Disinformation in the Global South: a new book edited by Herman Wasserman and Dani Madrid-Morales

Disinformation in the Global South was published on April 14. Both print and electronic copies are available. You can use the code ICAW2 until June 30, 2022 to get a 20% discount on your copy.

Media and communication scholars Herman Wasserman and Dani Madrid-Morales to release a new book on disinformation in the global south. Through case studies and comparative analyses, this book explores the impact of disinformation in Africa, Latin America, the Arab World and Asia.

Wasserman and Madrid-Morales provide a diverse collection of perspectives on the phenomenon of disinformation as it manifests in the Global South, drawing on on examples from several different countries. Disinformation in the Global South is divided into three sections: Histories, Theories, and Methods (section 1); Cultures of Disinformation (section 2); and, Responses: Southern Perspectives (section 3).

Section 1: Histories, Theories, and Methods

Chapter 1 – Contextualising Fake News: Can Online Falsehoods Spread Fast When Internet is Slow?

Edson C. Tandoc Jr

This chapter draws on contextual factors contributing to the rise of online falsehoods, focusing on experiences in the Philippines. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a rise in inaccurate information about the virus’s origin, nature and remedies. This information was not only spread on social media or fly-by-night websites but top government officials in charge of responding to the pandemic. in January of 2020 a Presidential spokesperson stated that eating bananas can protect people against the virus, a provincial governor debated with medical professionals on the effectiveness of steam inhalation to kill the virus and the president himself stated that civilians could rinse their used facemasks with gasoline to reuse them. Falsehoods spread on the internet can harm individuals, especially those who attempted unproven and dangerous home remedies. These harms were particularly challenging to countries in the Global South with unstable healthcare systems.

The digitization of many aspects of social life has facilitated the easy spread of falsehoods online. Of these different forms of falsehoods, news has taken the spotlight. Citizens of the Philippines are amongst the most active social media users in the world and feature prominently in fake news discourse. This chapter provides an overview of factors that contribute to the spread of online falsehoods such as structural contexts in the Philippines, how falsehoods are spread and the weaponization of fake news. 

Chapter 2 – Disinformation in Arab Media: Cultural Histories and Political Dynamics 

Saba Bebawi 

This chapter focuses on how historical and traditional political factors and cultural practices have impacted how Arab Journalism has been shaped. 

In various regions in the Global South, disinformation is spread due to reasons deeply entrenched in cultural, political, social and ideological histories. This phenomenon is the norm in Arab countries due to the complex historical, social and cultural dynamics and constant changes. In this chapter, the term “disinformation” is used to describe the falsification of information that has been used as a political tool in the Arab region. 

This chapter also touches on the concept of “emotive journalism” that has been embedded into Arab journalism, often over-shadowing fact-based. Emotive journalism has played a significant role in the spread of misinformation in Arab Journalism. A key impediment to addressing disinformation in Arab journalism is the difficulty in accessing information that assists in developing a culture of fact-checking, this chapter highlights a few initiatives that have been aiming to address this such as ARIJ Middle East and North Africa, InfoTimes and The Arab Data Journalists Network. Overall, this chapter provides contextual background, cultural histories and political dynamics, and the role of Arab Investigative Journalism.

Chapter 3 – Manipulated Facts and Spreadable Fantasies: Battles Over History in the Indian Digital Sphere 

Sangeet Kumar 

This chapter is concerned with the category of fake texts that appear to be true news and factual claims, but conceal their identity to mislead readers. 

The recent global issue of the rampant spread of disinformation through the digital ecosystem could be traced to the technological changes in media production, circulation, and consumption. As media tools become more user-friendly and commonplace has led to the rise of practices of citizen journalism. This chapter’s analysis focuses on the geographical and cultural region of India, where the issue of online disinformation has been accepted as a significant social problem. The consequences have included disrupting electoral processes and influencing the life and liberties of vulnerable populations. With a growing digital population of 600 million and amongst the cheapest data rates globally, this region’s internet population will significantly shape the trajectory of the web globally.

This chapter uses examples of creation, manipulation, and production, to showcase how widespread access to media creation tools and digital networks of circulation enables legitimate disagreements over interpretations of the past to morph into an exercise of producing favourable facts and convenient versions of history. 

