About a month ago the Honourable Minister of Information, Mr Lai Mohammed made the bold claim that “fake news” could be worse for the country than Boko Haram. While not a fan of the exaggerated theatric language, Mr. Mohammed and I agree (in part) on the issue of “fake news”. And now that I’ve used the term twice, you will of course permit me to not use it again for the rest of this piece. Because the term (just one more time) “fake news” has become a catch-all phrase for whatever you disagree with or do not believe, regardless of whether it’s factual or not. Like “terrorist”, the term has been politicized, in some cases beyond recognition.
We should probably be clear, right from the start, on what some terms mean so there is less ambiguity going forward. Propaganda is essentially a framing of the facts and issues in a manner that’s favourable to the presenter. Misinformation is basically the passing of wrong information, though in an “intent-neutral” fashion. This is what you and I do when we forward a seemingly factual article that turns out to be anything but. Disinformation, on the other hand, is an intentionally misleading piece of “information” created with an agenda behind it. Next, let’s identify some of the issues with disinformation, as well as how it turns to and is spread as misinformation. First of all, creating disinformation is easy enough. Spies and others have done it for centuries because it hurts the enemy more than if they found no information at all. The trouble has always been disseminating it in a manner that can be trusted by the first targets who would usually be people of some authority. I say “first targets” because you would want to have people of knowledge and/or influence do the actual spreading for you. When these respected people are fooled by the disinformation, they of course feel a duty (moral or hierarchical) to pass it on to those concerned for further action, which creates misinformation. Unwittingly, these respected people lend the weight of their reputations to the false information, causing it to spread even further and faster than it normally would, with less scrutiny. Sorry, Audu.
And thus, with definitions out of the way, we can get to the meat of the matter (as always) in the Nigerian context.
Pass the Salt
An article by Tonye Bakare of The Guardian newspaper makes the very valid point that in a country like Nigeria, a coordinated campaign of misinformation (by definition though, he actually means disinformation) could wreak much havoc at the next elections, partly because any perpetrators would have 2 years to perfect their methods, but mostly because of the nature of our society. Nigeria is a place where rumour is king and mob violence can ensue at the slightest hint of even the most unlikely provocation. This is a real and obviously undesirable outcome that we ought to try and avoid. Unfortunately Mr Bakare did not delve further into the issue to examine why we are this way, who needs to change their actions/methods to lead us in the right direction, if there are any silver linings and how to go about correcting this imbalance. No matter, I shall do that for him. Regular readers will know and expect (read: dread) that I consider first through which door we got here before attempting to determine which door is the exit.
As government officials and traditional media houses are quick to point out, a vast majority of false information is spread via “the social media.” For anyone who reads Nigerian news online, it is obvious that there is a proliferation of new websites popping up all the time. From some of the more established to lesser known online publications, the options are quite plentiful. How did this come about?
Expanding access to technology definitely plays a part, but I suspect it also has to do with the failures of what I will loosely term “old media.” By this I am referring to the well known national dailies who have been around for decades; you probably know their names from childhood when your parents had certain papers they would buy every day. Looking at the amount of online news publications and how many of them are springing up regularly, one must conclude that there is a sizeable market for their product, otherwise we would not have so many. This signals a distrust of the old media rather than just a phenomenon inspired by the spread of the Internet. It cannot be simply convenience because the old media also have websites too and neither do they shy away from the art of sensationalist headlines. Therefore, the consumers of news must be looking for something different and consequently, it is logical to assume that it is dissatisfaction with the news they receive from old media.
“Journalism is writing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
- George Orwell
And it makes sense. In the late 1960s, Nigeria became embroiled in a civil war. As someone put it, “in war, the first casualty is truth.” Both sides would likely have tried to turn media houses into propaganda machines for their cause, stifling honest reporting to curry support within the populace. The subsequent decades were mostly military rule, and dictators are not famous for being champions of a free press.
Then you also take into account the pittance which journalists are paid, and you have a worrying situation on your hands. It is common knowledge that many journalists survive on handouts from the stakeholders in topics being reported. “Who pays the piper dictates the tune.” So much so that some media houses operate on LTP (Let Them Pay). Essentially, when a story or event is covered, it is marked as LTP and does not get published unless the party being reported on makes some sort of contribution to the media house. Typically, this would affect NGOs who are providing some sort of assistance to people and invite the media to cover the events. Because many NGOs rely on donations and grants in order to keep doing the work they are doing, they need media coverage in order to get the word out. Thus, by refusing to publish their work unless they pay up, the media houses in question are running a racket whose end product (though likely unintended) is that aid and assistance has a harder time getting into the hands of those who have dedicated themselves to providing it for the people. We are all getting robbed.
