Misinformation and Fake News: Social Impacts and Legal Implications


By Barrister Bashirudeen Badr

Overtimes, and with increasing proportion ever since the outbreak of the ravaging Coronavirus from China, many speculative stories have been emerging across various media platforms. In this current age where information moves faster and the populace, out of the urge to get the latest updates, easily fall victim to consuming and, in fact, aiding the widespread of un-worthy and unreal information or fake news.

As a starting point, it is important to clarify that, broadly there are two main issues as regards spread on news, namely: social impact of misinformation and legal implication of fake news

Misinformation can be categorized into bogus clickbait, conspiracy theories, reckless reporting, political propaganda, disinformation, hoaxes, and misleading news.

  1. Bogus Click-Bait: These are entirely fabricated stories designed to gain ad revenue by tricking social media users into viewing and sharing them. The scale of this problem gained more attention in late 2016 when Macedonian teenagers told NBC News that they had made tens of thousands of dollars in just a few months by producing false stories about U.S. politics.
  2. Conspiracy Theories: These are baseless and usually outlandish claims, typically asserting some nefarious secret plot. Unlike intentionally false stories, the promoters of conspiracy theories often believe their own claims. 
  3. Reckless Reporting: This category refers to false stories or unsubstantiated rumors that are reported without regard for the truth. 
  4. Political Propaganda: These are false stories designed to achieve a particular political outcome. U.S. intelligence agencies agree that Russia undertook an extensive political propaganda campaign in key states to influence the 2016 election.
  5. Hoaxes: These are fake stories that are typically created as a joke or to make people look foolish for believing them.
  6. Misleading News: This category refers to all news content that is sensational, biased, slanted, unfair, or that otherwise leaves the reader with an inaccurate impression. While this material clearly has a negative effect on public discourse, it is nearly impossible to identify objectively. Not all “advocacy journalism” (reporting with a stated viewpoint) is necessarily bad for public understanding.
  7. Disinformation is defined as a deliberate attempt to confuse or manipulate people through delivering dishonest information to them.

There are many scammers, swindlers, and crooks on the web who are out to sell you false promises and shoddy goods. There are professional fake news artists who want to influence your opinion to their own advantage by using targeted disinformation.

Hate speech or fake news does not spread in the atmosphere, it is an intentional communication that is carried out in the form of transaction and they occur among people located in a specified environment. Though language differs, the human social environment comprises the immediate physical surroundings, social relationships, and cultural settings within which defined groups of people function and interact.

When hate speech and fake news are not controlled by appropriate authorities via stiff government regulations, elements of the social environment which include built infrastructure; industrial and occupational structure; labour markets; social and economic processes; wealth; social, human, and health services; power relations; government; race relations; social inequality; cultural practices; the arts; religious institutions and practices; as it relates to Nigerian environment with varied beliefs about place and community could be jeopardized via ethnical clashes that may arise. The social environment subsumes many aspects of the physical environment, given that contemporary landscapes, water resources, and other natural resources have been at least partially configured by human social processes that are embellished by language and human interactions (National Institutes of Health, 2000).

Social implication

One of the foremost hit is journalism.  As members of the public tend to rely on information supplied by media houses, more have shunned this news as hoaxes or fake news. When in truth most of the information has turned out to be false.

In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion focused his annual report on the issue, urging the Internet companies to learn from self-regulation in the news media and to better align with UN standards on the right to impart, seek and receive information. Google was once sued, the guy behind WikiLeaks, Julian Assange has been in asylum since 2012 and currently in a London prison over soliciting, receiving and publishing classified diplomatic documents.

In 2014 when Ebola virus struck Nigeria, a student (a lady) from Benue State posted on social media a prescription that reads ‘Please ensure that you and your family members and your neighbours  bath with hot water and salt before daybreak today because of Ebola virus which is spreading through the air’ within 24 hours over twenty people have been hospitalized and two deaths were recorded, over hundred casualties were recorded. He was traced and apprehended, prosecuted. This false information generated over 450 tweets in one day. That is to show that the power of social media to rapidly spread information both accurate and inaccurate is enormous.

All these misinformation have been made possible and popular through social media. It has also made lying very easy.  It doesn’t really matter whether the lie is necessary, required or not.

Fake news is capable of so many ills. It is capable of creating incitement to war, between ethnic or religious groups, between nations, as we find in 5G imbroglio. Fake news is false information deliberately circulated by those who have scant regard for the truth but hope to advance a particular political motive. Fake news is a global phenomenon and the effect has generated so much social deviance in the modern world. This is often done electronically to gain fame or make money out of online traffic in the contemporary technological-driven world. In an open letter, Berners-Lee (world-wide-web inventor) noted that it is too easy for misinformation to spread on the web.

