In Somali, we say “Even if telling a lie is the last option, tell one that is closer to the truth”. We also say “It is hard for the truth to catch up with a lie which has already escaped into the public sphere”. It would seem Somalis were discussing fake news centuries before the term came to exist.
In the most recent months, there has been a rise in well-coordinated attacks against the security and development-related gains in the Horn of Africa, especially, in Somalia where we are bravely fighting international terrorists who have no vision or desire for peace, progress and development for the Somali people. When fighting a global fight of such significance, enabling partnerships are key and Somalia’s strong relationship with Turkey has helped to strengthen our national security response, increase our human capital, and bolster our economy through direct budget support and foreign investment. This success is, like many things in Somalia, subject to narrative manipulation. It is therefore fundamental that this is addressed jointly through a strong representation of the impact of the Somali-Turkish partnership using strategic communications.
Turkey-Africa Summit was a great success
Before the official opening of the 3rd Turkey-Africa Summit, I had the pleasure of attending the historic International Strategic Communication Summit organized by the government of Turkey and championed by Prof. Fahrettin Altun, the director of communications of the Turkish Presidency. The Summit was a great success in bringing global media practitioners across the public and private sphere and it highlighted the opportunities and challenges posed by the media to us all today. The impact of fake news across multiple platforms was discussed extensively and its dangers are very evident in Somalia.
Somalia is a nation of friendly, sociable, and interactive people. We also have a strong oral communication tradition. However, as a slowly developing nation, we are vulnerable to unregulated online content. Digital media platforms are very popular, and we have over 2 million active social media users which is equivalent to 13% of our population. These platforms have transformed into our virtual ‘fadhi kudirir’– a traditional public sphere famous in the Somali community where we sit and engage in discussion and debates.
According to Statista, an online communications statistics site, Somalia has seen an increase in internet penetration and smartphone ownership that is currently at 50% of the population. Seventy percent of web traffic is driven through smartphones and, considering that 70% of the population is below 30 years of age, there is a ready market for fake news, if not appropriately filtered.
Fake news is a real threat
As I write this article, I have come across several deviously packaged fake news content, dangerously consumed as reality in Somalia. Its circulation is easily aided by messaging applications like WhatsApp and other social media channels. Such news stories ranging from politics, security, trade, humanitarian, and health, are promoted by a section of celebrities and influential media professionals, foreign analysts and digital media users based in Somalia and are backed by diaspora citizens who innocently promote these fake stories without fact-checking. Not everyone pays attention to the author to seek verification or even the website to find whether it is a reliable source. Every website, every article and every author seems credible no matter the content of their stories. This is very dangerous in this information age where populism is rife and societal divisions are on the rise.
During the Turkey-Africa summit when Turkey and African nations were deeply involved in enhancing collaboration, with all nations expressing solidarity with each other in the fight against, and sustainable recovery from, COVID-19, we must also consider the fight against fake news a common priority if the partnership is to succeed.
There is a lot to be done in the fight against fake news
Fake news has been strategically used to attack Somali-Turkish relations today. The fake news and disinformation campaigns are indiscriminate and seek to reverse the impact of the development partnership between our two countries. Fake news is, indeed, the key weapon of choice for terrorists and those who seek to undermine Somalia’s progress. The reasons for these include jealousy and bare-knuckle politicking which aims to drive Turkey away from Somalia for private political gains driven by outsiders who have no interest in the Somali people’s progress. It is also cheap, not very time-consuming and it is hard to be held accountable hiding behind the screen. However, what the peddlers of fake news fail to understand is the strength of the commitment of the Somali and Turkish governments and people to prosper together. This is the real news headline, and it is much stronger than all the fake news combined.
As much as we appreciate the efforts of the digital communication giants such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and WhatsApp which have announced various actions in a bid to tackle fake news, I believe there is a lot to be done in Somalia to stop fake news from terrorizing our country. Our government has already taken the necessary steps to review the media laws and engage the media organizations and practitioners to discuss how to challenge fake news in the country. More importantly, the government is using its own diverse traditional and social media outlets to spread the news of success and development and many reputable private media organizations are joining in a bid to change the persistent negative narrative of Somalia to national and global audiences.
The 3rd Turkey-Africa Summit was a success because its outcomes are a clear guide for joint development for Turkey and its African partners, including Somalia. This success now needs protection from fake news through greater strategic communication cooperation across borders which showcases its wide-ranging impact.
By: Abdirashid Mohamed Hashi | The director of communications of the Office of the President of the Federal Republic of Somalia.