Bursting bubbles: How to fight online fake news in Morocco

The Acclerator Lab in Morocco is partnering with a local organization, in a new experiment mobilizing collective intelligence and innovative technology in order to fight the propagation of fake news online

August 25, 2021

Fake news are not a new phenomenon in Morocco, the propagation of false information and rumors has always existed, but the information revolution that we’re actually still going through, including the fast development of social media and mobile technology has amplified the phenomenon. Its negative consequences on social, economic and political life have made it a central issue that deserves our urgent attention. Unfortunately, the Covid19 pandemic has complicated the situation, as distancing and teleworking became the norm, in addition to lockdowns, people started spending more time online through their computers and smartphones, and were therefore potentially exposed to more fake news. Besides, the rapid spread of the virus and the development of vaccines against it are subjects that opened a vast space for people to speculate, produce false information, and disseminate it. The unusual character of the global pandemic, and of the measures adopted by public authorities and private companies to face it have created a fertile ground for all sorts of conspiracy theories and misleading information to be propagated around. In such times, people can usually turn to trusted and credible institutions for verified information, but the dissensus among politicians concerning how best to tackle the crisis, and the public display of diverging views among the scientific and health community are unfortunately giving people more reasons to doubt what were once considered legitimate and credible sources of information, and to turn to other less reliable sources.

In the Moroccan context, the situation is even more problematic, given the still relatively high rate of illiteracy, the small percentage of the population who actually pay for quality information and read newspapers, and a high level of distrust for politicians and officials. As mentioned earlier, the Covid19 pandemic is a topic that particularly lends itself to false news. There is indeed a high level of interest for discussing the issue as it represents something that affects people directly in their bodies. In a society where the average person’s understanding of medicine and virology is relatively limited, and where traditional remedies for curing all kinds of ills are still commonly used, it is no surprise that the spread of fake news increased with the advent of the current pandemic. This has led to a number of recent arrests by the Moroccan police throughout the country, and to a heated debate about a new law proposal criminalizing fake news.

At Morocco’s UNDP Accelerator Lab, we recognize the negative impacts that fake news have on people’s lives in many different ways, and we are lucky to be one of 8 labs involved in the UNDP’S global collaboration with the Healthy Internet Project, incubated at TED. This partnership is piloting a bold experiment in crowdsourced moderation of the world wide web, thanks to a browser extension that allows people to mark whether the content they are seeing contains lies or manipulation, abuse or harassment, or division or fear. Instead of following a top-down approach where a central authority has the power to decide which news are fake and which aren’t, the idea here is to bet on collective intelligence and crowdsourcing, which makes sense in a country where people tend to distrust official authorities.

In our experiment, in which we are partnering with a local organization called Tahaqaq, we have decided to work with a group of around 100 university students who have expressed an interest for the issue, and to give them a training on fake news and fact-checking. The objective is to test the extent to which the training and the inclusion in a 4-months program can improve the student’s ability to detect fake news. Flagged content is reviewed by a small group of journalists and media practitioners, who are from the same cultural and informational environment, and thus have the necessary knowledge to adequately distinguish and interpret fake news. We are already aware that many people in Morocco browse the Internet on their smartphones rather than on a computer, which limits the reach of this solution, but a mobile based version of the extension is currently under development by the Healthy Internet Project team, and we are looking forward to the possibility of testing it here.

Another objective we have in mind is to start and maintain an ongoing online discussion about fake news thanks to participating students, who are asked to actively publish content warning about fake news, including videos and other posts on social media, in order to engage other people in this discussion, as a form of awareness raising. Indeed, one main problem we have identified, and which is not unfortunately specific to Morocco as other Accelerator Labs have confirmed, is the problem of “filter bubbles”: when evaluating the credibility of some information, people’s first reflex is not to evaluate the actual content, but rather to evaluate the messenger, the person transmitting the information: if it is coming from a person, or a website that I already trust, then I accept the information without further investigation, but if the information is coming from someone or a website that I don’t know or trust, then I will reject it.

We also all have a sort of natural tendency to surround ourselves with people who hold similar views, and to read newspapers that present opinions with which we agree. With time, this leads to a form of intellectual isolation in which people are gradually exposed to a narrower and narrower subset of information that already aligns with their existing beliefs, and makes them very unreceptive to other diverging views. With technological progress, personalized search results and content suggestion based on past browsing habits have only amplified this trend. Once a false information starts spreading within a filter bubble, it becomes difficult to stop it. But if people are given the right tools and learn to exercise critical thinking and fact-checking, then we can burst these filter bubbles, and limit the propagation of fake news.

Just like our immune system’s ability to fight pathogens depends on its ability to correctly identify them as such, the ability of a social body or community to fight against fake news depends on its members’ ability to correctly detect fake news. Our objective in this exciting experiment is to test whether our approach will succeed in creating the antibodies we need