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Helping people spot fake news in Sierra Leone

George Ferguson

Country Director, BBC Media Action Sierra Leone

National elections are always a fascinating experience when working for BBC Media Action. Frequently played out in fragile governance contexts, national elections are generally viewed as a key milestone in the democratic progress of a country.

For the recent elections in Sierra Leone, rapidly increasing levels of access to social media – particularly among young people – had created an important and influential space for political discussion. In 2009, around 2% of people had internet access nationally. By 2016, 16% of people aged 15-30 nationally had access to the internet, rising to 48% in urban areas, with the vast majority using Facebook and WhatsApp on a smartphone.

Irresponsible media content not only has the potential to distort or misinform voters; at worst, it can be used to incite political violence through hate speech. This threat was taken seriously by the government of Sierra Leone in the run up to the election. At one stage in 2017, the Information Minister stated on national radio that the government might ‘close down social media’ if they perceived it to pose a credible threat to national security. As in so many political contexts, security concerns over ‘fake news’ seemed to be threatening the most basic of democratic freedoms: the rights of access to information and freedom of expression.

Finding a balance between national security and personal freedom – particularly on social media – is something that governments and societies continue to struggle with. The development of social media represents a steep learning curve for many in Sierra Leone, where education remains an issue and where inappropriate content and misinformation can spread alarmingly quickly (as evidenced during the 2017 mudslide and 2014/15 Ebola crisis).

One thing could be said of social media spaces during the 2018 election: they were going to be busy. Whether this would be busy-good or busy-bad remained to be seen. Managing the largest Facebook page in Sierra Leone, the BBC Media Action office in Freetown was in a strong position to reach its 500,000 followers, and beyond, with trusted and independent media content.

Data from a 2016 national audience survey, as well as from analysis of our own social media metrics, helped to provide a unique set of insights into online audiences in Sierra Leone. The team in Freetown decided early on during the project design that we would not have the resources to directly fact-check or counter fake news reports ourselves. Instead we decided to help both audiences and practitioners increase what the wider BBC is calling ‘media literacy’ – the ability to better identify misinformation and therefore more effectively navigate social media spaces.

As part of UNDP’s conflict mitigation programme, and with funding from UK Aid, we developed a programme of activities designed to increase responsible use of social media during the elections. We did two things with this support. Firstly, we designed and delivered a series of in-depth training sessions on responsible use of social media to three key groups: journalists, election management bodies, and young people who are active on social media. Secondly, we produced a range of media content (films and graphics) to inform wider audiences about more responsible use of social media.

Research findings showed that the training was effective in increasing knowledge around responsible use of social media. Following their training, there was a 25% increase in the number of participants who agreed with the statement ‘I can identify untrue news stories or fake news’. The ‘zebra crossing technique’, illustrated in this video, was especially helpful in reminding participants to cross-check and verify information and the source of stories before sharing them.

We produced a wide range of content for broadcast on our Sierra Leone Facebook page. These posts attempted to explain how to identify fake news and misinformation, inform followers of the legal implications of sharing other people’s posts, and share tips about online safety. For all our posts about the responsible use of social media during the elections period, the average ‘reach’ was 43,500 people per post. This was measured through our Facebook page metrics and doesn’t capture the additional reach achieved through individuals choosing to share our content on other platforms such as WhatsApp.

When the election went to a second-round run-off, political tensions increased and the rhetoric from politicians started to exploit religious and tribal differences. This was also evident in inappropriate and offensive user-generated content circulating on social media platforms at the time. Yet it seems that this did not result in political violence, as many feared it might. The people of Sierra Leone remained calm, turned out to vote, and managed a largely peaceful transition of power. Whilst it’s not possible to directly attribute our work to this achievement, we believe that an increase in media literacy among Sierra Leoneans online made a valuable contribution to building social resilience to misinformation.

George Ferguson is BBC Media Action's Country Director in Sierra Leone 


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