Fake news: Time for intervention
Nick Mangwana Special Correspondent
One of the leading writers and critic of misinformation and disinformation, David Letvin, says the term “fake news” sounds too playful and he further says it’s like a schoolchild faking illness.
He argues that fake news is a euphemism for an out-and-out lie. He contends that we are now in the post-truth era, which is an era of wilful irrationality.
This is destructive and we can’t let it go on. This is a felicitous saying, relevant to this season when the world is grappling with the corrosive effects of misinformation in the fight against coronavirus (COVID-19).
So much effort has been made in generating these outright lies which should not be made light of by someone just calling them “fake news”.
Unesco’s definition of news says that if something is an outright lie, then it cannot be “news”.
This is because news is verifiable information in the public interest. It has always been argued that anything that does not meet this definition is not news.
This makes it clear that the term “fake news” is an oxymoron.
So, if someone hiding in some bolt-hole in Kenya wakes up feeling bored and imaginative and decides to go on Twitter to say, “there will be a coup in Zimbabwe in February 2020”, with absolutely no base in fact at all, then this cannot be news whether fake or otherwise.
In Zimbabwe, there are brigades whose tool of choice is disinformation.
Members of this group daily fabricate news to feed hatred and panic.
At the expiration of the month of February, they unashamedly moved the conversation onto another lie.
Their faithful disciples do not bother to ask them to explain their disproved lie. Strangely, there is a conveyor belt of gullible takers.
Despite the fact that these lies come from someone who has been discredited many a time, they still latch onto it.
The world over, it has been concluded that those who willingly fall prey to deliberately misleading information created with malicious intent are vulnerable.
Social networks have acted as conduits for these lies as these vulnerable individuals excitedly act as amplifiers and multipliers of falsehoods.
This is a country saddled with a destabilising anti-Zimbabwe brigade whose tool of choice is misinformation.
This brigade daily fabricates news to injure the image of the country and degrade its status among the family of nations.
The purveyors of these malicious mischief abound on social media, where they rabidly spread blatantly false and orchestrated stories with a deliberate bid to demonise President Mnangagwa and the country at large.
At the top of this premier league of toxicity is a bored professor who ran away from the country to escape justice for his thieving ways and is clearly failing to deal with the emotional effects of his steep fall from a minister to a little ordinary social media troll.
Now full of venomous spite, he generates barrages of falsehoods to his heart’s content just for the heck of it, as well as for seditious reasons.
This scornful professor has arrogated to himself the role of Chief Disinformation Officer of the Republic of Zimbabwe.
Such a character leads an army of the vulnerable attacking anyone who dares to challenge them with facts.
Yet audiences must be more discerning for the lies are the same, couched in hashtags to give them a veneer of sophistication. He lives, feeds and sleeps on lies about his home country.
This is very simple to track.
Someone with a long history of dishonesty skips the country in 2017, after criminal charges had been levelled against him for misappropriating funds.
To get back at those he blames for his fall from Grace (pun intended), he turns himself into a virtual vandal. He has exhibited a lot of anti-social behaviour which includes traits of bullying and incitement.
In the UK, they used to issue what they called anti-social behaviour orders (ASBO) against those who engaged in antisocial behaviour. If there is a Zimbabwean who deserves an ASBO, it is this individual. The strange thing is we are talking of a whole professor here who has degenerated into a hoaxes and rumours mongering anti-social vandal.
Of course, this is not just some benign anti-social behaviour, but there is a method to the insanity.
This anti-social use of social media has seen vile trolls, vandals and sock-puppets attacking this writer and many others in an unrelenting manner.
There are falsehoods which appeal to the emotional vulnerabilities that make humans curious, upset or insecure.
That is what is called social engineering which we have seen being deployed, including in the coronavirus false scares.
The Second Republic is under serious attack from those this professor and a coterie of disciples, including some sock-puppets seeking political relevance for him in the opposition circles.
This fugitive has been churning out one lie after another, with his main target being President Mnangagwa whom he subjected to a volley of false attacks designed to assassinate his character.
