The BBC recently had their Africa debate in Blantyre, Malawi. The debate was on whether “journalism in Africa is threatened by fake news”. The BBC said they had the debate in Malawi because Malawians are keen and royal listeners of BBC World Service. What came out clearly in the course of the debate was that Malawi was chosen because of events of September to October 2016 when Malawi social media was rife with rumours that the country’s President, Peter Mutharika had died in the USA where he was attending United Nations General Assembly.

The rumours of the president ill health and the supposed death, which was fueled by lack of communication on whereabouts of the President weeks after the General assembly had finished, may have passed as news “news” on social media and some online “news” channels trying hard to be the first to break the news. Online it can be very difficult to distinguish genuine news sites from bogus ones.

When you consider the changing news environment and technologies that have enabled that change, you will appreciate that fake news is definitely a challenge, not just for media institutions trying to do honest job of gathering and reporting factual news and information but also for the public looking for credible information from journalistic institutions. This makes the debate on fake news timely and relevant.

Yet, like all cultural and communicative issues, it is important that the debate be define clearly: it is about the state of journalism. Social media may be part of the debate but fake news is about journalism, the profession, not social media – a platform. My worry is that most people are confusing social media. There are two related but critically different problems with this confusion.

In Africa, traditional media is a bigger problem than social media

Fake news is not new. Robert Darnton traces fake news – “dubious information”, as he calls it, to sixth Century AD. The difference today is that fake news has found new platform on social media where sharing of information is instant and has the magic of reaching across national boundaries. What is important is for news organisation to improve on fact-checking and educate people on how to identify false information.

Throughout human history people have hard to learn to separate facts from fiction. Situation may be different in the post-truth world where most people are guided by emotions, not facts – making fake news more appealing that factual reporting. Today folks would rather hear what they want to hear true or false, than face inconvenient objective information.

Yet, for most African countries, which the debate concentrated on, the main culprits when it comes to fake news are state controlled media. If not peddling outright lies in favour of those in power then it is the cardinal sin of omission. Theirs is not journalism that speaks truth to power, it is not journalism that is aimed at uncovering incompetence or corruption in the corridors of power. Omitting critical and factual information in journalism must be recognised as fake news.

Fake news on official news organisations such as state or public broadcasters is more harmful than social media, more especially in places like Africa where majority of people across the continent still rely on broadcasting for news – not social media. Moreover, this study shows that majority of citizens in the post-authoritarian African states trust more in government-owned media institutions than any others.

… don’t let governments in

As previously argued, oppressive governments across the continent that are uncomfortable that internet has provided an open forum for free expression would happily use the fake news argument to control social media. In 2016 there were 50 internet shutdowns across world, majority of these cases happened on African content.

To avoid this, fake news must be defined for what it is, not tying it to specific platforms. Increasingly, governments are developing the trend of calling anything they don’t like fake news. This is a dangerous trend that me must avoid at all cost.

The fears about fake news are real, we must find a way of preserving good ethical journalism that is a backbone of our society. Yet, we must avoid the lazy thinking of simply blaming social media, which could let in autocratic governments to control a tool that has provided so much free space for freedom expression and providing checks and balances to those in power.