In the last week of August 2022, I watched with dismay a viral video on social media dramatizing how a lady was exposed for allegedly stealing an international passport, gems, and other valuables of her male partner. From the narrative of the video, the lady was accused of stealing the valuables after the man entered the restroom of the hotel in which they were lodged.
In another viral video in January 2022, a female artiste from Nollywood protested an attempt by a producer to expose her nakedness as part of a scene in a movie. It was later claimed that it was a skit.
Those who participated or “acted” in the viral videos were alleged to have been deliberate in presenting the events as real even though they were acted. Doubts have been raised on the spontaneity claimed in the short videos.
Movie scenes have also been presented as real-life situations or manipulated videos from movie scenes presented as real events with false contexts.
For instance, an actress, Doyin Kukoyi, was reported to have shared a picture of herself and another actor, Taiwo Hassan (Ogogo), depicting them as a married couple, whereas the picture was taken at a movie location. The post on social media was so believable that a relative of the male actor reacted to the post.
A Nollywood actor had also confessed that he was paid by another actor to pull a stunt on their fans that they engaged in a brawl in order to promote a particular movie.
These are a few out of hundreds of examples of how content creators, producers, writers, social media influencers, citizens and even professionals spread false narratives in the name of pranks, skits and satires.
As stakeholders battle information disorder through fact-checking and media literacy, the spread of disinformation and misinformation through pranks and skits has not received adequate attention.
A skit, according to the Oxford English Language Dictionary, is “a short comedy sketch or piece of humorous writing that is similar to a parody–a short informal performance intended to educate or inform.” It is also defined as “a short performance in which the actors make fun of people, events, and types of literature by imitating them.”
Cambridge Dictionary defines a prank as “a trick that is intended to be funny but not to cause harm or damage.” This indicates that if a trick has an element of causing harm or damage, then it partly qualifies as disinformation and not a prank (especially when it is presented as non-fiction).
Satire, on the other hand, “is the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.”
All these concepts fall under fiction, but their presentations, manipulations and the contexts in which such contents are relayed make the audiences who are exposed to them see such as non-fiction. And due to low levels of media literacy, pranks and skits are erroneously considered real-life events by some media audiences.
The objectives of skits, pranks and satires are basically for entertainment, information and education, but low levels of media literacy and economic considerations derived from virality, clickbait, and advertisement have blurred the lines and caused lots of confusion.
These have now provided the platform for the spread of false information on the digital public sphere. Those who are exposed to such content might not be able to differentiate whether they are real or they are pranks, skits or satires.
Confirmation bias has also been used to weaponise fiction. When some media audiences are critical about the authenticity of such content on social media, others dismiss it on the basis that it promotes the narratives they subscribe to and moral lessons learnt from such content override the fact that fiction is presented as non-fiction.
For instance, when people argued that the video of the lady accused of stealing passports and gems was a skit, some social media users who are exposed to it rationalised the wrong context. Some Nollywood actors expressed their views on the video giving validity to it as a real event.
Some skit and prank makers now adopt deception to present these contents as happening in an uncontrolled situation or environment, whereas they are acted out. They concoct stories with distorted narratives in order to deceive their fans.
This is the time fact checkers need to pay attention to the use of pranks, skits and satires for the spread of false information, especially on social media.
Fact-checkers should do background checks on the actors involved in pranks and skits, especially those who present them as non-fiction to deceive unsuspecting citizens. This will enable them to establish connections among them.
There is a need for fact-checking organisations to include labels in their fact-checking editorial process to identify and expose this form of information disorder.
The complexities of what fact-checkers will have to contend with are the change in the narratives from the producers and actors in skits and pranks. There are occasions when a short video will be presented as a prank or skit, but after such a video has gone viral and generated controversies, the narrative will change. This is the same way that some short videos that have been presented as non-fictions are later tagged as pranks.
The making of pranks and skits should be regulated with some caveats. Such contents must be well defined in order not to mislead unsuspecting members of the public. For example, some producers of pranks now employ the service of “actors” who act as if they are unaware that they are being pranked. These staged pranks have the potential to deceive and may be further weaponized to achieve other sinister objectives.
Financial gains from skits and pranks have led to remarkable growth in the audience base of content producers. The monetisation of content production on social media has further encouraged skit producers to adopt different strategies to increase views, clicks, shares, likes, forwards, and re-tweets.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, and TikTok should consider reviewing their community standards to ensure that pranks and skits are clearly labelled before they would be allowed on their platforms.
The social media platforms should either reduce the visibility of skits or pranks that are not well labelled, or remove contents that are produced to deceive, especially if they are capable of causing harm.
Media literacy skills should be enhanced to include how media audiences could differentiate between pranks, skits and non-fiction content, and how they are produced.
Movie and content producers should contribute to media literacy by producing short videos or movies to educate media audiences about how to differentiate among pranks, skits and factual content.
This is the time for stakeholders to pay attention to a voluntary approach to addressing the challenges associated with the use of pranks, skits and satires as vehicles for spreading false narratives so that governments and authorities do not take advantage of the challenges of information pollution to further shrink civic space.