Journalism thrives on the principles of ‘accuracy and reliability,’ which are institutionalised through the process of clarification and correction. No thanks to the diffusion of new media, this strict code is gradually being eroded in Nigeria by fake news and disinformation as the entire media industry watches in befuddlement. Possibly the only positive after years of inaction is the fact that the industry is beginning to debate the phenomena, with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) lending its voice when it hosted a conference in January.
Unlike news, which represents accurate reports of events, people or places, fake news represents completely the opposite. Just so we don’t think fake news refers to only content that’s false, here are the six types of content that have been categorized as fake news: bogus click-bait, conspiracy theories, reckless reporting, political propaganda, hoaxes, misleading news, and even satire. It’s such a concern to democrats all over the world, so much so that the Collins English Dictionary named it the word of the year in 2017. Collins, of course, defines fake news as ‘false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.’
As a newspaper reporter starting out in the early 1990s, one of the first lessons I learnt was that ‘news is sacred,’ and so for some of us, the growing incidence of misinformation and fake news is rather strange, but maybe not, in this age of social media. Social media has broken down many of the boundaries that prevented the spread of disinformation and fake news, and that’s because of the built-in features that endear them to us.
Social media thrives on getting as many people as possible to sign up, and without hassles, I should add. So, platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any of the countless others, are designed to allow us to set up profiles in minutes and become a publishers instantly. This easy access and exit feature may be great for their business but bad for democracies because those same features that have endeared networking platforms to millions across the world are undermining the credibility of their content.
To put this in context, imagine that a piece of content can be shared among users as it’s done on many of those networking sites, with no significant third-party filtering, fact-checking, or editorial judgment and you get the idea of what we’re confronted with. In an instant, an individual user, with no track record or reputation either creates or shares a piece of content in this way and broadcasts to millions. Sometimes, contents of this nature have reached as many people as major networks. In the run-up to the 2019 general elections in Nigeria, perhaps the best example that comes to mind is the story of President Buhari’s cloning. Starting with unverified posts on social media, that story assumed a life of its own, forcing the President to deny and prompting a treatment on America’s Saturday Night Live.
Considering the potential reach of the pieces of content created in this manner, well-meaning people have expressed fears about the dangers social media now constitues to democracies like Nigeria. Consider for a moment, that many people who see fake news stories tend to believe them and you’ll get the idea that disinformation and fake news require urgent attention, but the outlook is not encouraging at all.
First, the pervasive use of social media makes it difficult to deal with issues of disinformation and fake news and second, the Nigerian media industry, most of which is complicit, has no idea what to do. Consider the numbers, and you’ll get the idea. With 2 billion users worldwide, 500 million tweets sent every day, 70 million images uploaded on Instagram every day, 300 hours of video uploaded per minute on YouTube, social networking sites are ubiquitous.
The trend is the same in Nigeria, where the increasing number of people with access to the Internet means wider adoption of new media as channels of communication. Available statistics show 85% of Internet users are active on WhatsApp; 78% active on Facebook; 57% on Instagram and 54% on Facebook Messenger. 53% are active on Youtube. So, Nigerians are among the relatively heavy users, and that has implications for rigorous and meaningful discourse as well as the political process. I’ll address this later.
To understand why people are hooked on social media, please note that they’re not just designed to sign up billions but to get you addicted as well. It is where the money is – the more people they have using their networks, the more money they make from targeted advertising. So, they do everything to make sure you’re hooked. Among other things, we’re hooked for a number of reasons. First, all humans have an ego and social media provides a platform on which to express it. Second, we all desire social validation, such as when friends like your status updates or make comments, makes us feel good; and third, we’re hooked becasue of fear of missing out (FOMO), which is the reason we constantly check our social media accounts, presumably to catch up with our connections.
