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Data is the new currency for influencing public perception

It is hard to believe that Facebook recently turned 15 years old because this social media channel, along with others like WhatsApp, Twitter or Instagram, has become an inextricable part of our lives. When social media are coupled with smartphones, we become obsessed with technology to the point where people touched their phones 2,617 times per day, according to a 2016 study. This sort of attachment, however, is not without danger. User-generated data and disinformation campaigns have become the new battleground for influencing public perception.


This recognition is slowly creeping into the public realm with Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes recently calling for the beak-up of the hugely influential platform. The academic and bestselling author Yuval Noah Hariri is equally gloomy about the power of social media giants. He warned that digital dictatorships could become omnipresent if too much data becomes concentrated in too few hands.


Elections, unfortunately, appear to be a common target for manipulation through digital and social media. The 2016 U.S. presidential election has become an infamous example of numerous actors exploiting Facebook’s advertising platform and turning user profile data against the very users embracing the platform. To this day, it remains unclear to what extent the outcome of the election was changed through state actors like Russia. Nonetheless, it is indisputable that state-sponsored organizations, such as the Internet Research Agency, purposely sow disinformation to undermine democratic processes.


Disinformation campaigns are also not new in Africa though they are not always perpetrated by state actors. During the March 2018 elections in Sierra Leone, WhatsApp was used to spread disinformation about the deployment of UN peacekeepers to the country, and other fake stories. These rumors then circulated offline and eventually a senior security official held a press conference to deny the allegations.


In the run-up to Malawi’s election in May this year, fake news also proliferated on Facebook and WhatsApp. While the country has a relatively low Internet penetration rate and small number of registered voters, malicious content circulating on social media went offline when it was discussed in social gatherings and public places.


Fake news has long been circulated via social media. Sometimes it can be amusing whereas other times it can have malicious intent. Kenyans probably chuckled about a photo showing Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, purportedly ordering university students to don school uniforms. Nevertheless, this manipulated photo garnered wide spread attention and sidetracked the debate of more serious matters confronting the education sector.


With the advent of deep fakes, which are relatively easy and cheap to produce, digital and social media users will be inundated with unverifiable content competing for their attention. It will increasingly become difficult to discern truth from fiction and make informed decisions on matters of importance. This danger is heightened on instant messaging apps like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger that are opaque because they do not allow third party intervention.


WhatsApp is probably the most popular instant messaging app in English-speaking countries across the African continent. With WhatsApp boasting around 1.5 billions users globally and Facebook Messenger another 1.3 billion users, the power of instant messaging apps becomes instantly clear. It is little wonder then that pundits like Chris Hughes and Yuval Noah Hariri are worried about the power of social media behemoths like Facebook. The potential for abusing data generated by the billions of wiling users of social media and instant messaging apps is just too great.


The looming danger is that the online and offline world will conflate and become indistinguishable in the end. Information originating in either realm will circulate effortlessly and immediately, eventually creating a seamless reality. But this new reality we so eagerly embrace will have unforeseen and potentially dangerous consequences.

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