The President’s health is just one of the many things Nigerians are consistently kept in the dark about by our current government. But the problem didn’t start with them; we have always lacked public access to credible, transparent information from the government and other proper information sources.
To a certain degree, this has created an ideal environment for fake news to thrive among the population. But even more disturbing is the fact that the fake news and so called ‘real news’ are sometimes indistinguishable from one another, further reducing the ability of Nigerians to decipher between them.
In August, for example there was breaking news from the presidential villa that the Nigerian president had been ejected from his billion naira Aso Rock office by rodents. If that doesn’t sound ridiculous enough, just a few days ago I came across a headline story about a certain former national security adviser who is now facing a court case and -get this -apparently now claims to be suffering from memory loss. This is no joke; these are the types of unverifiable, far-fetched stories that supposedly pass for normal, everyday news in Nigeria. On the other hand, it has also become the norm for public figures to cry ‘fake news’ and blame the opposition for every headline they simply do not like. Discrediting factual news more or less has the same effect on the public as promoting fake news.
This seemingly minor issue has eaten deep into the fabric nation as a whole. It has resulted in a perpetual state of confusion for both the people and the leadership, where nobody seems to know what is true and what is not.
In a study done by Team Lewis, it was discovered that Millennials are more skeptical of fake news than older generations. 74% of people said an article was fake news if it purposefully misrepresented facts or included articles without all the relevant facts, according to the study. 3/4 of those surveyed said a sign of fake news was fabricated information while 61% said a lack of a credible source indicated that an article could be fake news.
Globally, the issue of fake news has become a popular concern because of it’s unprecedented impact in the 2016 US Presidential campaigns and elections. Collins Dictionary even named “fake news” its Word of the Year for 2017. The term refers to any untrue information spread under the guise of true reporting. It could be as a deliberate hoax, to spread propaganda or simply for the sake of disinformation.
In today’s world where social media rewards speed and sensation over accuracy, objective facts are scarcer than ever. Almost everyone has received those persistent broadcast messages on social media, spreading outright false information.
They could be harmless hoaxes like the one I got this weekend that read:
There is a video circulating on Whatsapp called Popcorn carnival. Do not open it under any circumstances. Be warned, it will hack your phone in seconds and you cannot stop it in anyway. Please forward to all your contacts as soon as possible
But others can quickly turn harmful, as in the case of a viral message that circulated during the 2014 ebola epidemic. The message persuaded people to drink and bathe in water saturated with salt, as a prevention against the deadly disease. What may have been an innocent prank eventually left 20 people hospitalized, and 2 dead.
Creators and perpetrators of these fake news prey on ignorance. Because majority of Africans are illiterate and there is already a huge information scarcity from appropriate sources, it is quite easy to proliferate fake news among the largely susceptible population. The internet and social media which held such promise for staying informed, fostering communication and democratic engagement, are now promoting misinformation for those who find it hard to differentiate fake news from the real deal.
There are no limits – the internet’s pay per click economy has made it so that people will do anything to attract viral traffic, and that includes crafting purposely misleading or inciting headlines or news stories, sometimes going as far as to manufacture video evidence and references.
In fact, in this illusory world of alternative facts, research papers are skewed and data misinterpreted to advocate a set of beliefs or elicit public reactions. As long as there is no enforcement of consequences against reporting fake news, the problem is only going to get worse because the influence of the internet is not going away anytime soon. Facebook and Google are now putting steps in place to improve quality control and combat false information from being spread on their platforms. But even such attempts will not cut it, there are so many variables to be considered.
An important question to ask is: for those of us who know what fake news is, and are aware of ways to fact check, how many of us actually validate the accuracy of news stories we read?
“I’m usually conscious of the headlines, for clickbait” says Dayo. While for Oluchukwu, “It depends on the site”
Tackling issues of fake news are of fundamental importance to democracy. The greatest enemy of democracy is disinformation, which is even worse than a pure lack of information.
So far, the internet media has played a big role in opening up political discourse in Africa as a whole, where the press is traditionally stifled by government. Most offline sociopolitical movements in Nigeria now often begin online. And although it is unlikely that the internet influence is big enough yet to sway votes in Nigeria, it can definitely skew public opinion about certain important matters.
According to this ‘How Africa Tweets’ study, political hashtags make up 8.67% of all hashtags across the African continent. This proportion is higher than in the US, UK, France and Canada, which is perhaps suggestive of a more politically engaged population in Africa, or perhaps it is due to the lack of freedom of speech in certain African countries which pushes people online to express their views.
Earlier this year, a fake news report about Kenya’s election claiming to be from broadcaster CNN was circulating on social media. It came after a fake video imitating the BBC’s Focus on Africa programme was also distributed. Both videos had bogus surveys showing President Uhuru Kenyatta well ahead in polls ahead of the August election. CNN and BBC both confirmed that the reports were fake, possibly circulated to influence public opinion about the election. That is just one example of how fake news can influence political outcomes in Africa.
Reports like this one from AlJazeera, show the key role that social media will increasingly play in influencing coming elections. Proper regulations need to be put in place to combat the epidemic of fake news without stifling people’s right to free speech.
The minister for information and communication in Nigeria; Lai Mohammed has acknowledged the prevalence of fake news in the country. His plan of action is to assign information officers who will monitor both online and offline news media to identify such fake news and develop timely and credible counter narratives to respond to fake news.
If Africa is to move forward, people must be well informed and the media plays a huge role in achieving this. The need exists now more than ever to bridge the gap for proper communication. Individuals also need to become more vigilant in spotting and discerning fake news, especially on social media.