Chapter 4: Research Methods in Comparative Disinformation Studies

Dani Madrid-Morales and Herman Wasserman

This chapter aims to outline methodological strategies, with a focus on comparative research in Sub-Saharan Africa. Drawing on a sample of studies conducted between 2018 and 2021 spanning over half a dozen African countries, this chapter offers a set of “lessons learned” that may apply to other scholars with an interest in understanding the spread of disinformation in Sub-Saharan Africa from a comparative perspective. 

Between 2000 and 2020, approximately 3,800 articles were published by indexed academic journals mentioning the terms “misinformation”, “disinformation”, or “fake news”. Research fads in communication research tend to be reflections of technological innovation and/or societal change in media use, production, and description. This chapter argues that this rising interest in disinformation is not a fleeting trend. Disinformation studies are becoming akin to a field of their own with distinct methodological and theoretical approaches. 

As this field emerges, limited efforts are being made to compile, analyse and critique some prominent research practices, as well as address blind spots caused by the prevalence of certain methodologies. Even more limited are studies within this emerging field that take their point of theoretical departure and empirical application in the Global South. 

Section 2: Cultures of Disinformation

Chapter 5 – Noise in Kinshasa: Ethnographic Notes on the Meanings of Mis and Disinformation in a Post-Colonial African City

Katrien Pype and Sébastien Maluta Makaya

This chapter focuses on the distortion of information in Kinshasa, aiming to indicate how the phenomena of misinformation and disinformation are not “new” in Kinosis society. The practice of distorting information deliberately, or the production of “noise” (Makelele) is widespread in Kinshasa and not limited to the journalistic environment. The data for this chapter draws on interviews and participant observation by the authors and asks; who is producing partial truths and falsehoods in Kinshasa? How do these narratives come about? And how do audiences engage with these fabrications?

On a methodological level, this chapter argues that to understand the logic of deception that seeps into digital communicative spaces, there is the need to situate the production of falsehoods and misinformation within other communicative ecologies, where information is purposefully distorted. There is also a need to pay attention to the intentions and purposes of those contributing to the spread of partial truths and lies, as well as the audience’s perception of disinformation.

This chapter provides material for comparison within news production and the circulation of public information elsewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, advocates for methodology that contextualises the production of misinformation and disinformation and draws linkages between the practices of disinformation in the political arena of Kinois society.

Chapter 6 – Aliens, Spies, and Staged Vandalism: Disinformation in the 2019 Protests in Chile

Ingrid Bachmann, Daniela Grassau, and Claudia Labarca

This chapter looks at cases of information disorder in Chile. This country has experienced political crises, censorship, upheaval and attempts to steer public understanding through misleading content and false information. However, the rise of rumours, conspiracies and so-called “fake news” has been prevalent in recent years, more so in the context of increasing polarisation and declining trust in institutions. 

Academic research has paid a great deal of attention to “fake news” and disinformation, but most of this has been in the context of the US and EuropeIn a country like Chile where citizens openly admit distrusting strangers, the government, and the media in general, and where almost 3 out of 4 adults have been exposed to false news, misinformation and rumours – it is important to visit the role of journalism and the work of news media. In a country where mistrust is widespread and citizens are critical of political and media elites, people found social media as a space to share attractive, multimodal messages claiming to report what was going on during major socio socio-political and civil unrest. 

Chilean citizens have great expectations of what the media and journalists should accomplish in times of crisis in terms of competence trust, benevolence trust and integrity. One of the key takeaways from the Chilean case is that familiarity with fact-checking was positively correlated with less credibility in false information. 

Chapter 7 – Encountering and Correcting Misinformation on WhatsApp: The Roles of User Motivations and Trust in Messaging Group Members

Ozan Kuru, Scott W. Campbell, Joseph B. Bayer, Lemi Baruh, and Richard Ling

Mobile messaging platforms, particularly WhatsApp, have faced a great deal of scrutiny with regards to how they can be used to share misinformation through virally forwarded rumours and fake news. Misinformation in the Global South continues to be a critical problem, particularly in WhatsApp groups.  This chapter reports on findings from a multi-national survey exploring social and psychological factors that explain how, and how often users engage with misinformation on WhatsApp. 

This chapter draws on relevant research and theory to examine how motivations to use WhatsApp and trust in group members explain who encounters and deals with misinformation through this platform. Findings reveal patterns across Singapore, Turkey and the United States concerning user motivations and trust. There are also notable differences across these countries with regard to demographic characteristics and misinformation encounters. This chapter further discusses new and useful insights into the conditions that support and suppress misinformation in private WhatsApp groups.

