Fake News - what can educators do?

Wagdy Sawahel  
December 2019

“African universities have not caught up on tackling fake news, either as research or teaching,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, a Nigeria-based policy advocacy and research organisation.

“Sometimes, students spend hours online but are not able to discern a phony URL that is pushing a contentious issue,” she told University World News.

“In terms of research, not much is being conducted locally, possibly due to finances,” Hassan said. And “few institutions are offering a course on fake news,” said Hassan, who is co-author of the July 2019 report entitled WhatsApp and Nigeria’s 2019 elections: Mobilising the people, protecting the vote.

A paper produced earlier this year on the teaching of journalism in universities in Africa and the Middle East seems to support Hassan's contentions. Entitled “Journalism educators, regulatory realities, and pedagogical predicaments of the ‘fake news’ era: A comparative perspective on the Middle East and Africa”, it argues that “the university teaching of ‘fake news’ in these regions is still in its infancy”.

“Despite the exponential expansion of journalism educators in the Middle East and Africa, several curriculums in these regions have been struggling to cope with the rising dominance of the ‘fake news’ movement…,” the study found.

It went on to suggest that future journalists from both regions would benefit from media literacy courses that identify the difference between fact and fiction in relation to their own contexts.

Universities as victims

University staff, too, could benefit, because, as Hassan pointed out, the university system itself is a victim of fake news.

Many African universities already have image problems as a result of fake news. For example,

  • The Nigeria-based Federal University of Lafia was forced to issue a press release in November to counter the news that a female lecturer had been impregnated by a male student.
  • The University of Ibadan in Nigeria issued a statement in September against fake news regarding admission cut-off points, while the University of Nigeria, Nsukka had to issue a statement over a similar admission scam.
  • In South Africa, the University of Venda issued a statement in October distancing itself from fake news regarding a degree in witchcraft.
  • Several African ministries of higher education in countries including Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt have warned students about false information regarding scholarships, fake universities or international partnerships.

A study published in October found that as many as 90% of Kenyans, 93% of Nigerians and 76% of South Africans believe they are exposed to false news about politics on a fairly regular basis.

How can universities protect themselves and their students?

In the face of such a high incidence of fake news, what can universities can protect themselves by producing graduates who are fact-checkers, hoax-spotters and news analysts” through by adding critical thinking skills to the curriculum.

Information scientist and social science researcher Alison Head, the founder and director of Project Information Literacy, told University World News that a 2018 study by the project identified the “profound impact of professors and classroom discussions as mediators of students’ understanding” of news.

“Faculty across the disciplines can help students develop useful news habits such as reading laterally, identifying trusted sources, and considering the interests behind the promotion of particular stories and angles through guided discussions and integration of news with curriculum to develop contextual knowledge,” said Head, who is also a visiting scholar at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

“Such discussions can help students in classrooms anywhere in the world integrate critical understanding of news as a political force into lifelong learning, and to detect and counter moves by various actors to manipulate news and information flows,” she said.

Improving Media Literacy and ethics

Larry Atkins, journalism professor at Temple University and Arcadia University in the United States, told University World News all African students should be educated in media literacy and “how to be a savvy news consumer who can investigate whether a statement is fake news”.

“In general, throughout Africa, universities need to educate students to be aware of disinformation campaigns linked to social media and they should refer students to fact-checking organisations, such as Africa Check,” said Atkins, who is the author of a 2016 book Skewed: A critical thinker's guide to media bias.

“The recent establishment of a media literacy centre in Nigeria is a positive development in combating fake news. Hopefully, they will reach out to universities to create media literacy education programmes,” Atkins said.

“Recently, Facebook has made efforts to work together with … Africa Check to combat fake news. It would be helpful if they reached out to universities in Africa for joint programmes as well.”

And African universities could also emulate the Center for News Literacy at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stony Brook in the United States, which teaches thousands of its students media literacy skills in order to judge the reliability of news sources and information. “The SUNY centre has an overseas partnership programme that helps teach media literacy in several foreign countries,” Atkins said

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