Sierra Leone's Fake News Econsystems: An Overview

In January 2020 internet penetration in Sierra Leone was 25% and there were an estimated 700,000 active social media users, with Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp the most used applications. These new media platforms act as both sources and enablers of fake news. The internet has also influenced news gathering and content production in the sense that some media institutions now directly copy and paste contents from the internet and other online media sources, bringing them into the traditional media realm. This study offers an assessment of Sierra Leone’s fake news ecosystem drawing primarily on qualitative data. Fourteen key informant interviews were conducted with key actors, social media influencers, traditional media practitioners, government officials, fact-checkers and media monitors, civil society experts and academics. In addition, three focus group discussions were conducted in Freetown and Bo in June 2021 with social media users comprising youth, the elderly and women. A review of available literature and online searches of websites and social media further supplemented and contextualised the findings. The findings show that the major area fake news spreads in the country’s information ecosystem is around politics. The country is broadly divided along ethno-political lines with supporters of the two leading political parties, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the All Peoples Congress (APC), fervent in their belief in messages that originate from their party leaders and supporters. There is little space left for a nuanced middle ground. While there is misinformation by people who just ‘copy and paste’ information, there are also those with political interests who aim to disinform. What is also clear is that growing internet connectivity has increased the spread of misinformation and disinformation in several ways. The first is that it has created new media platforms which can also act as sources of fake news. But more importantly, the internet has also influenced news gathering and content production. Some media institutions directly copy and paste contents from the internet and other online media source, bringing them in to the traditional media realm. Social media rumours also penetrate offline information networks that historically have been, and still are, key enablers of the circulation of information in the country. The study concludes by arguing that fake news is a growing and serious problem that needs to be addressed in Sierra Leone. It recommends, among other things that, political parties should develop, and adhere to, codes of conduct for social media use and that there should be improved and continuous media and information literacy in the country using radio and other online media platforms as part of a nationwide campaign to reduce the impacts of misinformation and disinformation on national discourse.

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