Although my postdoctoral fellowship with Dubawa started in June 2021 with a lot of uncertainties, the month ended with celebrations. I published six fact-checks and re-discovered my passion for journalism practice. I was still basking in the euphoria of my modest achievements when one of my elder brothers burst my bubbles. He told me I shouldn’t be celebrating, at least, not yet. I was curious – why not? Then he dropped the bombshell, he said that I had started with something significant, and it would seem like I was underperforming if I published less than six fact-checks in any of the remaining five months of the fellowship. What!!! This guy is an economist but he was basically telling me the popular journalism cliché that “You’re only as good as your last story”. Some people attribute the statement to Helen Thomas but I am not certain, so, don’t fact-check it.
But, how do I keep up with that pace? We were just concluding the second semester examinations in my Faculty at Lagos State University and I had a huge pile of scripts to grade. Then the deadline for project submissions will soon be coming up and all the project students who had ghosted me will suddenly resurrect as zombies, thirsty for my time the way vampires seek human blood (don’t fact-check this either, I am not sure vampires and zombies really exist). It didn’t look interesting at all.
So I started to permutate excuses in my mind even though I hated Further Mathematics in secondary school; ‘well, I don’t have to write fact-checks, what truly matters is my main deliverable which is the research paper’, ‘I have brain fog when I ovulate’ – don’t laugh, I just needed excuses for not writing enough fact-checks if the question ever came up. Plus, Professor Ropo Sekoni had approved my research proposal for the article I am to write as a Dubawa fellow and I needed to start working on it as well. Eventually, I realised that there were no valid excuses. 30 days divided by six fact-checks means I needed to write three fact-checks in two weeks – that’s not so bad, right? I decided to give it a try and by July 15, 2021, I had published six fact-checks plus a news story. The news story was a response from Abu Dhabi University that they were not offering Nigerians full scholarships, as claimed in a viral WhatsApp message I had earlier fact-checked. It became so exciting that I didn’t stop even after meeting my target. I went ahead to publish four more fact-checks, but three of the four were in collaboration with other fact-checkers, making a total of 11 publications for the month of July.
I appreciate my July experience better than how I experienced June, not because of the number of fact-checks I got published, but due to the unique experiences of the month. My activities in July taught me some life lessons and made me reflect on some other realities of life that we take for granted.
The first was a huge mistake I made when writing a fact-check on the alleged Chimamanda Adichie’s reflection on Nnamdi Kanu. I saw the post and didn’t think that Ms. Adichie wrote it, so I started working on it. I called one of her managers who told me she didn’t author it but he wouldn’t permit me to quote him. He later referred me to the Twitter page of the real author, writer Gloria Ogo. Now, I have to confess – I am not a big Twitter fan. I stopped using it as soon as it was suspended in Nigeria, not because I am a good and obedient citizen (even though I am), but because I didn’t have the time and interest to study how to use VPNs. So, I gave a friend the details and told him to help screen grab the post from Gloria Ogo’s page on Twitter. My dear friend, God bless him, sent the screenshots to me and I sent off my story with my shoulders high (I didn’t use shoulder pads o, my hormones just have a way they raise my shoulders when I think I have achieved a target). So, you can imagine the horror when Oyin Amosun commented that the screenshots were not from Twitter. My hands started shaking, literally. In fact, my hot-air sized balloons were shot down by air missiles. I searched and saw that the pictures were from Facebook. My friend couldn’t even explain what happened and I felt so small for not checking Facebook myself. By then (a day after), a disclaimer had already been posted on Ms. Adichie’s Facebook page. I corrected the mistakes, updated the story and re-sent, but I got no response. My imaginations went wild and I thought that was the end of my romance with fact-checking.
