Facebook is going after fake news in local African languages

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Facebook is going local as it doubles down on tackling its global fake news problem.

The social media giant is adding checks to local language content on its platform among African users. The move is part of an ongoing third party fact-checking program in partnership with Africa Check, an independent fact-checking organization.

The program will now be expanded with language support for major local languages, including Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa in Nigeria, Afrikaans, isiZulu, Setswana, Sotho, Northern Sotho and Southern Ndebele in South Africa, Swahili in Kenya and Wolof in Senegal. Each of the selected languages have over a million native speakers.

The move to include local languages is key given the language diversity in countries where Facebook has grown widely popular and suggests Facebook understands that fake news is no less potent when posted in a local language. If anything, a dearth of local language news services means users don’t always have access to authentic sources for quick fact-checks by themselves. The fact-checking expansion to local languages also comes as Facebook’s user base increasingly grows beyond the elite and middle-class as internet access costs and smartphone prices fall.

Under the fact-checking program, which was first launched in Kenya in 2018, stories identified as false, are demoted in the news feed and are tagged with warnings when users attempt to post and share them. The choice of Kenya was poignant given the prominence of fake news, spread through Facebook and WhatsApp, during the country’s general elections. The dominance of fake news during election cycles has become a problem even in countries like Malawi with low internet penetration.

It’s likely African elections will remain targets of misinformation campaigns even as Facebook steps up its protective measures: in May, the social media giant shut down a network of Israeli-linked fake accounts that targeted African elections.

But when it comes to the spread of misinformation in Africa, Facebook faces a bigger challenge with its WhatsApp messaging platform, which is the most popular social media messaging app used on the continent. For example, the platform was used both legitimately and unscrupulously by politicians and political operatives in February’s presidential and state elections in Nigeria.

As a platform which is entirely encrypted to prevent messages being hacked by third parties, there have been concerns voiced by African regulators and security services about their inability to prevent or stop misinformation between spread rapidly between individuals or, more importantly, in WhatsApp groups.

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