According to Internet World Stats, more than half of the world’s population is now online, a growth of over 1000% since the turn of the new millennium. Africa has an 11% share of that pie and boasts the world’s fastest growth rate at a mind-boggling 10,000% since the year 2000.
As more and more of us spend an ever-increasing number of hours each day online connecting, sharing and feeding off each other’s ideas, how true is the information we share and consume on the internet and what can we individually do to curb the spread of false information?
Those of us who have had access to the internet for any length of time can attest to its power. It is an irreplaceable tool in our daily lives providing information, creating spaces for us to belong, powering our industries and economies and giving us endless entertainment to fill our days. It is a reflection of our everyday lives and perhaps the greatest triumph of our evolution as human beings. In that reflection, we are able to see on our screens humanity at its best and also at its worst. Much like in the real world, we each shoulder responsibility when bearing the power of the internet and in the real-life consequences our virtual actions have.
We tend to think that there are no rules and/or responsibilities on the internet. That what happens on the internet is virtual, anonymous and without consequence. The internet offers us a blank canvas, a clean slate for our avatars to be anyone and anything. To say anything. This is its greatest feature and also a great opportunity for us to be better versions of ourselves.
Part of the excitement of opening my very first social network account was in realizing that I could be anyone I wanted to be in the truest form of the expression and ironically, my first step in becoming myself. It wouldn’t be long before my new found self was part of a community of others like me, revelling in the self-discovery and freedom. But somewhere along the path, the virtual became real. Just as my inbox was alive with friends from far and wide some of whom I would get the opportunity to meet in real life, so too was it filled with a kind of hate I had as yet not encountered personally in my real life then. The kind I had opened virtual doors to, into my real life.
Since the advent of the internet, many marginal ideas, behaviours and identities have come to the fore and under the spotlight. They have been debated, fought, and reasoned over publicly and some of the best ones have become accepted or are on the long journey towards it. Those of us on the margin have the internet to thank. But as they say, nothing travels faster than bad news – and so equally and perhaps more, the worst ones that divide, subjugate and oppress have actualized themselves too.
As recent events have shown, misinformation can be weaponized to great effect to become disinformation and just as easily spread through the internet. A handful of falsities coupled with thoughtless sharing can reach a wide audience with effects as benign as leading one to believe that the next seven years will be characterized by bad sex, to as malignant as a reality TV star at the helm of the most powerful nation in the world. We often share posts that even we ourselves know to be untrue or sensational, only because they are funny or outrageous without pausing a moment to think that the next persons will receive it as holy scripture. Without thinking about the real harm they may cause.
It used to be that we got news from reliable sources, from experts in various fields that were afforded platforms to address the public because of their merit and factual knowledge in their respective fields. Now, the internet has made each of us something of an expert in our circle of friends. And my misinformed opinion (or those which I ‘endorse’ consciously or otherwise as true by resharing)extends beyond my circle of friends and into the next, gaining merit, authenticity and popularity each time its reshared. An article with a thousand shares is ‘truer’ in our eyes than one with just ten. And what is a nation but one big overlapping network of circles of friends?
Today marks the annual international Safer Internet Day, with this year’s theme ‘Together for a better internet’ encouraging individuals to help create a better internet through developing four critical skills: respect, responsibility, reasoning and resilience. A better internet is one that is informed by real, well made and factual information. We all have blind spots in our individual knowledge or reasoning and that makes each of us weak at differentiating real information from false information and therefore reliant on our friends whom we may believe to know better. To be stronger. As the old adage goes, a chain (or circle of friends) is only as strong as its weakest link.
The good thing is that more and more technologies and policies are being put in place to even out the playing field to ensure that we do not collectively befall the ills of disinformation on those subject matters we are weak links in. Our favourite social media sites now have the artificial intelligence capabilities to identify false news items at their source or curb the spread of even potentially false information by limiting the virality of posts.
But the real power still lies with the very people on the networks, people like you and I. Various resources are available to teach us to better spot false information and stop it from extending to our circle of friends. From poisoning a nation.
We each have a responsibility in sorting the real from the fake, the news from opinion, the fact from the lie when exercising our right to share and receive information. We each have the opportunity and resources to really become the expert our friends think we are and create a better internet with information that is worthy to share and receive.
Tendai Thondhlana is the communications officer at the Other Foundation.