Double-edged sword? Ghanaians see pros, cons of social media, want access but not fake news

Summary

Like many other countries, Ghana has been grappling with its share of fake news about COVID-19. On the one hand, rumors that the “foreign disease” targets only whites and the affluent (Pedroncelli, 2020) heighten nonchalant attitudes toward fighting the disease. On the other hand, scaremongering, prescription of various local remedies, and false case counts (Arthur, 2020; News Ghana, 2020) create confusion and undermine public education efforts.

The spread of misinformation, hoaxes, lies, and false claims is of course neither new nor limited to pandemics. Fake news is as old as the concept of “news” itself, but has come into intense focus through the widespread use – and abuse – of social media.

It is particularly common during elections. The Media Foundation for West Africa (2016) found, for instance, that more than half of the 98 claims by 2016 electoral campaign participants that it fact-checked were completely false, half-truths, or misleading.

Considering that 2020 in Ghana is both an election year and a pandemic year, the country could be in for a perfect storm of misinformation.

In Ghana, the dissemination of false information is a criminal offense punishable by a fine of GHS 36,000 (about $6,250) and up to five years’ imprisonment, according to Section 76 of Ghana’s Electronic Communications Act (2008). Ignorance of the fact that the information is false is not an excuse, as the act explains that “a person is taken to know that a communication is false or misleading if that person did not take reasonable steps to find out
whether the communication was false, misleading, reckless or fraudulent.”

Some independent fact-checking organizations and media houses in Ghana are working to identify and correct fake news (Ghanaweb, 2020; Media Foundation for West Africa, 2020), and the government has arrested or pursued some social media users accused of spreading misinformation about COVID-19 (Modern Ghana, 2020; Myjoyonline, 2020). Still, opportunities for misinforming seem almost endless, especially on social media.

Findings from Afrobarometer’s most recent survey in Ghana, conducted in SeptemberOctober 2019, show that social media is becoming an increasingly common source of news for Ghanaians, even though they trust it less than traditional media. They are also clear-eyed about social media’s negative as well as positive effects on society.

Supporters of unrestricted access to social media and the Internet outnumber opponents, but a majority want the government to be able to fight the spread of false information, hate speech, and other problematic content.

Afrobarometer survey

Afrobarometer is a pan-African, nonpartisan survey research network that provides reliable data on African experiences and evaluations of democracy, governance, and quality of life.

Seven rounds of surveys were completed in up to 38 countries between 1999 and 2018.
Round 8 surveys in 2019/2020 are planned in at least 35 countries. Afrobarometer conducts face-to-face interviews in the language of the respondent’s choice with nationally representative samples.

The Afrobarometer team in Ghana, led by the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD-Ghana), interviewed 2,400 adult Ghanaians between 16 September and 3 October 2019. A sample of this size yields country-level results with a margin of error of +/-2 percentage points at a 95% confidence level. Previous surveys were conducted in Ghana in 1999, 2002, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2014, and 2017.

Key findings

▪ The Afrobarometer survey conducted in late 2019 shows that although radio and television remain the most dominant news sources, daily news consumption via social Media (by 22% of Ghanaians) and the Internet (19%) is steadily increasing.
▪ Social media is less trusted as a source of information – only 39% of Ghanaians say they trust it “somewhat” or “a lot” – than private and public media (55% each) and government sources (54%).
▪ Close to eight in 10 Ghanaians (78%) say politicians and political parties spread information that they know is false. But smaller majorities also blame government officials, journalists, social media users, and activists and interest groups.
▪ Although an overwhelming majority (92%) of Ghanaians who have heard of social media think social media usage makes people more aware of current happenings, almost as many (86%) say it makes people more likely to believe fake news.
▪ One-third (32%) of Ghanaians support government regulation of access to the internet and social media, but close to half (48%) prefer unrestricted access.
▪ Large majorities of Ghanaians “agree” or “strongly agree” that the government should be able to limit or prohibit the sharing of false news (77%), hate speech (69%), and news and opinions that criticize or insult the president (57%). Close to half (48%) also say the government should be able to limit the spread of information it disapproves of.

Steady increase in Internet use and digital news consumption

The Afrobarometer survey conducted in late 2019 shows that more than nine in 10 Ghanaians either personally own a mobile phone (87%) or have access to one owned by someone else in the household (6%) (Figure 1). Similarly, about eight in 10 personally own a radio and television or can access them through someone else in the household.
Only a quarter of Ghanaians either personally own a computer (17%) or live in a household where someone has one
(11%).

Nonetheless, use of the Internet has multiplied over the past decade. A quarter of Ghanaians (24%) now use the Internet daily, 12 times the proportion recorded in 2008 (2%) (Figure 2). But six in 10 Ghanaians still say they “never” use the Internet.

Afrobarometer Dispatch No. 366 | Josephine Appiah-Nyamekye Sanny and Edem Selormey

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