Legal consequences

Although Nigeria has signed a freedom of information bill into law which is now Freedom of Information Act 2011, the law does not permit the spread of unverified information. The lasts attempt by the current Legislators of the National Assembly to legislate on Fake News was thwarted by the public uproar as gagging the public of freedom of speech! However, when we consider the effort deployed to the compilation of Hadeeth (sayings of the Holy Prophet s.a.w.)  we will see how seriously the concept of lies was detested in Islam.  A chain of narration will be considered authentic when none of the transmitters is guilty of lies. You will recall the whistleblower cases a few years ago.  As much as there are rewards attached to valid and true information there is also a penalty for false and unverified information. The law is also clear on the excuse of I DON’T KNOW IT IS NOT TRUE. The law says, ignoramus juris non-excusat.

Necessary to note that Article 10 (2) of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that ‚the exercise of freedom of expression … may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by Law … the interest of national security … for the protection of the reputation or right of others‛. Notably, most doctrines that recognized the freedom of speech and expression in Nigeria added a clause to guard against hate speech, promote human dignity, societal cohesion and peace. According to section 39 (1) of the 1999 Constitution as amended in 2011 provides that‚ ‘every person shall be entitled to freedom of expression…‛ More so, section 45 provides that nothing in section 39 shall invalidate any law that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society in the interest of public order, public morality and for the purpose of protecting the rights and freedom of other persons.

Under the Sharia

Islam places a huge responsibility on all Muslims with regard to information literacy. The Prophet Muhammad salallahu alayhi wa sallam was reported to have said amongst the deadly sins are false information and bearing false witnesses.

According to ‘Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,’ Information literacy is defined as “the set of integrated abilities encompassing the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.” These abilities include academic and technological skills, as well as critical thinking, logic, and attitudinal dispositions. Information literacy is simply “learning how to learn” in the information age.

The pervasiveness of false information, and the ease by which it is transmitted, is a clear and present threat to societies and communities. According to Anne P. Mintz, ‘Misinformation on the internet is dangerous and part of a much larger picture. Bending the truth or telling outright lies is not new. It’s just the messenger who has changed, and this messenger spreads the word lightning-fast and to far-flung places. In just the past decade, we have witnessed government leaders and chief executives of major corporations misinform the public in ways that have had enormous consequences, some involving life and death, and others contributing to financial ruin’.

Do you also know that some Muslims leave Islam on account of misinformation they are presented with? Some Muslims even leave Islam because they are presented with which are, unfortunately, also sometimes reinforced by other Muslims who should know better. Examples are the Wasifa from Madina, An Imam of Haram saw a dream saying bla, bla

As a general principle, Allah tells us to ask the experts whenever we do not know something, as He said, “If you do not know, ask people who know the Scripture.” (Sūrat al-Anbiyā’ 21:7) This command was directed to the unbelievers, who doubted whether the message of Islam agreed with previous revelations. Early Muslim scholars interpreted the “people of the Scripture” to mean Jewish and Christian scholars, who could confirm the truthfulness of the Prophet’s revelation, or it could mean the scholars of the Quran. Hence, the way to acquire knowledge is to refer questions to expert guidance. This is the only way to overcome ignorance of an issue, as the Prophet said, “Is not the cure for ignorance to ask questions?” (Abū Dāwūd Sulaymān ibn al-Ashʻath al-Sijistānī, Sunan Abī Dāwūd)

Therefore, when we access pertinent information from a non-credible source, we have a responsibility to investigate further before we act upon or deny that information. Ambiguity is inevitable in today’s information environment, so one must be able to verify dubious claims or, if verification is not possible, to suspend one’s judgment.

Sharing of unverified information on social media because we think it may be true falls under the category of deliberate falsehood.  We become guilty of some of these crimes especially when the source is someone we trust or respect.

Finally, we should be humble enough to accept the truth wherever we find it and from whoever says it, whether it is from an opposing scholar, a dissenting scientist, or a common person. Ibn Rajab reported, “Some of the righteous predecessors said: Humility is that you accept the truth from anyone who brings it, even if they are young. Whoever accepts the truth from whoever brings it, whether they are young or old, whether he loves them or not, then he is humble. Whoever refuses to accept the truth because he regards them as beneath himself, then he is arrogantly proud.

It should be well noted at the end that, fake news, misinformation, disinformation, hoaxes or whatever it is, is morally unacceptable and spiritually immature.