Africa’s first Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, alarmed at the increasing rate at which fake news was being spread, warned that fake news had become a threat to mankind and added that it might be the cause of a Third World War.
Speaking as a panellist on a BBC-organized programme on the scourge of fake news, Soyinka said: “I have said this before that fake news may cause World War Three and the fake news will be started by a Nigerian.”
Indeed, Nigerians have cause to worry about the harmful effects of fake news.
Fake news, as we know, is a completely false claim, photograph or video deliberately or accidentally shared to cause panic, mislead or misinform.
Because of the massive penetration of the new media and the increasing access to smartphones and data; photoshopped photographs and outright falsehood are easily spread and shared on social media platforms.
Although Nigeria’s Minister of Information, Lai Mohammed, regularly laments the dangerous effects of the spread of fake news, public affairs analysts and journalists have pointed out that the absence of official information often adds fuel to the fire of fake news.
Even when journalists make many attempts to obtain official information, they often meet a brick wall. Take, for instance, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). Although the Commission has been trying its best possible to debunk any fake news associated with her via her social media handles and other media, ironically, the electoral management body and other government agencies and officials, most of the time are not forthcoming with official information.
On Thursday 14 February, when Nigerians were preparing for the 2019 general elections, a Twitter user tweeted the photograph of a van conveying policemen and sacks of bags, presumably carrying ballot papers with the message: “Already thumb-printed ballot papers by APC.”
When DUBAWA carried out a google reverse image search on the photograph, it discovered that the picture had never surfaced on the internet until that day; as such we could not tag the image as false. So, we tried to contact the accused – INEC – however, all efforts to get through to INEC on the hotline on its website were unsuccessful. At a point, the line was switched off.
DUBAWA called Mr Festus Okoye, the Commission’s spokesperson. When he didn’t respond, the reporter sent an SMS to him but that didn’t elicit a response either.
When DUBAWA got through to Mr Rotimi Oyekanmi, Press Secretary of the INEC Chairman, he declined comments. INEC, thus, made it impossible to fact-check whether truly, there were thumb-printed ballot papers in Kano or if it was false news aimed at tarnishing its image.
Another example: On 15 February 2019, the eve of the postponed National Assembly and Presidential election, there was the shocking news of 66 persons killed in the Kaguru local government Area of Kaduna state. The heart-rending headline was: “Election Eve: 66 killed in Kaduna”.
The news which was broken via a press release from the office of the Governor of Kaduna State went viral. But Chidi Odinkalu, former Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, doubted the authenticity of the news when he featured on a Channels Television’s programme tagged: The Verdict.
Yes! The killings happened as reported by the media but the timing of the release by the Kaduna government made it look as if it was pre-election violence which occurred on the eve of the election. Whereas, it was community violence that had happened earlier in the week.
Maybe Governor El-Rufai and his media team did not think it through before releasing such a statement on the eve of an election; discountenancing the fact that it will only create more tension and might cause a counter-reaction in other parts of the state.
Yet another example: In the heat of the campaigns, the Vice President’s helicopter crash-landed in Kabba, Kogi State on February 2. The news was confirmed by Osinbajo’s media aide, Laolu Akande with a picture of the helicopter after the mishap. Just before the end of that day, however, a viral video took over social media, showing how the Vice President’s helicopter crash-landed.
In the video, a camouflage helicopter crash-landed but the picture shown to the people from Laolu Akande’s timeline on Twitter was a white helicopter. When AFP published a fact-check that the video was that of a Malian Aircraft, neither the Vice President’s media team nor the media took to their timeline to debunk the video, probably because they enjoyed the sympathy of Nigerians over the accident.
In separate articles, Premium Times, Nigeria’s foremost investigative reporting platform, and CNN had pointed out that Lauretta Onochie, President Muhammadu Buhari’s aide on social media was a major source of fake news, and even after the news she posted had been exposed to be fake, she would apologise but still continue to spread fake news.
Despite the coming into force of the Freedom of information Act in 2011, government agencies and officials still deny the public access to information. In an analysis published by the Media Rights Agenda in May 2018, from 2011 to 2017, less than 100 federal public institutions had submitted their annual reports, talk less of making it accessible to the public. When it is realized that Nigeria has 700 federal public institutions, the effect of that is better imagined.
And the Nigeria Railway Corporation is just one of the many government institutions that have frustrated our fact-checking efforts. DUBAWA wanted data on the status of Nigeria Railway Corporation’s constructions across the country from 2010 till date. Despite invoking the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act through letters, texts, calls and official visits, the reporter was unsuccessful. The same scenario repeated itself when DUBAWA requested information from the Ministry of Information on the status of electricity generation and distribution.
How then can the people access public data that can assist them in making informed decisions?
In a research conducted by the International Centre for Investigative Reporting (ICIR) on Federal Ministries’ response to mails, it was discovered that the official email address eight ministries were invalid. Out of the remaining 24 ministries, only four responded to the mail.
In December 2018, Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture, whose claims have been fact-checked and who was discovered to have taken liberty with facts on some claims, advocated for an increase in the fight against fake news which he described as the biggest threat to the 2019 polls.
Yet, the government does not seem to take the fight seriously. Charity, as they say, should begin from home! The Nigeria government must ensure that the public, who are supposed to have the power in a true democracy, have access to information and must stop paying lip service to the fight against fake news!