“Social media is increasingly used to make threatening and hostile comments… and to spread rumours and fake news. While the majority of these statements do not lead to concrete terror plans, CTA assesses that such declarations could lead certain mentally unstable or very impressionable people to commit violent acts…” Danish Security and Intelligence Service terror assessment report-February 2017.
On December 4th, 2016, a 28-year old man left his home in North Carolina, driving 563 kilometres (350 miles) to Washington D.C with an assault rifle, a revolver, 29 rounds of ammunition and a knife. At around 3:30 pm, he parked his vehicle outside Comet Ping Pong, a popular pizza restaurant in the area, and walked in armed with his AR-15 assault rifle. Naturally, patrons and employees alike scampered for safety, leaving the man, Edgar Welch, inside. After a short while, Edgar left his weapon inside the restaurant and surrendered to police outside.
The reason behind this bizarre yet potentially life-threatening incident? Edgar had been taken in by a bit of fake news regarding presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s alleged involvement in #Pizzagate, a supposed child sex scandal whose operations were housed in the restaurant. No victims ever came forward, no physical evidence of any operation was found at the eatery and police saw no need to investigate any further.
So taken in was a considerable portion of the American populace that the restaurant’s owners reported receiving multiple telephone threats, including a particularly chilling warning from one Yusif Jones, who called Comet three days later:
“I’m coming to finish what the other guy didn’t. I’m coming there to save the kids, and then I’m going to shoot you and everyone in the place.”
Fake news as a phenomenon truly came to the fore during last November’s US elections-but its effects have been significantly felt in the African context as well. Nigeria’s Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, was in the press lamenting the potentially damaging effect that fake news could have on security:
“These fake, unfounded news reports have the capacity to set one religion or group against the other.”
This was after a fake news report declared Nigeria “the most difficult place for Christians to live”, including allegations of state-sponsored crime which the government were forced to refute.
Fake news are hoax stories created and published with the intent to mislead and, in certain instances, cause alarm, spur a negative reaction or further an agenda. Locally, recent reports of ethnic attacks targeting members of a specific community made the rounds on social media until the Naivasha sub-county commissioner, Isaac Masinde, confirmed this to be fake.
Over the election period in August, we also noted similar reports spreading on various social media platforms, where old or doctored images were used to cause alarm regarding protests or attacks in Mombasa and Nairobi, just to name a few.
With the emergence of fake news, came the rise of the bots. These are basically fake social profiles which can and have been used to spread misinformation from bogus sites online, giving fake news some measure of credibility by popularity, if you may. This creates the perception that people, real people, are taking the fake reports seriously, generating a lot of traffic and conversation around it.
The threat that the fake news phenomenon poses to security, therefore, cannot be overstated. This is especially so considering the current heated political climate in the country as we build up towards the re-run of the presidential polls on October 26th. With particular regard to security updates, while you are encouraged to share information that will keep your loved ones informed and safe, it is important to know that the content you are sharing is verified by a credible source.
So, how do you identify fake news? The tell-tale signs include suspicious-looking URLs, sensational headlines and openly-biased reporting. Some fake reports are also designed to appear as though they were done by legitimate media houses, in which case you should look out for dodgy logos or simply check out the author of the article or look around on other sites to corroborate the story.
Remember, verify before you share. Don’t be part of the problem.