Facebook’s push to fix its fake news problem isn’t working in Africa either

Image: Reuters/Njeri Mwangi
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Just over a year ago, Facebook announced it would add fake news checks on local language content in a bid to boost trust and reliability among African users. It came along with other measures, including shutting down suspected networks of fake accounts targeting African elections with misinformation.

But recent data suggests those moves have not yet paid off among one of Facebook’s most coveted demographics: young Africans.

More than half of young Africans do not regard Facebook as a trustworthy source of news, claims a poll by the African Youth Survey, which was commissioned by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation and conducted by global polling firm, PSB Research. WhatsApp, the messaging app owned by Facebook, which is the dominant social media platform in Africa, is also deemed untrustworthy by half of the survey’s respondents. In contrast, only about a fifth of respondents had similar misgivings about Google as a source of news.

Data for the survey was collated through 4,200 interviews with young Africans aged between 18 and 24 across 14 sub-Saharan African countries, including Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa.

The low levels of trust pose a threat to Facebook’s long-term ambitions of becoming a trusted and dominant platform among young African users. With the continent’s population predicted to grow faster than anywhere else, Facebook—like other global tech giants—eyes Africa’s youth as an important growth opportunity. The short-term reality however is that misinformation is compromising the experience of using the internet as nearly seven in ten young Africans say that fake news impacts their ability to stay informed even as 54% of them rely on social media as their main source of news, as the survey shows.

For governments on the continent, the Covid-19 pandemic has offered a critical reminder of the pitfalls of a lack of trusted news sources for citizens. Indeed, within hours of the first confirmed coronavirus case in Nigeria, Africa’s largest internet market, broadcast messages prescribing unfounded cures and self-check methods had already gone viral. The size of the problem is best understood through the scale of use of these platforms: WhatsApp has become so popular, even knock-off versions of the app are used more frequently than Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter in Africa’s largest internet markets.

Yet, successfully tackling misinformation often requires turning the problem itself into a solution. In South Africa, the national health department set up a WhatsApp support service to offer locals coronavirus-related information, from symptoms, prevention tips and testing information to dispelling rampant bits of misinformation, such as phony cures. Having seen some success locally, South Africa’s WhatsApp bot has since been adopted by the World Health Organization.

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