It is important to understand how WhatsApp users perceive and react to misinformation. In this chapter, by looking at empirical evidence from the selected countries for points of comparison, it was found that news and entertainment motivations are linked to increased perceptions of misinformation risks. In addition to this, it was found that trust in group members was associated with reduced misinformation perceptions and increased tendencies to correct others. 

Chapter 8 – “Rumor-Debunking” as a Propaganda and Censorship Strategy in China: The Case of the COVID-19 Outbreak

Kecheng Fang

This chapter focuses on China, examining how the Chinese government co-opted fact-checking as a way to propagate official discourse and censor unwanted information. Analysing two prominent fact-checking sites; the official The Joint and the commercial Jiao Zhen, findings that their content relied on single government sources and strictly toed the official line, in drastic contrast to the professional fact-checkers in democratic regimes. 

 The co-optation of fact-checking by political powers are still severely understudied in comparison to other political aspects of disinformation and fact-checking. As this is important both in practical and theoretical senses, this chapter aims to fill the gap by using the case of China’s propaganda during the COVID-19 pandemic to explore how this co-optation occurred and how the authoritarian government positioned fact-checking.

This chapter showcases the limitations of the current projects addressing this issue, how lack of triangulation from multiple sources and the absence of methodological explanations could harm the trustworthiness of these websites. 

Chapter 9 – Media System Incentives for Disinformation: Exploring the Relationships Between Institutional Design and Disinformation Vulnerability

Jose Mari Hall Lanuza and Cleve V. Arguelles

This chapter contributes to literature on media systems in Southeast Asia by attempting a typology of these systems and discussing how each system’s particular institutional arrangements shape certain disinformation outcomes. While others have attempted a media systems approach in Latin America, East Europe, South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and East Asia, literature on Southeast Asia is very limited. 

Literature shows that media becomes more susceptible to manipulation due to declining public trust, increasing inclination towards sensationalism and an overreliance on a business model focused on ad revenue and engagement. This chapter presents modified models for analysing and classifying media systems in South East Asia. This research agenda is emphasised by analysing how institutional design variations shape different disinformation campaigns 

This chapter argues that disinformation’s relationship to media systems is worth exploring, by showing how unique institutional arrangements found in media system models incentivize a wide variety of disinformation. Addressing this allows for the exploration of possibilities for nuanced regulation that are both cognizant of domestic contexts and normatively democratic. This will allow researchers to approach disinformation not only as a persistent issue of the day, but as a problem deeply rooted in social anxieties and inequalities.

Chapter 10 – Lies, Damned Lies, and Development: Why Statistics and Data Can No Longer Confront Disinformation in the Global South

Jairo Lugo-Ocando and Alessandro Martinisi

This chapter explores how statistics became the platform for discourses around development in the Global South and how they were instrumental in upholding truth-seeking in news media. Public debates around development and development-related issues impacting the Global South used to be settled based on data and statistics. This chapter explores the decline of trust in these statistics and what that means for the increased spread of disinformation.

 A key challenge is that many people do not see a correspondence between what data suggests and their own experience on the ground. In the past, statistics and numbers were used to counter propaganda from officials and dictators, showing the true costs of their regimes in terms of human rights violations, lack of well and corruption. Due to these statistics, the international community was able to mobilise when numbers highlighted famines, the effects of war, and structural poverty. Statistical data aided in legitimising, articulating, and reinforcing discursive regimes of truth, whilst also being useful in underpinning narratives about poverty and development. 

This chapter shows that the traditional settings that allowed for statistics to secure authorial control over strategic narratives in struggles for global governance in the South during the Cold War, were the same elements that caused the erosion of trust in these numbers. This has opened a space for fake news, disinformation and lies and has led to declining public trust in official statistics. 

Section 3: Responses: Southern Perspectives

Chapter 11 – Online Misinformation: Policy Lessons from the Global South

Anya Schiffrin and Peter Cunliffe-Jones

Whilst much attention in the Global North has focused on the role of anonymous online actors and foreign states involved in the spread of misinformation, there are several types of misinformation identified by fact-checking organisations in Sub-Saharan Africa. These included the political elite, religious leaders, traditional rulers, mainstream media, ordinary social media users, partisan ethnic organisations, financial hoaxes and grassroot community networks. 

