Double-edged Sword? Ghanaians see Pros, Cons of Social Media, want Access but not Fake news

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 heighten nonchalant attitudes toward fighting the disease. On the other hand, scaremongering, prescription of various local remedies, and false case counts 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 its 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, and the government has arrested or pursued some social media users accused of spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Still, opportunities for misinforming seem almost endless, especially on social media.