If I’d taken at face value the WhatsApp news on Sierra Leone in the last few days, I would have described Sierra Leone as a country monitored by a sudden and unprecedented influx of UN peacekeepers, where opposition party meetings are infiltrated by governing party spies, the work of ruling party MPs is undermined by opposition double-agents and mysterious militia men, intent on disrupting the elections on the orders of God alone knows who, are roaming the forests of Sierra Leone.
The same incidents of pre-election violence are started by the SLPP, APC or NGC depending on which claim, counter-claim or counter-counter claim you read, and of course, amongst it all is a cohort of ill-intentioned diasporans whipping up discontent.
All this is served up in a torrent of campaign press releases, songs, messages, photos, and slide shows.
In among the party political deluge, important information about polling day, videos and infographics on how to vote, and where and when to vote, as well as news releases and updates and messages calling for peaceful elections from political parties, CSOs and various candidates. struggle to make themselves heard above the noise.
WhatsApp during these elections has been a major campaigning tool, taking the slot that five years ago, was primarily held by the mainstream media. Radio still has a significant role to play, but the immediacy and range of formats supported by WhatsApp have made it probably the most important source of campaign information in these elections, especially in urban areas and among our massive youth population.
We can probably trace its meteoric rise to the Ebola epidemic, where it became an important and relatively immediate source of news and information. But its value is not just confined to political information. An Insight Media and Communications survey conducted last year, found that 83% of respondents used it for business purposes.
It makes it easy to form interest, support and discussion groups. Information - videos, voice message, graphics, press releases, infographics can all be distributed to hundreds of people at the tap of a screen.
But, as we’re discovering, it’s also our biggest source of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, rumours and lies. This election campaign, there has been a clear strategy to create and circulate fake news stories, the prevalence and impact of which should be a concern for political campaigners, journalists, government officials, and WhatsApp itself.
Part of the difficultly in Sierra Leone is that it is hard to verify the source of the information. Ideally information would be best distributed via link from an official website, but with the cost and unreliability of data in Sierra Leone, most people like to limit their downloading time.
There has been an attempt, pioneered by the National Grand Coalition, to distinguish official press releases from misinformation and disinformation by circulating their information via uploaded signed pdfs on letterhead, with verifiable email address and phone numbers. But editing software can easily get past that, as the NGC discovered yesterday when a pdf of a fake resignation letter on letterhead from Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella began making the rounds.
After a couple of anti-government stories were circulated last year, there were some rumours that the government was going to ban social media altogether, but the chairman of Sierra Leone’s National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM) – Momoh Kemoh Konte has reassured the country that it won’t happen. Nonetheless he called on everybody – especially journalists, to help NATCOM and the government to ensure that social media is used responsibly.
We need more that that. We need our political leaders to commit to running clean campaigns where dirty tricks such as the circulation of disinformation is not tolerated. We need them to publicly state that it is an unfair and unacceptable practice. We also need our legal sector to highlight that in many circumstances, the spreading of lies about individuals can be grounds for a libel suit. We need administrators of WhatsApp groups to take steps to remove known culprits within their groups. We need an campaign to teach social media users how to use it responsibly.
This is all unlikely to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, People should pay attention to which individuals have a track record for spreading disinformation and avoid sharing it with their contacts.
Curbing, if not stopping, the spread of disinformation on our social media platforms particularly during elections is essential. It can have a significant effect on voters’ decisions.
It could be the difference between being the President of our country or being the loser.