So I sent a very humble letter to the Editor, Kemi Busari, apologising for the error, honestly explaining what happened but taking full responsibility and thanking Dubawa for the opportunity to even write fact-checks in the first place and I ended by saying that I understood perfectly if they do not trust me enough to publish my fact-checks again. Of course I wanted to keep writing, but I had to pretend that I was willing to accept the punishment if I was no longer allowed. Well, my letter worked wonders, my corrected story was published and I went on to publish seven fact-checks after that. This experience was very significant for me – it taught me why we should always verify information even when they are coming from the people we love and trust. It also made me appreciate the role of copy/sub-editors and the need for newsrooms to keep and encourage them. More importantly, an artisan needs to learn to use the tools of their trades, regardless of their personal dispositions to such tools. In short, hard lessons learnt. VPNs, here I come.
Another key lesson is on the cycle of life – no, this is not about the way predators eat prey in the animal kingdom or how the Lion Guard keeps the delicate balance in Lion King’s Pride Land. The circle of life I am talking about is the philosophical concept about how we’re all constantly changing and our powers, positions and authority aren’t permanent. Have I succeeded in confusing you yet? Yes, I think. Okay, let me explain. A false WhatsApp post about how the Federal Civil Service Commission was recruiting to about 12 parastatals started going round, I fact-checked it and even got the Chairman of the Federal Civil Service Commission, Dr. Tukur Ingawa, to comment on it. By the time I was done, someone else had pitched it to Dubawa. There was no way all that work was getting trashed. So, I got the fact-check published with Peoples Check. Peoples Check is run by a group of undergraduates led by a Lagos State University’s Mass Communication student, Sultan Quadri. This is so profound, not just because we have a lot of youths doing great things, but because it shows that positions are always changing, and the youths we’re currently training today, will soon be the ones sitting at the table where our fates will sometimes be decided in future. The takeaway for me; respect our youths – they’re ingenious, and appreciate the cycle of life – the table will soon turn and the youths will become the leaders. Oh, I shouldn’t forget to add that a member of the Peoples Check team won a $1,000 Africa Check student fact checking award in 2020.
Then I attended a religious programme where we were encouraged to ask ourselves what deeds we’re sending forth for the life after, yes, Day of Judgement things – you know Nigerians, we are big on religion and spirituality. While reflecting on that, it occurred to me that perhaps religious leaders should be recruited and trained to preach that we also need to think of what we’re sharing on the internet. God is not backward, surely, the angels will record sins committed on the internet and social media, right? Are we really ready to take responsibility for the harm that sharing misinformation or disinformation could cause to people and the society? Just imagine how sharing the misinformation about salt being a cure for ebola made us lose people in Nigeria. Now, imagine how many more we are currently losing due to the numerous hoaxes about COVID-19. The question is, are we able to live with blood on our keypads? Will we be happy for our kids to grow up and get to see some posts or messages we sent at a time of indiscretion? It was really deep, and I think that if Nigeria is truly a country of believing people, then we need to begin to apply those spiritual concepts to the way we show up on social media.
There are so many stories behind a number of the other fact-checks I published in July, but I won’t want to bore you. What is more significant for me is that two months have already gone out of the six-months fellowship. I am so not looking forward to November, I don’t want this to end.
But even if it does end, it has served as a reawakening for me. I have now been able to combine journalism practice with teaching and research. I feel so happy and fulfilled. By writing a compelling proposal and using my Dubawa fact-checks as evidence of my writing ability, I got a $1,000 grant from the Wits Journalism Africa-China Reporting Project to write a story on Digital Inclusion in Nigeria. I don’t think I would have had the courage to apply if I wasn’t on this Dubawa Fellowship. And even if I applied, I probably wouldn’t have had any recent writing sample to show what I was capable of doing.
2021 started as a very regular and even boring year, but it’s becoming one of the most exciting times I have had since I left Voice of Nigeria for academia in 2009. I am so excited and even my kids know their mum is part of something big. What’s more, everyone around me wants to know how to apply and join the next fellowship. Maybe I’ll run a paid course on how to join Dubawa’s Fact-Checking and Research fellowship in 2022, will you pay?