In Africa, the idea of a post-truth era – which by implication fundamentally presupposes the existence of an era in which ‘truth’ was self-evident – is folly.
US President Donald Trump’s election and his disdain for the mainstream media has been seen by some as the triumph of post-truth politics.
Post-truth politics is a culture in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Not only is Trump deliberately picking wars with the US’s mainstream media, he is forcing it to be more introspective by placing it in the same category as fringe outlets that supported his candidature through fake news.
It is important to recognise that in Africa, the idea of a post-truth era – which by implication presupposes the existence of an era in which “truth” was self-evident – is folly.
On much of the continent, mainstream news media has traditionally struggled on the credibility index.
The post-truth era is, therefore, anything but new within the African context. This explains the emergence of alternative regimes of communication and sites of “truth”.
These range from rumour to popular cultural forms such as plays and popular music.
After gaining independence in the early 1960s, most African governments systematically set about decimating the private news media.
Governments invested heavily in state-owned media, which were seen as important channels through which to husband power.
By owning mainstream news media, governments were able to “invent” the truth or delegitimise it when it was perceived as threatening the status quo.
For example, in Kenya during the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi administrations, the state directly controlled mainstream news media through ownership. It was thus able to determine what passed as legitimate news.
In the latter years of the Moi presidency and during Mwai Kibaki’s rule, ownership was primarily through proxies.
And Kenya’s current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, directly owns a media group that includes a newspaper, radio and TV stations.
But the last two decades have seen a shift. The liberalisation of the media sector has spurred the growth of a strong and powerful private media.
Private media enters the fray
New legislation has seen the establishment of thousands of private media companies. The role they have played in creating and sustaining a discourse of democratic reform on the continent cannot be ignored.
In countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria, the private news media have been – to varying degrees – effective in calling their governments to account.
But it’s important to remain alive to the private media’s limitations. For example, the state remains the single largest media advertiser in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Kenyan and South African governments have been known to withdraw advertising from critical newspapers.
Indeed, the Kenyan government has this week withdrawn all state advertising from privately owned newspapers.
This manipulation of the private media by governments contributes to the varying levels of distrust that many on the continent feel towards mainstream media.
The other major development in recent years has been the proliferation of new media. A new core of media communicators, including bloggers and citizen journalists, have sprung up and are changing traditional practice. Their effect has been amplified by the emergence of social media.
Social media opens up new site of struggle
New media has become a site of news production and distribution that is impossible to ignore. This is particularly true of social media.
Made more attractive by visual forms such as memes, the growth in the use of social media has been phenomenal.
Twitter and Facebook have made it possible for audiences to circumvent state-controlled information infrastructures.
A recent survey found that one in 10 of the most popular African hashtags in 2015 related to political issues. In the US and UK the figure was only 2%.
People are now able to tell their own stories and share experiences with unparalleled audacity, unencumbered by the limitations faced by private media.
Cases of political wrongdoing, like corruption, are routinely uncovered by individuals on Twitter, Facebook and in blogs.
The profile that social media has gained in Africa over the last few years is making governments anxious. Many are investing in either technical infrastructure or legislation to muzzle it.
But users are exploiting loopholes to engage in various forms of propaganda and to monetise their outlets through click bait.
The challenge is that the ethical and legal considerations demanded of stories published in the mainstream media are not necessarily extended to stories published online.
The legislative loopholes are also being exploited by governments, institutions and organisations.
In South Africa, there were reports that the governing African National Congress had plans to plant “fake news” in the new media to discredit its opponents in the last local elections.
At a time when new technologies provide unlimited opportunities for the dissemination of information, opportunities for disinformation are just as limitless.
But making fact checking yet another industry may simply institutionalise fake news.
My view is that the solution lies in the strengthening of the continent’s news media in its various forms, thus making it less beholden to vested political and economic interests.
George Ogola, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, University of Central Lancashire