Nigeria Today

November 1, 2020

In Nigeria, what is fake news?

By Tonnie Iredia

Many terms that appear simplistic to the ordinary person may in truth be quite difficult to define. In 1972, for example, two American scholars, Frank Dance and Carl Larson discovered from an extensive survey, 126 definitions for the term ‘communication’ – a term many would have thought they could define with ease.

In Nigeria, fake news as a concept has assumed same dimension, with many having different meanings for the concept. It is however not an unusual occurrence because it is so across cultures. The English word, ‘Yes’ which appears simple is differently interpreted among several English speaking people. While some take it to mean a definite positive answer to an issue, others understand it to mean that the issue is likely or worthy of consideration.

Thus, many Nigerians who have become quite concerned about fake news, a recent prevalent phenomenon in our clime, need to review their anxiety about it as well as their understanding of the nature and true meaning of the concept.

Going by the way different people are accused of fake news, it is obvious we all know that anything fake is false; yet many people engage in it for different reasons which can be grouped into two. The first, is disinformation which is false information that is deliberately created and spread for the purpose of influencing public opinion on a subject or to cover up the true story.

The second is misinformation which refers to false or inaccurate information that is mistakenly or unconsciously created or spread. Bearing in mind that the intentions are not same, both ought not to carry the same degree of condemnation in the age of social media where events spread so rapidly beyond the control of many actors.

Perhaps Nigeria’s mistake is her decision to blame the dangers of fake news on the media whereas it is a societal problem whose major culprits are outside the media. Some examples would prove our point.

Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu made a number of fundamental statements concerning the #EndSARS protests, which the Nigerian Army has made many to see as fake news. If the army is correct, it would mean the governor is the fake news merchant. But while many are shocked over the decision of the army to obey a governor, we are all certain that neither the governor nor the army is a media professional.

Again, in a report dated October 21, 2020, Amnesty International said Police personnel shot at peaceful protesters. To the police, that is pure fake news because in the words of Mohammed Adamu the Inspector-General of Police, IGP, it is “untrue, misleading and contrary to all available empirical evidence.”

Adamu insists that on the contrary, 22 of his men paid the ultimate price, maintaining utmost restraint during the protest, while 205 police stations were torched by protesters countrywide. Shortly, depending on who is correct, the police and Amnesty International that are neither part of the Nigeria media may be held responsible for fake news.

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Governor Yahaya Bello of Kogi state made news when he declared covid 19 a glorified malaria sickness. If Bello’s statement which he is yet to retract is not fake news, then NDDC that was declaring daily figures of infected citizens must have been serving Nigeria with fake news. Indeed, health officials of the Cross River state government did allege publicly that their people were being bribed to feign covid 19 infections.

Whether that allegation was fake news or not, we are at least certain that neither Kogi/Cross River officials, nor those of the NDDC operate media organs, yet those who manage Nigeria’s information system can swear that the only way to end fake news in the country is to clamp down on the broadcast media.

While we await a dead end to that line of thought, we are obliged to call on our public information handlers to return to their desks and take a broader view of events encouraging the spread of fake news in Nigeria.

If no one heeds this call, the result would be an increase in what is currently gaining ground in Nigeria which is the emergence of fake fines for fake news. Last week, the nation’s broadcast regulator, the National Broadcast Commission, NBC was pushed to impose fines on three leading broadcast stations – Arise TV, Channels TV and AIT.

The three were accused of exercising insufficient discretion in retransmitting user generated content. We know the NBC was pushed because once again she had no time to avoid her usual habit of serving as the accuser, the prosecutor and the judge of a case in which none of the accused had opportunity to defend herself.

Our conclusion on the element of push is predicated on our familiarity with how the regulator is often directed to hurriedly announce inchoate decisions. Her failure to obey the principles of natural justice in her determination of issues which adversely affect the rights of others makes it practically impossible for her to defeat the affected stations in court.

Understandably, many groups including professional associations, ‘rights-activists’ and other interests condemned the fines extracted from a contentious code of practice. A similar fine earlier imposed by the NBC on a radio station which interviewed elder statesman, Obadiah Mailafia was also widely condemned making it obvious that the authorities need to release their grip off the broadcast regulator.

We are all concerned that if care is not taken and quickly too, credible broadcast stations such as Arise TV which had an almost impeccable performance during the coverage of the #EndSARS protest, might be rendered timid with unimaginable negative consequences.

We urgently need to remind everyone that one of the main functions of the media is societal surveillance for informing and educating the public as well as serving as a mirror that helps us avert a woeful end from danger signals in the horizon.

Incidentally, clamping down on the broadcast media will not reduce the spread of fake news which is more a function of the social media. The way out is to recognize the world-wide information revolution that is controlled by the new trend of citizen journalism in which ordinary people now take advantage of new technologies to share messages and information.

But because citizen journalists are usually not professionally trained to do the work of reporters, their amateurish contributions lack professionalism as they are merely involved in “post office” journalism sharing whatever stories they get devoid of any journalistic treatment or interpretation.

Our premise is that with the social media, the easiest way to reduce fake news is to put an end to the hoarding of public information. Our leaders cannot continue to tell us only the things they want us to hear and expect that ordinary citizen who are privy to what they hide will not exaggerate while disseminating such information.

Those who shout fake news all the time should realize that stories which don’t add up will always be speculated upon; and as one recent blog says, those who were telling us to wash only our hands 15 times daily while covid 19 palliatives were hoarded in warehouses, are the champions of fake news.