This is a very real problem because it takes away the credibility of news organisations who are deemed as simply reporting what they are told, word for word. For example, here are lines from a couple articles in a newspaper I am reading:
The state deputy governor noted that…the permanent secretary urged…the recipient commended the government…
The state safety commission says…the director general of the commission explained…he said…he observed…
When you read articles like that every day, it quickly becomes apparent that the newspapers are pretty much spewing propaganda all over us. Go to a newspaper stand and ask anyone buying what their opinions are about certain publishing houses and you will be told which are Southwest supporters, Northern apologists, Southeast biased and which are simply lap dogs to the government of the day. While these views may or may not be true, their widespread existence communicates a deep mistrust, a belief that a lot of media houses peddle “news” in a manner that is favorable to their cause (propaganda). Maybe not on every issue, but where it counts, they are deemed to have fixed interests that they will not betray.
This is likely one of the major reasons the online news organisations have been gaining traction. A lot of them do not appear to have strict rules on writing style (for lack of a better word), as can be evidenced by some articles which come perilously close to libel. However, this freedom allows them to write on a range of topics, and in a tone and manner which appeals to readers’ sense of having raw, unadulterated news, thereby heightening their perceived credibility as independent news sources. And it is clear that new media is becoming (or has already become?) a force to be reckoned with. You know that you are an important cog in the machine when the spokesman of the Nigerian army has to come out in response to an article on your website and essentially lambast “social media news” in his attempt to defend his organization. Who can blame the readers, though? A cursory glance at news reports from the old media shows a distinct unwillingness to step on toes or cross boundaries. This is especially true when it comes to reporting on security issues.
But you can’t really blame the old media either, not if you’re fair. Not when many of them have sacrificed and gone out of their way to be true to the profession, hence their disdain for online news organisations. One key difference is that new media does not have to expose its people to the kind of danger that old media does. Members of the old media are very visible, easy to find, and thus subject to persecution by any aggrieved party, sometimes both.
For instance, in the case of any conflict, as mentioned already, the media can easily find itself a strategic target for both sides. Ideally, you would want both sides to court journalists by showing off their best side and hoping for coverage on that. The reality, however, is far from ideal. For example, recall the actions of arguably the most colourful police boss in recent history, Mbu Joseph Mbu, who ordered a journalist thrown in jail for labeling the policeman “controversial” and even when the journalist was finally released it was without apology. As a matter of fact, Mr Mbu remained a serving member of the Nigeria Police Force and was promoted after the incident, only being retired eventually because an officer junior to him became Inspector-General. What does this signal to journalists other than that they either keep in line or face arrest and assaults upon their person? After this episode, the online new media took up the chant and called Mr Mbu not just controversial, but a host of other things to boot. However, it is not so easy to trace them down as it is members of the old media who, like I said, are very visible.
If you look at the situation in Yemen, when the Houthi rebels entered the capital Sana’a, one of their first moves was to take over media houses. Even quasi-democracies like the type we have had for decades in Nigeria are full of evidence of how the government of the day attempts to shackle news organisations to toe the party line or face intimidation and persecution. Terrorists and insurgents, as well, have shown that journalists and news organsaitons are of particular value to them. With so much attention focused on old media journalists and their parent organisations, it is difficult to not empathize with their struggles and recognize their efforts.
But there is a silver lining to this dark cloud. The very fact that governments, corporations and terrorists are desperate to either have the media report favourably on them or be shackled completely is a clear sign that the media is still of incredible importance in society. Because news organisations represent not just data but information and knowledge which restore in the populace the power to analyze and make decisions, it is both their gift and their curse at the same time. And I think it is time that their potential is fully realized in Nigerian society.
Three Sides to a Story
Press freedom is a massive problem which is contributing to the rise of new media, particularly in Nigeria. For as long as journalists on the ground, who are visible and consequently vulnerable, cannot accurately report without fear for life and limb, people will continue to seek information from those who can keep themselves safe while reporting. Unfortunately, due to the distance between them and the facts on the ground, the possibility of being fed disinformation without knowing it is greater, making us all more likely to be fooled. In computer security, you’re advised to choose a physical connection over wireless if at all possible. It is pretty much the same in this case.
Crucially, I don’t think anyone becomes a journalist in search of fame or fortune. It can be argued, then, that it is the search for truth which pulls people into this field and as such, they inherently want to bring that truth to people who have not known it. Which is why I think that there are 2 ways the battle between old media and new media can go.
