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The 2021 lie of the year

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The lie that is the most difficult to detect is the one garnished with a bit of truth, and seasoned with sentiments and emotions. This is one of the many recipes purveyors of disinformation used in 2021, to play on the ignorance, mawkishness and emotions of Nigerians. Their aim, of course, is purely to sway public opinion to satisfy their personal and parochial gains.

Disinformation was used to intensify the challenges that Nigerians grappled with in 2021. In fact, information disorder was the magnifying glass used to highlight and publicise false narratives about farmers-herders’ crises, heighten disagreements about issues bothering on the #EndSARS protests, turn messiahs of secessionist advocates, entrench COVID-19 infodemic, normalise poor governance and scheme ahead of the 2023 general elections in Nigeria. 

Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism (PTCIJ) through her Dubawa Fact-checking project was on the frontline in 2021 to combat this menace through the fact-checking of claims, researching the implications of information disorder for West Africa and providing media literacy education to residents in the sub-region so that they are better able to identify and stop the spread of misinformation. To wrap up her activities in 2021, Dubawa reviewed the various falsehoods published in Nigeria in 2021 to identify the lie that was the most viral, highly believable and had the most serious implications for the wellbeing of Nigerians and the stability for their country.

This research was fashioned along the approach adopted by Poynter Institute fact-checking project, Politifact, to decide the US lie of the year – the January 6 capitol attack.

The researchers analyzed the fact-checks published by Dubawa in 2021 and identified 23 false claims that were mostly believed and very popular. The 10 most viral of the 23 fact-checks were selected and we created a two-question survey on Google Form for Nigerians to decide the one they considered the biggest lie of the year.

The link to the Google Form was shared online from December 26th to 30th, and Nigerians voted for the claims which they considered the biggest lie of the year. The various lies voted by Nigerians are discussed in the section below.

Claims on COVID-19 Vaccines as the lie of the year in Nigeria

We were not surprised that many Nigerians selected lies related to COVID-19 vaccines as the biggest lie of the year with far reaching implications on all strata of the society. About 25 per cent of the respondents to our survey voted mis- and disinformation around COVID-19 vaccines as the greatest lie of the year in Nigeria, compared to other claims fact-checked in 2021.

As at 30th December 2021, the data from Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) indicated that 241,513 people contracted the COVID-19 virus with 3,030 deaths since February, 2020 when the first index case was recorded in the country.

The coronavirus pandemic also led to several months of lockdowns, which affected socio-political and economic activities in Nigeria and the rest of the world. This compelled all stakeholders to focus on ways to flatten the curve of the spread and reduce the fatalities caused by the deadly virus.

One key measure to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus is the development of vaccines to strengthen people’s immune system so their bodies can fight the virus if they get infected. Unfortunately, the launch and subsequent use of the vaccine was met with a deluge of disinformation to prevent people from using it. More shocking is the calibre of the sources of the various published disinformation; scientists, medical doctors, nobel laureates, politicians, religious leaders, social media influencers and even private individuals.

Nigeria has a fair share of COVID-19 vaccines mis-disinformation with all manners of unsubstantiated claims in the public sphere, particularly online. Chief among these include the claim that those who are vaccinated will die within two years, vaccine change the human DNA, cause infertility and can light bulbs, etc.

So, the selection of the false claims around COVID-19 vaccines as the lie of the year by our respondents is understandable as the pandemic lingers, fresh false claims keep circulating, scientists continue discovering new variants (from Delta to Omicron) and several countries across the world institute new lockdown cycles.

Diezani’s Bra is World’s Most Expensive

Although we were not surprised by our respondents’ selection of the mis-disinformation around COVID-19 vaccines as the lie of the year in Nigeria, we were amazed that the second most selected disinformation in Nigeria in 2021 is a story about an alleged bra belonging to Nigeria’s former Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Maduekwe as being the world’s most expensive.

At the opening of the survey, this occupied the most voted issue by our respondents in the first three days of the vote for the 2021 lie of the year in Nigeria. After the close of the survey on 30th December, the mis-disinformation around bra was close to the COVID-19 vaccines votes. While 25 per cent of the respondents voted for COVID-19 vaccines mis-disinformation as the lie of the year, 24 per cent of the respondents voted for the false claim around Diezani’s luxury bra. It is interesting that Nigerians believed in the false claims about the bra when there was no diamond bra recovered in the first instance. Disinformation creators sure know how to weave falsehood around current and believable events.

Buhari, Tinubu are among Nigerians with nine lives

Our respondents also voted for the false claims on the death of President Muhammadu Buhari, (18 per cent) as well as that of the chieftain of Nigeria’s ruling party [the All Progressive Congress (APC)] and forrmer Lagos State Governor, Senator Bola Tinubu (12 per cent).

The duo were severally pronounced and certified dead by purveyors of disinformation, with false claims that the president’s wife, Aisha Buhari had also declared him dead.

Despite several fact-checks debunking the claims of the death of these two prominent Nigerians, their rumoured deaths continued to spread especially on social media platforms in 2021.

The truth is that both President Buhari and Senator Tinubu have health challenges, and purveyors of disinformation simply latched on to the information to continue to spread false claims about their death.

Court declares marriages conducted at Ikoyi Registry illegal

In December, 2021, a Lagos Division of the Federal High Court in Nigeria restrained the country’s Ministry of Interior from granting marriage licenses except those conducted in the Federal Marriage Registry in Ikoyi, Lagos and in Abuja, Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory. The Court did not nullify previous marriages conducted at the Ikoyi registry nor certify them invalid.

