Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed has flagged off a nationwide campaign against fake news ahead of the 2019 polls. Launched in Abuja on Wednesday, the initiative is aimed at sensitizing Nigerians on how such news can threaten the corporate existence of Nigeria. Earlier this year, fact-checking site Dubawa was also launched in the FCT as a repository for verified information sourced from the social media and other platforms. Several existing advocacy groups are aligned with this effort, contributing their two cents’ worth to fact-checking the news we consume on a daily basis.
These efforts are laudable. In fact, they are best practice in much of the developed world, where fact-checking has become the norm. In the United States, for instance, Politifact, FactCheck.org and Snopes have evolved to become reference websites for fact-checking. But truth is, there is only so much that such programmes can achieve without our individual and collective support. Statista projects that by 2019, the number of internet users in Nigeria will hit 93 million. This forecast demands a high level of responsibility on our part because it can potentially cause a spike in the proliferation of fake news.
At times like this, the social media becomes a veritable tool for crowd-sourcing and propaganda. Examples are not far-fetched. Earlier this week, Premium Times broke a news story alleging that Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun did not participate in the mandatory NYSC scheme, but forged her exemption certificate to avoid the national service. Before long, a photo-shopped image of the Minister dressed as a National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) member went viral on the web. The photo was accompanied by a rebuttal which read: “@Wailers! Will you keep quiet! I did my NYSC.”
A reverse Google image search traced the original share to a Twitter user @iSlimfit and hinnews.com, an unverified news site with no physical contact address. Its publisher Matthew Uzokwe did not respond to repeated phone calls for verification. Long story short? This effort was geared towards misinforming the public on a matter of such national importance. It was an attempt to gain cheap website and Twitter traffic at the expense of millions of Nigerians who could not distinguish between genuine and photo-shopped images. Some talking heads even lost no time defending Mrs Adeosun’s integrity with the photo-shopped image. They failed to realize she could not have been exempt from and completed the NYSC programme at the same time. Alternatively, they did not confirm the veracity of the alleged refutation from Premium Times which still awaits the Minister’s response as we speak.
Minister of Labour and Employment Chris Ngige was next in the pipeline this week. His goof at Monday’s APC mega rally in Ekiti presented another viable outlet for the spread of fake news. We woke up to screaming headlines such as ‘Chris Ngige urges Ekiti residents to vote massively for Fayose’ which fed off his substitution of the name ‘Fayemi’ for ‘Fayose’ in the heat of his clarion call to the crowds during the rally.
Ekiti State Governor Ayo Fayose latched on to this. On Twitter, he profusely thanked Dr Ngige for campaigning on his behalf during the rally. He said: “I thank my good friend, Dr Chris Ngige for campaigning for me at the APC rally in Ado Ekiti yesterday. Dr Ngige is a man who is not always afraid to say the truth and that’s what he demonstrated yesterday even in the presence of the President and other APC leaders.”
Meantime, most bloggers only referenced a short Channels TV clip which showed Dr Ngige’s blunder for their reportage. They did not take the time to search for a much longer footage of the Minister apologizing, with the emphasis that he meant to say “Fayemi, JKF” and not Fayose.
In the final analysis, we are all fact-checkers in our own right who can help curb the spread of misinformation. The choice is ours to be part of the fake news problem or solution in the run-up to 2019 and after.
Francis Jakpor is the Programme Manager (Election Fact-Checking Project), Paradigm Initiative.