Louis Davison is a communications scholar, researcher and writer.
Disinformation is a global problem. The COVID-19 pandemic was marked by widespread mis- and disinformation about the virus and vaccines. The ongoing war in Ukraine underscores the role of disinformation in geopolitics and conflict. And the widespread threat of disinformation to elections everywhere, from the U.S. to Brazil, Kenya, the Philippines and India all point to a problem that threatens democracy and human progress.
But even as the problem has become heavily associated with Silicon Valley social media platforms and the economic, political and identitarian incentives they create, it is clear there are specific contours to the problem outside of rich Western countries that are less examined and less well understood by the research community.
Disinformation In The Global South, edited by Herman Wasserman and Dani Madrid-Morales, is a captivating and complete analysis of this fast-growing (yet perhaps ancient) problem of false information dissemination throughout the Global South. Beginning with an insightful foreword from Guy Berger, Director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development at UNESCO, exploring the recent development of disinformation from a little-discussed topic to a global discourse, the book explores the impact of disinformation in Africa, Latin America, the Arab World and Asia. Divided into twelve chapters, this diverse collection of perspectives offers insights into the endemic nature of disinformation in a variety of contexts.
Having risen to buzzword status in the West following the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the U.S. presidential election in 2016, the term ‘Fake News’ claimed Collins Dictionary’s ‘word of the year’ title in 2017. However, Wasserman, Madrid-Morales and their contributors are quick to point out that disinformation, while previously less discussed in the West and Global North, has long been part of the social fabric in the Global South.
For example, Katrien Pype and Sébastien Maluta Makaya, researchers in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital city since 2003, show how a culture of disinformation has become so entrenched and endemic that a glut of local-language neologisms with which to discuss false news has emerged.
Members of parliament are apprentices of “mendelism;” they learn how to “mendel;” and parliament is the space where these skills are transferred and exercised. Such a statement is on a par with a widely accepted conviction among many Kinois that contemporary politics is nothing less or more than a concerted effort to shamelessly lie. (p.61)
Such vivid examples, which deepen the global perspective by examining specific case studies, are at the core of this book. It is a geographically diverse collection of accounts that present disinformation as not a recent Western development, but as a historical problem for humanity at large and one which is at once global and locally situated.
Every chapter examines different examples and varying geo-political situations: one prevalent issue raised concerning disinformation, is the weaponization of information by those in power. This top-down style of diffusion leads to the systemic dissemination of false information, and the subsequent normalization of unreliable narratives.
Disinformation, though, does not have to be surrendered to and is not necessarily inevitable or endemic. Wasserman and Madrid-Morales have organized their contributors to end on a hopeful note by showing that a great deal is already being done to combat disinformation in the Global South. For example, as several of the chapters in this book describe, efforts to contain, stop, or counter disinformation in the Global South include teaching media literacy and supporting fact-checking efforts by media and civil society organizations.
Section 1 looks at the histories, theories and methods behind disinformation; Section 2 looks at cultural aspects; and then Section 3 offers the reader some responses and home-grown solutions to tackling the disinformation problem.
Edson C. Tandoc, an Associate Professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, begins by contextualizing disinformation as not just a media issue, but an emerging global marketplace, with vendors selling campaign services to politicians and people alike. Saba Bebawi from the University of Technology Sydney analyzes the consequences of state-run media, specifically in Arab countries, and people’s subsequent reliance on information from the street and private circles.
Denison University’s Sangeet Kumar, in his insightful chapter focusing on India, highlights WhatsApp as a key component in the spread of information in private circles, in reaction to an unreliable media landscape. He draws attention to a culture of mistrust: an existing skepticism toward official history rooted in the colonial experience. Wasserman and Madrid-Morales tie up the first section by highlighting the lack of contemporary comparative studies throughout the Global South but they assert that, as the discourse around disinformation grows, it is rapidly becoming a field of its own.
Disinformation studies are becoming akin to a field of their own, with distinct methodological and theoretical approaches, and are interdisciplinary in nature. (p.41)
University of Birmingham anthropologist Katrien Pype and coauthor Sébastien Maluta Makaya open Section 2 with an engaging insight into the endemic nature of disinformation in Kinshasa and the DRC, highlighting the normalization of fake news and even its cultural integration.