The clarity in the December 8 judgement did not prevent purveyors of disinformation from weaving lies around it, and they published false reports claiming the judge had nullified all marriages conducted at the Federal Marriage Registry in Ikoyi, Lagos State.

The false information went viral and generated a lot of reactions, including from some celebrities who registered their marriages at the Ikoyi registry. In fact, the Ministry of Interior had to comment on the issue to set the records straight. 11 percent of respondents voted this claim as the lie of the year.

Elon Musk interested in marrying Nigerian girls

About 4 per cent of our respondents also voted as lie of the year, the claim that the 2021 second richest man in the world, Elon Musk, was interested in marrying Nigerian girls.

The fact-check carried out by Dubawa and other fact-checking organisations debunked this claim. The claim throws up two questions. To what extent could Nigerians distinguish contents from satire websites from information from factual/mainstream news organisations? At what point does satire get misinterpreted and presented as fact?                                      

There is a need for Nigerians to be critical of the information received from the media, especially online. There is a need for stakeholders to step-up efforts at enhancing media literacy, so citizens are better informed about how to handle the information that they are exposed to.

A village of statues exists in Nigeria?

Nigerians are believers in karma and the destruction of old cities as punishments by God. But to think that they will believe the claim that all residents of a village in Kwara State were turned to statues is astonishing. An image showing statues of different categories of people engaged in different tasks circulated online in Nigeria in August, 2021.  There are two false claims related to this story. The fact checks revealed that the images of the village of statues is not from Nigeria. Also, the statues are man-made and not humans as purveyors of disinformation would want people to believe. The claim which further went viral in 2021 was fact-checked and declared false. 

False Claim on Twitter Suspension in Nigeria

When the NIgerian government suspended Twitter in June, 2021, several false claims and doctored social media posts were immediately circulated. One per cent of our respondents voted false Twitter posts about President Buhari (following Twitter suspension) as the Nigerian lie of the year.

Claims like Twitter doesn’t recognise Buhari as the President of Nigeria, Donald Trump’s allegations that Twitter banned President Buhari, and a sober claim that Twitter apologized to the Nigerian Government, are some of the claims respondents considered in their vote for this category.

We see the spread of mis-disinformation on Twitter suspension extending to year 2022 as the Nigerian government is yet to lift the embargo. 

Lekki-Tollgate Massacre during #EndSARS protest

Despite the fact that false claims on the controversial shooting at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos in 2020 was not part of the 10 selected claims we considered for this survey, the short answer question in our survey offered respondents the opportunity to identify it as the lie of the year.

Although the alleged mis/disinformation around the #EndSARS protests started in 2020, false claims were also promoted during its one year anniversary in October 2021, as well as after the judicial panel submitted its final report. The claims and counterclaims on the validity of the report of the #EndSARS judicial panel of inquiry wrapped up the false narratives on the issue in 2021.

We will not be certifying any of the various narratives as truth or false as we use only verdicts from fact-checks conducted by Dubawa as the basis of our decisions. We only note this allegation as a good number of our respondents felt that it should have made the list of the Nigerians lie in 2021.

Other lies of the year

Other issues identified by our respondents as lie of the year include: Claim that the government register prison inmates for the 2023 elections, and that the US gives Nigeria 48 hours ultimatum to detain Abba Kyari.

An Outlook for 2022

It is expected that some of the fact-checked claims in 2021 will die a natural death while others are likely to surface again in the year 2022.

COVID-19 related mis-disinformation is expected to continue in 2022. Similarly, political disinformation is expected to take the centre stage in 2022 as political activities and gimmicks heighten towards the 2023 general elections in Nigeria. Politicians will throw their hats inthe ring to declare their interests in different political positions. Political parties will conduct primaries to decide their flag bearers. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) will lift embargo on campaigns and candidates will flood the mainstream, online and social media platforms with narratives to win public opinion in their favour as a way of ensuring electoral victory.

By its nature, political disinformation will be linked with information disorder in other sectors such as economy, religion, social, security, ethnic and health.

As a way of being proactive, fact-checking organisations in Nigeria, including Dubawa, have worked in the last three years to improve the media literacy skills of Nigerians, trained journalists and other stakeholders to ensure they use verification and fact-checking skills to sieve the information they receive and/or publish.

The purveyors of political disinformation are also expected to up their games by investing in manipulative technologies and experts in mind games to guarantee them electoral victory. As fact checking organisations are training Nigerians to develop defense mechanisms against political disinformation, politicians are expected to train their foot soldiers to battle to win the mind wars (online and offline). Politicians may still invest in the likes of “Cambridge Analytica” to harvest oppositions and voters’ data for political gains.

2022 is going to be a busy year for fact checkers as they are expected to debunk a multitude of political claims that will start rolling out in preparation for the 2023 general elections. Social media platforms will come up with more policies to prevent politicians using their platforms to discredit the electoral process, announce fake results, and call for civil disobedience to protest the results of elections.

The debate over the desirability or otherwise of regulating the social media and more government policy interventions at addressing the challenges of “hate speech” and “fake news” is expected to be re-enacted by the government in 2022. The Nigerian media sector will need to work together to prevent the government from hiding under the pretense of combating ‘fake news’ to further curb press freedom in Nigeria.

The disheartening rate at which information disorder flourished in Nigeria in 2021, is an indication that  the country requires the efforts of fact-checkers, media organisations need to subscribe to and use verification and fact-checking trainings provided by organisations like Dubawa, media and journalism training institutions need to mainstream information disorder in their curriculum while every Nigerian needs media literacy skills. 

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