The lekki shootings of October 20, 2020 has been trailed by controversies with several sides trading and shoving blames over the occurrences of that fateful night. Following destruction of public properties and loss of lives in several parts of Lagos State, the State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, had abruptly imposed a 24-hour curfew from 4pm on that day. With the realisation of the impracticability of enforcing a curfew in the middle of the day after citizens had set out for the day, the curfew was later shifted to 9pm. Despite the curfew, protesters appeared set for a showdown with no sign of them dispersing and heading home in compliance with the curfew.
That evening, videos emerged of men in Military uniforms purportedly shooting at a crowd of protesters at the Lekki tollgate. The image of the men appearing to shoot directly at the protesters evoked strong emotions among many and drew widespread criticism across the country and beyond. In the aftermath of the shootings, the Nigerian army took to its twitter page, @HQNigerianArmy, tagging all media reports linking the army to the shootings at the tollgate as “fake news.” New facts have now emerged since the incident. The army which initially denied deploying soldiers to the tollgate later confirmed their presence, on the invitation of the state governor to restore “normalcy” to the state “because the police had been overrun.” The army had maintained it merely shot blank bullets into the air but later confirmed the soldiers also had live bullets.
At the height of the chaos, the army tagged several media reports linking it to the Lekki Tollgate shootings as “fake news”. Between October 20 and October 21, 2020, the Nigerian Army posted six tweets debunking 15 news headlines and an individual’s tweet alleging its involvement in the Lekki shootings as Fake news. These tweets attracted massive reactions at a time when tensions were high with proliferation of various pictures on the social media purportedly relating to the shootings. The reactions ranged from over 14,000 to less than a thousand comments on each of the tweets. Majority of the responses were tweeted around the time of the uploaded tweets by the Nigerian army. Few comments were added as new information unfolded with the army later confirming they were present at the tollgate on October 20 but merely shot into the air.
In this analysis, we examined comments from two of the tweets from the verified Twitter handle of the Nigerian Army. The two selected tweets have the highest comments among the 6 tweets the army churned out hours after the attack. The first tweet selected for this analysis has over 14 thousand comments. It ‘debunked’ two media reports. The first accuses the army of shooting at protesters at the tollgate and the other notes that they seized the corpses of those killed. The second tweet in the analysis has almost 8,000 comments. It ‘debunked’ a Tweet by Reno Omokri, a former Special Assistant to former President Goodluck Jonathan. Omokri had tweeted a post calling for criminal charges against the army leadership, with international sanctions on Nigeria.
Debunking misinformation goes beyond “fake news” tagging
A major finding from the analysis is the public’s expectation of clear presentation of facts to dispel misinformation. Many of the comments queried the army’s simple dismissal of information asking for evidence to support the army’s claim. A Twitter user, Sweet EMPRESS @ Swtempresscake asked “Oga, how is it fake? Explain to us ooooooo”
Another asked “What is now the original news?”
A number of them were quick to counter the army’s submission with supposed “evidence” of videos and images circulating online, some of which have been fact-checked to be false information. To the average person, those videos and images were clear evidence of what transpired that night at the tollgate and that narrative cannot simply be wished away with a blanket dismissal of media reports on the events as fake news.
Providing evidence to substantiate the claims might have helped in swaying people’s minds if the Army was indeed truthful in its description of the reports as fake news. Unfortunately, the tweets might have increased people’s disbelief in official narratives. Many of the comments confirmed they had lost confidence in the factuality of information provided by the army. To some commentators, the Army’s ‘fake news’ tagging is a clear indication that many of the posts often tagged as fake news are more likely to be true. This was based on their belief that if the army could debunk such ‘evidential’ information in the public space as fake news, then other fake news tags on information the public might not be so informed about are also likely to be rated false.
Many also dismissed the Army’s blanket dismissal of the reports wondering why they failed to act to stop the shootings or take legal actions against the media organisations making the claims, if indeed those shooting were not soldiers.