Ingrid Bachmann, Daniela Grassau and Claudia Labarca, researchers at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, address the 2019 protests in that country as a ‘perfect storm’ for disinformation dissemination. Their determinations mirror Kumar’s conclusions that social media is central to the spread of fake news, but maintain that there is yet space for some effectiveness of fact-checking initiatives.
Ozan Kuru at the National University of Singapore, Scott W. Campbell at the University of Michigan, Joseph B. Bayer at Ohio State University, Lemi Baruh, at Koc University at the IT University of Copenhagen– in their chapter focusing on WhatsApp– offer empirical evidence from Singapore and Turkey as well as the USA, for points of comparison. They find that interpersonal trust in group chat members helps to explain the ways in which people encounter and deal with misinformation and disinformation.
Using examples from nations across Southeast Asia, University of the Philippines researcher Jose Mari Hall Lanuza and co-author Cleve V. Arguelles argue in their chapter that in authoritarian systems, states may use disinformation as a ruse to increase securitization and censorship, a central issue in the fight for free journalism. We find another example of how growing disinformation can be instrumentalized by the state to increase its grip on power, in The Chinese University of Hong Kong communications researcher Kencheng Fang’s chapter on China.
In the final chapter of Section 2, University of Sharjah’s Jairo Lugo-Ocando and Franklin University Switzerland’s Alessandro Martinisi contend that journalism in the Global South has often been complicit in historically colonial regimes. Like Kumar, Lugo-Ocando and Martinisi write that a legacy of misrepresentation by some media outlets continues today, when opaque statistics are used by journalists which can be appropriated by populist leaders as support for alternative, composed postcolonial histories. Journalists are then unable to critically review, examine, and contest these numbers, which allows those in power to manipulate statistics to suit their own agenda.
To begin the final section on responses to disinformation, Columbia scholar Anya Schiffrin and University of Westminster researcher Peter Cunliffe-Jones highlight the systemic nature of mis- and disinformation. They convincingly argue that local contextual knowledge is important when responses to disinformation in the Global South are designed. They illustrate this central practice by outlining how local realities shape the three broad responses most commonly put forward: fact-checking, news literacy, and regulation.
As journalists began writing about the spread of false information, the public and policy makers came to understand that the incentives for producing and disseminating falsehoods online were structural because the platform’s business model was based on engagement which requires generating outrage and anger. The problem is systemic. (p.161)
Regarding regulation and legislation, Schiffrin and Cunliffe-Jones make the point that legal measures to counteract disinformation are dangerous because they can become a smokescreen for authoritarian states to introduce censorship and thereby suppress opposition voices under the pretext of countering disinformation, particularly in the wake of COVID-19. They note that governments in countries such as Malaysia and Singapore that passed “fake news” laws in 2018 and 2019, respectively, have a long history of exerting control over the media.
In the final sections of their chapter, Schiffrin and Cunliffe-Jones present a substantial list of proposed policies affecting everything from the creation, consumption and dissemination of disinformation, to measures to improve the supply of quality information. Besides rigorous fact-checking, alternative examples include algorithmic transparency for the public and government, laws combating cyber harassment of journalists, and legislation targeting the big tech platforms that have users in the Global South to provide badly-needed financial resources for governments in order to support local news.
In a fascinating analysis of the roots of disinformation in Kenya, University of Iowa researcher Melissa Tully examines the historical role of satire and alternative media in the undermining of grand narratives peddled by the powerful elite. Ultimately accepting that though Kenyans are often likely to share misinformation “just for fun”, they are also technologically savvy and well versed in fact-checking and recognizing mis- and disinformation.
Nabeelah Shabbir, Julie Posetti, and Felix M. Simon, each affiliated with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford, round off the final section by showing how three news organizations in South Africa, India, and the Philippines have challenged disinformation through action and impact-oriented civic engagement, as well as the creation of safer digital spaces where journalists can collaborate with audiences and facilitate community building.
An ideal reference for anyone looking to further their understanding of the nature of disinformation, this book contributes valuable comparative perspectives on media practices across the Global South and frames the problem of disinformation as a symptom of imperial border-drawing, post-colonial mistrust and the ubiquity of social media. As such, it is an important contribution to de-Westernize the study of communications.