still claims by some that the election was stolen. Social media platforms, particularly Twitter, were used by Trump and his supporters to reinforce this belief. Therefore, the power of social media in influencing society cannot be dismissed, as evidenced in events like Black Lives Matters, the 2021 United States Capitol attack, Arab Spring and End SARS. All these events gained traction through social media.
Given this situation, objectivity and trust in mainstream media and reliance on it to fight misinformation and fake news is not sufficient. Mainstream media itself has come under increased criticism from politicians, pundits and activists. Therefore, combating misinformation, disinformation and fake news calls for contributions by experts from various fields and professions.
The demand for trustworthy and reliable information is on the rise. People are eager to identify and subscribe to reliable sources that will fill this void. Academics need to rise to this challenge and fill the gap. They have so much to contribute, being experts in their various fields and having the experience and expertise in conducting sound research and publishing their findings in peer-reviewed academic journals.
Furthermore, academics tend to have a very good reputation in the society as reliable sources of knowledge and information. All the technological and digital tools we have today have simplified the process of getting their research findings out to the general public easily and in their own terms. Platforms that can be used to leverage this opportunity include Podcast, YouTube, Pinterest and others.
In this article, I will focus only on podcasts. The remaining platforms will be discussed in future articles. Recently, we have seen an increase in the use of podcasts. Organisations that want to engage with the younger generation and stay in the limelight have started producing podcasts.
There are several reasons why this interest in podcasts is gaining traction. They are very easy to produce. You don’t need much expertise to produce good content. This harks back to my earlier point about citizen journalists. We have seen how easily they have become major influencers with large followings and reaching across different communities.
As I said, academics have much to contribute in this space. All the academic research conducted by academics can be communicated in simple terms to target audiences. Their research can be effectively used to help prevent the spread of fake news.
Creating a podcast can be done at home or in office and uploaded for people to get factual insights from the research, or a lecturer may decide to produce a podcast on his or her new publication. They just have to keep in mind to convey the information in layman’s terms so that it can be easily digested and understood by the public, or they can contextualise the information according to their audiences.
Now that many governments are regulating social media platforms to curb the spread of fake news that endangers the society, with the contributions of academic stakeholders, the issue of fake news can be minimised to the barest minimum.
Dr. Adamu Abbas Adamu is a lecturer in public relations in the Department of Management, Marketing and Digital Business at Curtin Malaysia’s Faculty of Business. He holds a BA and Postgraduate Diploma, as well as a Master in Mass Communication from Bayero University in Nigeria, and a PhD in Communication from Universiti Utara Malaysia. He teaches a wide range of public relations units and his research interests include public relations, crisis communication, internal crisis communication, and storytelling. He has been awarded a number of research grants from organisations in Malaysia and Indonesia for his research and has published extensively in academic journals and conference proceedings. He is a member of the editorial board for the International Journal of Strategic Communication and is a professional member of the Institute of Public Relations Malaysia, as well as an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy UK (HEA). Dr. Adamu can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.