They might decide to keep battling it out as is, with neither side willing to give quarter to the other.
My preferred option would be to see a lot more cooperation between the two. It doesn’t have to be anything explicit, no formal agreements required, but a simple professional nod of acknowledgement between the two could be a fruitful first step. Because new media is able to report with a freedom and fluidity that is difficult for old media to emulate, their benefits to society are not to be scoffed at. Neither should we discount the decades of training and experience that old media possess in abundance. The online news world is a wild world where just about anything goes, but by having the more established new media organisaitons collaborate with the old media, the coalition formed would ensure that some standards are met in the reporting of news, and also that news which could prompt prosecution can be published without fear. Both sides could learn a lot from each other, and we would learn much that we need to know about the world through them.
Nature and Nurture – 2 Sides of a Coin
Another silver lining is that Nigerians have already learned to be naturally suspicious. Think about all the messages forwarded to you about the latest scams in town and how to avoid being a victim – you don’t get that information anywhere else. Consider also a road trip from one city to another – you depend on rumour and/or the advice of someone you personally know, regardless of security agents in the news assuring that the road is safe. Since we tend to expect everyone to have an angle, we are already halfway to the solution because we already know not to trust anyone completely. However, the trouble is that we, as humans, are still subject to confirmation bias, the “tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions.” Social media algorithms play a role in multiplying this factor, but I will not be discussing the tech aspect here for the sake of brevity. This natural skepticism, however, needs to be built upon by interweaving with education on how to spot false information, something which has been recommended for school children in the United Kingdom by members of their government.
Clearly the first people we need to educate on how to deconstruct, identify and distinguish false information (whether disinformation or misinformation) is the trusted voices of people with high reputations. As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, when you want to effect change through the populace, particularly in this age of “the social media” (please, older folks, drop the “the”) it is a good idea to start by identifying the influencers and openly engaging them. When they can identify false information easily, they can quickly stop it from being shared widely enough to become problematic. If these influencers draw on the natural suspicions of the people as mentioned above, I think we stand a good chance of nipping disinformation in the bud before it goes far.
Incidentally, this is why it is disappointing that the Kaduna state governor Mr Nasir el-Rufai is insisting on prosecuting Mr Audu Maikori; from what I’ve read, the latter was unaware that the information he had been given was wrong. From the definitions above, it appears to be a situation where wrong information was passed to him (possible disinformation), and he forwarded said information in good faith (misinformation), and now the state government is pushing an information campaign that is slant to its own interests (propaganda). The solution, in my view, would have been for Mr. el-Rufai and Mr Maikori to recognize that they are both being taken on a ride by the same piece of false information and to work together toward keeping truth and facts before all else. Because if the governor believes that silencing Mr Maikori will end misinformation being spread, he is very much mistaken; it will only become more difficult to find influencers who can help combat disinformation. But I guess everyone has their own interests.
You see, social media has made it easier and quicker for anyone to use their reputation, no matter how small, to increase the believability of disinformation, basically making technology a force multiplier. But if disinformation can use technology in this way to increase the effect and scope of its attack, so can we. But focusing on a top-down approach to dissemination of real information is slow and unlikely to have much effect. Because by the time the fact checkers have checked their facts, uploaded to their fact checking website and contacted the major news companies to update them on the facts, the malicious actors creating disinformation/”alternative facts” will have moved on to the next target. Keep in mind that these malicious actors aren’t necessarily nation states, terrorists or politicians looking to influence elections or manipulate the populace, but can also be as random as someone who realises that he can make quick money by cloning a website, uploading an outrageous “news” story and drawing loads of clicks. Indeed, such a person may be even more dangerous than a country intentionally passing disinformation.
Fact checking websites are all well and good but, for a population that’s not very good at paying attention to the URL in the address bar (it’s hard to read on mobile anyway), faking a fact checking website could catch us out just as easily. Which is why I suspect that we will need to use those influencers in order to conduct what is essentially an education campaign. And it is an education campaign in the true sense of the word because, as long as we continue to refuse to teach our children how to think as opposed to forcing on them what to think we will continue to be vulnerable to purveyors of disinformation. Other countries are already beginning to recognize that there is great import in teaching children how to navigate this brave new world that we call cyberspace before they get sucked into it and have to learn by developing deep scars. And so, while this article focuses on the current issue at hand, I must insist that we prepare for the future by making a point of equipping everyone, but especially children, with the right mental tools to avoid becoming slaves in this future that has already arrived.