This chapter surveys some of the solutions to the problem of online and offline misinformation/disinformation that have been attempted in the Global South and assesses their effectiveness. This includes fact-checking, news literacy, legal measures addressing misinformation in the Global South, tech company liabilities, privacy protections, policy recommendations, policies affecting the creation, consumption and dissemination of content, and measures to protect and improve the supply of quality information.

This chapter closes with recommendations based on what has worked, and what hasn’t and notes that the problem of misinformation/disinformation includes a range of harms by many many bad actors and will require a variety of solutions, not a single fix. 

Chapter 12 – Responses to Misinformation: Examining the Kenyan Context

Melissa Tully

This chapter examines responses to misinformation in Kenya, it begins by providing some background to contextualise misinformation in Kenya, it then goes on to explore the Kenyan government’s response to misinformation. This chapter also touches on the examples of media literacy and fact-checking efforts that have been launched in Kenya to address the issue of misinformation and draws on focus groups and interviews with Kenyan citizens to explore their response to the issue, and who they perceive as responsible for stopping the spread of misinformation.

A growing body of work is focused on understanding audiences’ engagement with various forms of misinformation that they encounter online. Although research in the Global South is limited in comparison to the Global North, a budding body of work around audiences and misinformation in Africa, South America and Asia suggests that audiences believe that they are exposed to misinformation regularly and respond to it in a myriad of ways. The misinformation in Kenya is rapidly evolving as new actors enter the space and more falsehoods circulate on social media and chat apps.

Focus group and interview participants believe that they regularly encounter misinformation online and that they have developed some strategies for navigating their information environments. This section explores Kenya’s perceptions of their own roles and responsibilities, with a focus on strategies used to assess information quality on social media and to determine their response.

Chapter 13 – How Three Mission-Driven News Organizations in the Global South Combat Disinformation Through Investigation, Innovation, Advocacy, and Education

Nabeelah Shabbir, Julie Posetti, and Felix M. Simon

This chapter considers the diverse and innovative responses of news organisations to disinformation in three Global South Countries amid positive legal, state-led or policy responses to it, and the context of responses that threaten media freedom, such as “fake news”. This chapter discusses an in-depth study of three independent, commercial, digital-born news outlets; the Daily Maverick in South Africa, Rappeler in the Philippines, and The Quint in India.

Each of these outlets are driven by a strong mission to produce independent journalism, with an aim to serve the public interest and defend destabilised democracies, this chapter showcases how all of them dealt with issues exacerbated by the digital transformations of media systems – specifically disinformation. All three of these publications were targets of state-linked disinformation campaigns and operated in environments where politically motivated attacks on media freedom and individual journalists are normalised. Through this research, it became clear that the key to independent media viability was innovative responses. This chapter addresses a weakness in existing thinking about innovation in journalism. This chapter draws together evidence from these three case studies to highlight some of the diverse and innovative responses of news organisations to these issues in the Global South, with a focus on the challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. These case studies emphasise the topic of gendered disinformation and new typologies for understanding disinformation responses. 

Conclusion

Herman Wasserman and Dani Madrid-Morales

All chapters in this book are contributing to the expansion of the geographical scope of the field of disinformation studies. Simultaneously, there is still a pressing need for more research on disinformation in the Global South, which can be outlined through one of the key arguments in Disinformation in the Global South; disinformation, whether its production, reception or responses, can only be properly understood within the social, political, economic and historical context where it is consumed and spread. 

The chapters in this book feature examples, case studies and evidence from over a dozen countries, many of which fall in the “Global South”. We understand this term to refer to regions both outside of Europe and North America, and as a designation of geopolitical relations of power. Many of these regions are economically, politically and culturally marginalised and have historically been the focus of development studies. The various theoretical arguments, methodological approaches, empirical studies and examples collected in this book showcase that the phenomenon of disinformation in the Global South is multi-faceted, charts long-standing cultural practices and political histories, and plays into contemporary power struggles. 

While the rising of disinformation in the Global South presents a complex problem, research lags behind the Global North and it requires an ongoing, context-specific analysis that takes into account particularities of studying the realities within specific regions marked by inequalities in media access and use. This book has made a first step toward setting a research agenda for the future, but much work remains to be done.