Information disorder, especially the ones that are blatantly false and seem designed to manipulate people’s perceptions of reality, has often been utilized to impact on politics and foster advertising. Such fake news has also become a technique to instigate and propel social conflict.
Additionally, news that are false and are intended to misinform readers have provoked a growing mistrust among most people over what to believe and what to discard. In worse cases, this mistrust results in incivility, uprising over fictitious incidents, or unrest.
According to a study by Pew Research Center, information disorder is rated a larger problem than racism, climate change, or terrorism. However, as outstanding that may seem, it’s not actually what’s most interesting about the study. Pew finds that people have distinct views about fake news and respond differently to it, which suggests that the emphasis on misinformation might actually run the risk of making people less informed. More than making people believe false things, the rise of fake news is making it harder for people to see the truth.
This finding signals an avalanche of fake news not just as a societal menace but also as a threat to democracy. In this regard, some areas currently dominating the Nigerian social sphere may also become a nourishing ground for fake news.
Fake news threatens democracy
One value of democracy is the respect it accords to free flow of information and open communication. Ironically, it is in this fold that information disorder trends, causing and arousing chaos. Fake news can provoke electoral violence, by spreading false rumours during elections; it can arouse doubts and skepticism in the electoral system and even influence voter decisions on who to vote for.
For example, a research by Buzzfeed from August until election day in the U.S. in 2020 shows that fake news stories had more engagement on Facebook than mainstream stories did. The most ‘popular’ of such stories falsely stated that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency which received almost one million engagements (shares, reactions and comments).
In Nigeria also, the effects and impact of fake news on democracy is already prevalent. A study carried out by DUBAWA showed that fake news rated false appeared the most during the Edo and Ondo 2020 gubernatorial elections.
Analysis of interactions with claims by verdicts on Twitter, Facebook, and websites/blogs shows claims found to be ‘False’ had the most interactions on each of the platforms as can be seen in the bar chart below. Total interactions with ‘False’ claims were found to be more than two-and-a-half times the total interaction with ‘True’ claims.
These findings, glaringly illustrate a war fake news is wages on democracy.
Fake news threatens public health
The impact of fake news on public health is not novel. From ‘salt as Ebola Virus cure’ to chloroquine as COVID-19 cure and other wild health false and misleading medical information about a spectrum of diseases have been spreading widely on social media for several years, posing a potential threat to public health.
These disinformation campaigns can be intentional and may require both collective and individual interventions to avoid the risks they represent. In other instances, the spread of misleading advice is simply due to the fact that people do not know where to find correct data and facts. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, the dissemination of fake news and its associated risks have reached a new dimension.
DUBAWA alone has debunked over 100 coronavirus related claims. As early as February 2, 2020, WHO reported an ‘infodemic’ clouding the coronavirus that makes it hard for people to find credible direction and take the proper measures, without resorting to panic or falling into complacency. The tension and fears induced by the lack of knowledge of the disease, as well as by the measures of social distancing used to contain it, mean that the threat to public health is potentially even higher.
In Nigeria, this flood of fake news around the coronavirus has circulated around herbs as a cure for COVID-19, putting unsuspecting members of society into a higher risk than the one already existing. This reality is appalling especially in view of limited knowledge around the novel virus as people can fall for any information that comes their way about something they have very little knowledge of. Even worse, the controversies around chloroquine as a cure for the virus was expounded by prominent persons like the former US president, Donald Trump, who confused a lot of people into believing in the potency of some medications whose efficacy had not been established by the scientific community.
Fake news threatens national security
Dr. Gabriela Belova who conducted a study on ‘fake news as a threat to national security’ outlined that “Propaganda, misinformation and fake news have the potential to polarise public opinion, to promote violent extremism and hate speech and, ultimately, to undermine democracies and reduce trust in the democratic processes.”
She further explained that in countries which are already enduring ethnic tensions, misinformation can exacerbate such tensions and can also generate violence. An example can be found in Nigeria, where tension is mounting gradually between Fulani herdsmen and the southern Yoruba and Igbo farmers. The situation is sensitive, and analysts have pointed out that should this situation continue, it may grow into a full fledged civil war.
It is not surprising that DUBAWA has debunked multiple false claims that, if ignored, could have triggered a crisis. Even more, rumors spread through fake news can create a lot of social turmoil in a country or among countries. Fake news and disinformation are definitely a threat to a nation’s security–internal and external. For instance in the well-known case of Sunday Igboho’s expulsion of Fulani herdsmen from the southwestern part of the country, multiple false information were circulated around this topic that not only threatened people’s lives but national security as a whole.
There are multiple areas and topics fake news can be built around. However, the threat it poses on health, security, and democracy seems to be the most prevalent these days. With the growing rate of insecurity in Nigeria, especially the constant headlines about killings, one can easily believe anything that relates to this topic. While fake news has proven to thrive in recent times, its capacity to influence people’s behavior and perception is even more feasible in the atmosphere of ignorance, fear, hate, and sensitivity.