Before the watershed 2018 harmonised elections, this character ran a doomed Twitter campaign hashtagged #KwekweHimOut where he tried to depict the President as an unelectable leader. Like all lies, this narrative had short legs as President Mnangagwa emerged as the favourite candidate after he indisputably won the elections.
But corrosive bitterness does not know when to quit. The hate campaign has been sustained with one wave of attack after another against the President. The resentful professor would churn out more fake news targeted at depicting the President as an unpopular leader whose mandate is at the mercy of the “securocrats”.
More recently, we have been told that there is an insurrection brewing. First, there was a transparent attempt to drive a wedge between the President and one of his deputies, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga.
When VP Chiwenga was about to return to Zimbabwe after being discharged from a hospital in China, we were told that a coup was already underway as special troops were at the airport to welcome the Vice President and accompany him to State House to take-over from the President.
This did not happen. The fake news naturally fizzled out like all lies. Still his naïve disciples did not lose faith. What a waste.
Another fake news was cooked under the hashtag #NovemberInFebruary.
This was supposed to herald the departure of President Mnangagwa in February as he was supposedly expected to surrender power to Vice President Chiwenga.
The nutty professor spread all manner of conspiracy theories trying to create building blocks of a scenario that will lead to the departure of President Mnangagwa. February came and passed with the President ably leading the country unscathed and yet the peddlers of the falsehoods did not account to those they had lied to. Once again, the professor was proved to be just a purveyor of malicious gossip .
Maya Angelou said, “Bitterness is a cancer, it eats upon the host. It doesn’t do anything to the object of its displeasure.”
So, this may be annoying to the rest of us at the worst, but does not faze President Mnangagwa one bit. He has always said that an elephant would not be swayed from its pathway because of barking puppies. Surely, mere poppycock will not detract him from his chosen pathway of transforming Zimbabwe and the lives of the Zimbabwean people.
We have seen this Pinocchio character coming up with another disinformation angle, claiming that Vice President Chiwenga had allegedly arm-twisted the President into giving up power when they met at his farm in Kwekwe.
The codology was run under the hash tag #KwekweAgreement. It was insinuated that the two leaders reached an agreement where the President agreed to leave power on condition a safe haven was secured for him in Dubai or Singapore. According to the fibbing professor, the deal was supposed to be consummated on March 7, 2020.
The date came and passed, but nothing happened. This should have been a moment of disgrace to the normal, but to this individual who wears shame like an ornament, this was just water off a duck’s back.
Aware that they were losing credibility even among the most gullible, they thought of a plan; let us rope in a news website to lend some credibility to the lies.
We therefore saw a website, Spotlight Zimbabwe, making the bold declaration: “Breaking Alert: Mnangagwa’s departure as Zimbabwe’s President finalised.”
The website, suddenly, is described as credible, it is, of course the same website that also reported in October that the President had been put, in their words, “under virtual military arrest”.
The same website also reported in November that the Chinese army had been deployed to oust the President.
Because Spotlight Zimbabwe is not enough, they picked Gambakwe Media, the more comedic of the fake news websites, to run the headline, “Breaking News: ED agrees to step down”, quoting Spotlight Zimbabwe.
This is how far they have fallen; from Information Minister, to begging for coverage on fake news platforms.
The unashamed professor and his other bedfellows are expected to continue churning out fake news disparaging the President and the country, all for the purpose of exacting revenge on the turn of a political event that saw their march to power in 2017 coming to an abrupt end. However, the question that needs to be answered is for how long will Government allow people to abuse social media, demonising the country.
The country is paying a dear price due to these lies which have been sexed up with an acceptable label of “fake news”.
The Legislature should expedite the passing of laws that help us deal with this scourge.
The Cyber Crimes, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill has provisions which deal with some of this menace. The Government has a responsibility to protect people from hate speech and divisive elements. We need to bring responsibility in the use of the social media, if not then people should not complain when regulation does it for them. Critical thinking in this country has been exhausted by the misinformation and post-truth politics which has gone on to annihilate objectivity.
People are continuously being exposed to popular culture that has shaped their reality tunnel as they slavishly follow the alternative facts gods.
All these euphemisms are just masking the right term and all these socially acceptable terms are just making lies look cool and socially acceptable. But not for much longer.
Nick Mangwana is the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services.