Fake news is slowly driving the mainstream-media news agenda in Zambia, and the whole country is slowly drifting away from real governance issues.
The original authors of fake statements are always fully aware that the story is a lie, but when posted on the Internet, the story takes on a life of its own – spreading misinformation in the process, while also leaving a tarnished impression of legitimate media.
Whenever a big story breaks out on social media, mainstream media must be a sensible place to check for facts. Sadly, our hard working journalist colleagues at public media institutions have now been heaped with the responsibility of countering fake news generated by those who are against the government.
To balance the act, private media organisations try hard to give voice to the voiceless opposition, but also unwittingly take up the task of defusing false news generated by the ruling party; and thus today’s news agenda in Zambia – lies and counter lies.
Political parties have even formed so-called “rapid response teams” which issue false statements to counter false statements from their rival parties. This situation has made the work of journalists extremely difficult and frustrating.
How can we defend ourselves against false news which comes in the guise of scoops? You may say there is always a way to trace any tip or report to verify whether it has substance or not, but that road is not as easy as it sounds.
On May 2, 2017 we got a tip that the President of Zambia Mr Edgar Lungu had fainted at the Olympic Youth Development Centre while doing aerobics. People who were present at the event claimed they saw him collapse. For a news organisation that is alive to the fact that the PF government is weeding out ‘talkative’ media houses, this information was not enough to publish without hearing from the President’s inner circle. Mr Amos Chanda, Mr Kaizer Zulu, Ms Chrysta Kalulu and several other State House officials were not available to pick calls that day to balance the statement – even if it was to obviously deny that the incident happened.
A Head of State is no ordinary citizen. If this truly happened at OYDC, that was very important information for Zambians to have, as it was going to empower them with reasons for questioning those who are paid to look after the health of the Republican President.
But in the era of fake news, this was a ‘scoop’ worth loosing because the public can easily forget a scoop published by a media house, but will never forget a mistake or false story, even if an apology is tendered later.
That is an example of the nature of burden that our major political parties have lumped on us media houses – investigating fake news instead of news stories. Of course journalists have never been error-free. But fake news is something else and much more dangerous.
We would like to confidently say that the ruling Patriotic Front and the opposition UPND are responsible for issuing most of the fake statements circulating in Zambia, and not journalists.
Yes, there are those who are well known for publishing fake news on the Internet, but those are not journalists, they are propagandists and they get paid for doing just that – misinforming.
Our concern is fake news generated by PF and UPND.
Just last week, it took the police spokesperson Esther Mwaata Katongo to rubbish a fake statement issued by the Patriotic Front media director Sunday Chanda because it was bordering on national security.
Mr Chanda claimed his party vigilantes had apprehended UPND cadres attempting to bomb the central business district of Lusaka, as a protest to demand the release of HH – fake news!
Strangely, the police did not summon Mr Chanda for questioning even after the Inspector General of police had earlier announced that anyone issuing alarming statements on social media would be arrested.
Just a few days earlier, the party deputy Secretary General Mumbi Phiri was expressing disgust at the burgeoning of fake news in the country.
Ironically, Mrs Phiri said The Mast newspaper hated her so much that it published a fake story before the August 2016 elections purporting that she had gone to abort her pregnancy in South Africa.
You would wonder what could be more fake; the probability of her aborting a pregnancy or the possibility of The Mast publishing a fake story before August 2016, when the newspaper was established in November 2016.
The list of fake statements issued by the PF is long, but the UPND is just as guilty, especially after the arrest of Mr Hakainde Hichilema.
POLICE DOGS EAT UPND SUPPORTER AT MAGISTRATE COURT
HH BRUTALLY BEATEN TORTURED WHILE DRAGGED TO KABWE
LUNGU HAS PLANS OF ELIMINATING HH – LITUNGA
GO TO HELL, LESA KUMULU PANSHI NINEBO, LUNGU TELLS BISHOPS
These headlined statements were either written or circulated by the UPND to the news media and without a doubt they attracted bitter reactions from members of the public, some of whom were moved to tears.
The UPND, Zambia’s most feasible alternative government, does not realise that circulating such fake or altered statements denies the party an opportunity to reach out to the masses with sincerity and attracting true sympathy from citizens and voters.
The UPND is failing to stick to issues and tightly marking the Patriotic Front by giving proper checks and balances. The opposition party is wasting the opportunities of exposing illegalities in government by issuing extensively exaggerated statements or circulating outright fake news. If a police dog bit a UPND supporter at court, that’s not the same as saying he was eaten up by police dogs.
It is easy to understand why the PF can be issuing fake or misinforming statements, because it is in the ruling party’s interest to divert public attention from real governance problems. But the UPND cannot get carried away with this trend by countering lies with lies.
Fake news stories present significant risk to people, industries and even governments. The repercussions are that false statements can incite a riot, cause financial loss to a business, affect government operations and can even influence a judges decision.
That is not all, when it is no longer clear what is false and what is correct, people lose their confidence in the state and also begin to develop mistrust for political parties that are expected to hold government to account. It is this poisonous mistrust that will eventually destroy our country. Using fake news, this poison is being injected in the members of the public in small doses and soon, our country will become ungovernable.