Others were quick to remind the Army of its initial claims after their admittance at the Judicial Panel of Inquiry
The comments on the tweets were dominated by curses for the army personnel involved in the shootings. The curses were extended to the President, Muhammadu Buhari, the State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, and the Chief of Army Staff, General Tukur Buratai. Many believed these key officials were instrumental in authorising the attack of the Army on protesters. This assertion was clearly not based on any evidence but people’s perception of the happenings. The curses were often extended to families of the soldiers involved in the shootings. Particularly, there was continuous reference to an army officer, Ifo Omata, who purportedly led the soldiers to the Lekki tollgate. Other Twitter users who liked the post were not spared of the curses too. Many of the curses in the analysed comments are considered too gory to be republished here.
Myth on holding Nigerian flag
There were repeated references to the fact that the Army shot at protesters while waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem, suggesting that many believed the now debunked viral message suggesting that the army will not shoot at protesters holding the national anthem. Even though this claim was debunked in several fact-checks published after the shootings, evidence from public comments supports widespread belief in the claim. It is unclear if people might have changed their belief with the publication of the fact-checks as many of the comments were posted hours after the incident, before the fact-checks were published.
Army’s Betrayal of Public Trust
Many of the commentators were displeased with the soldiers, considering their actions as a betrayal of public trust and collective efforts towards achieving a better Nigeria. Many were of the opinion that the army could have stood with the people rather than allowed themselves to be used by the politicians.
Loss of public sympathy for the army in its fight against boko haram
The Nigerian Army tagging of media reports on the Lekki shootings as fake news drew widespread discontentment for the army with many mocking them for their inability to decisively tackle the insurgents. Many decried their inability to confront the Boko Haram insurgent while being trigger-happy with harmless protesters.
Discontent with the Nigerian State, Government, and the army
Many of the comments also suggest lack of confidence in the Nigerian state and its leaders.
Raised emotions, but little caution
Despite repeated campaigns and media literacy articles to educate the public on fact-checking, verification, and information consumption, many of the comments show little evidence of critical evaluation of the facts by members of the public. Majority of respondents believed the array of videos making waves after the shootings.
Many ‘dismissed’ the Army’s claim with postings of misleading videos which have since been debunked by fact-checkers. The most common of this was the video of a soldier “allegedly firing at unarmed protesters at the Lekki toll gate with a high-caliber mounted machine gun” which has since been debunked in many fact-checks on the Lekki shootings including this one by AFP’s Fact Check.
There were very few critical voices querying the authenticity of the reports and viral videos and images.
These critical voices were, however, bullied for ever doubting any of the videos or images purportedly from the Lekki shootings.
A call for action
Members of the public who reacted to Nigerian Army’s fake news tweets on the Lekki shootings called for specific action against the Nigerian army and the government. A twitter user, Luther-King Ekama tweeting @Ikekama called on Twitter to sanction the Army’s twitter handle as, “They spread fake news to cover their evil deeds”. He ended with #End SARS #EndBadGovernanceIn Nigeria and #EndPoliceBrutalityNow.
Some of the commentators were defiant and expressed determination to continue the protest despite shootings and the imposition of curfew.
Despite their seeming determination, the government was able to quell the protest and restore normalcy days after the shootings. It is unclear how future events will turn out. But as at now, the protest and agitations seems to have been subsumed.
This analysis of comments on the official posts of the Nigerian Army inaccurately rating media reports on its involvement in the Lekki Shootings as fake news provides insight into public reactions to official information considered to be false. Due to the nature of the information being contested, with the array of conflicting contents in the public space, members of the public were not easily convinced by official narratives. The onus thus lies with public institutions to ensure that they provide the public with accurate information which they can convincingly defend to the general public irrespective of contrasting views making rounds in the public space. Such an approach is more likely to reduce the trend of misinformation on public institutions among the populace.