So, if the platforms are designed to hook us, what’s the big deal? Afterall, you own your wall on Facebook, and your Instagram account allows you to own your space, and pretty much do what you like. Here’s the problem with that: the commercial motive behind journalism is to make money by selling the news as a commodity. And in the age of social media, that commodification is carried out through either the aggregation of eyeballs viewing a piece of content or those creating content that is then appropriated by media capital without payment. In other words, when Facebook asks you ‘what’s on your mind,’ it’s merely telling you to work for free, for in the final analysis, whatever you post and for whatever reason that might be, the company makes money.
In other words, anytime you share any one of those dubious pieces of content, your labour indirectly helps the circulation and commodification of fake news because the more you share links, and the more people click, the more fake news thrives. It’s pure business, and as evidence from across the world shows, entire economies have developed around these habits to cash in. Payments from bogus websites have lifted whole regions economically and many have enjoyed the backing of roguish governments bent on exploiting the popular social media networks for political propaganda.
Roguish governments might not yet be involved in the production and spread of fake news and disinformation in the country in the way they are in the United States and Europe, but unfortunately, Nigerian politicians and their followers are filling that gap. And therein lies the problem. Those hoping that government will lead the fight against fake news and disinformation are probably looking in the wrong direction. Political appointees, paid staff and fanatic supporters are combining to muddy the communication environment and distort political discourse. Yet, fair and rigorous discourse remain critical elements of the political process, which should be protected in the public spaces. Failure to do this means allowing a few people to violate and undermine ‘the validity claims of communication’.
Governments at the Federal and state government levels now hire new media or social media assistants to assist them with communication in those new channels. In itself, that’s not a problem. However, with little training and armed, in some cases, with only a high-profile presence online, most of them have specialized in spreading fake news and disinformation. It’s all they know, so I don’t blame them. Perhaps the most high-profile example would be Lauretta Onochie, who works for President Muhammadu Buhari, and who was forced to apologise when called out for sharing disinformation on Twitter. She might be the most high-profile offender called out and forced to apologise publicly, but she is not by any means the only one.
Aside from the political appointees, I am told by well-placed sources that politicians with deep pockets now retain full-time staff to work for them, scouring the web for content that could be edited, re-mixed and distributed as they wish. Their aim? Spread fake news or disinformation to make their principals look good and opponents to look bad.
So, what’s the way out? I agree with those who have argued that fake news and disinformation have multi-faceted causes. It means the solutions would require critically looking at the economic, political and ideological foundations that are feeding it. Among other steps, there might be a need to remake the business model of the social media platforms that make it easy for fake news and disinformation to spread easily, but this is possibly beyond the purview of Nigerian authorities. There have also been suggestions for an alternative to the purely business model of the corporations that control new media, with recommendations for strong public media. This would require the redesign of both the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), the Federal Radio Corporations of Nigeria (FRCN) and the Voice of Nigeria (VON), to make them perform like the BBC (UK) and the PBS (USA). Again, and for obvious reasons, I see no political will in the immediate future to make this happen.
However, on the regulatory side, immediate actions could be taken against technology firms like Facebook to restore some sanity, just like the European Union and the US have done. When Facebook announced measures that it said would limit political advertising in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, I wrote that the measure would serve no purpose, and sure enough, Al Jazeera, which was investigating the issue, reported that it successfully set up four political advertisements making false claims.
‘The ads Aljazeera was able to get Facebook to approve included a false claim that armed group Boko Haram would take part in the elections. Other claims included US President Donald Trump voicing his support for opposition leader Atiku Abubakar, the deadline for collection of personal voter cards in Nigeria being extended by a week, and thousands of Nigerian refugees getting a voting extension after the February 16 election date,’ the network reported. So, this is a network investigating a story, but how many other such advertisements were successfully run for the elections? It’s frightening if you think about it.
What this means is that the Nigerian government must immediately take the initiative, engage Facebook and others like the European Union and the US have done, to design rigorous rule for targeted advertising in Nigeria. As evidence from those places show, targeted and behavioural political online advertising are potent and can be used not just by local politicians but by roguish foreign nations as well. The onus, therefore, is on Nigeria to engage as others are doing.
Enjoyed reading this? Do leave a comment to let me know what you think of fake news and disinformation.