Before the advent of social media, there was a strong limit to the spread of rumours which were laboriously done mouth to mouth.
The market places, schools, business centres, religious grounds and others places of interest were fertile grounds for the dissemination of unfounded claims. Most malicious news died natural deaths in the course of proliferation as it took maybe too much time to travel.
Significant platforms like radios, TVs and newspapers were reserved for consequential issues and most sensational news about public interests that never made it to these platforms were regarded as false to a large extent. In a way, the rugged people unofficially turned some educated fellows among them to consultants who can affirm the authenticity of news reports. This accounts for the reason why a friend from a rural area or your parents from the suburbs could call you in the city to confirm a hot gist in town simply because your brand is trusted even if you are not necessarily a journalist.
News tips that were not verifiable were suppressed by journalists in order not to misinform the society and cause unrest but today, journalism has changed due to advancement in technology, introduction of social media and instant messaging applications. As social media encouraged digital journalism which made information dissemination faster and cheaper, so also did it open grounds for easy manipulation of the media space. In this 21st century, every individual with a Smartphone connected to the internet is a journalist. Citizen journalism encourages the participation of all netizens in journalistic processes thereby leading to the abuse of ethics as participants are untrained and crude in reporting events of public interests on their page.
This has led to the surge of Fake News as popularized by the U.S President Donald Trump. Raising a false alarm has become so cheap. You only need confidence to push the news and it goes viral as long as people are quick to share it without getting the full details. Nobody cares to verify.
In mid-October 2017, Brazil felt the intense heat of the odd side of WhatsApp when a false report about popular drag queen Pabllo Vittar getting public funding to host a kids’ TV show on Globo, the Brazilian TV network emerged. Although, the story was later confirmed to be untrue and debunked, it was shared over 110,000 times on Facebook alone after it emerged on WhatsApp.
Tapping into Brazilian culture wars over gender and politics, the report stirred outrage, claiming that Globo stood to lose 50 million viewers because of Vittar’s hire which would have been catastrophic.
On two major occasions back in Nigeria, WhatsApp has proved beyond reasonable doubt that the instant messaging application which has 1.5 billion active subscribers per month across the world could be used to cause sedition especially in a polarized country. WhatsApp has become a potent medium of organizing political protests in the world that about 11 African countries (Cameroon (Anglophone), Ethiopia, Gabon, Republic of Congo, Togo, The Gambia, Niger, Burundi, Algeria, Uganda) blocked the internet in 2016 to hamper the organization of anti-government protests. This unwarranted measure of internet interruptions in these countries led to deficits of at least over $235 million but economic advantage doesn’t matter here so far political interests are secure.
The mobile phone application has also being targeted by China in September, 2017 in a step to tighten censorship as they prepared for a major Communist Party congress. Turkey has banned the application due to its instrumentality in the 2016 failed coup. It would be recalled the alleged forceful inoculation of the Moneypox virus as purportedly administered by Nigerian soldiers in the heat of the operation Python Dance operation in the South-eastern part of Nigeria started as a broadcast message on WhatsApp according to the findings of an investigation conducted by this journalist.
Permit me to discuss a personal experience on the menace of Fake News via WhatsApp. I was fiddling with my mobile phone when a friend who trusts my brand as a media person called my attention to the WhatsApp message which he received from a friend who also received from another friend about health workers purposely spreading the Moneypox virus to reduce the population of the Southern part of Nigeria as a ridiculous means of depleting the region numerically ahead of the 2019 general elections. I laughed it off and affirmed that it was fabricated but to my greatest shock, the Fake News held sway as panic spread from the Niger Delta region where Bayelsa recorded the first case of the Monkeypox disease to the South-east, South-west and then even the North-east as 37 primary schools closed down in Maiduguri, Borno State. Fortunately for the mischief makers, the news coincided with when the Nigerian Military was organizing a medical outreach programme targeted at communities where residents under normal circumstances might not be able to afford basic healthcare.
Several press statements and interviews conducted for government officials to debunk the news proved abortive until soldiers were urged to end the medical outreach for tension to subside. Although, rate of illiteracy in Nigeria stands at 65 to 75 million people out of a population of over 180 million, nobody will ever envisage that Fake News about a planned holocaust by the Federal Government by administering poisonous substance under the guise of vaccination will sell. But it did fantastically well.
Many cases of WhatsApp being used to exaggerate Boko Haram attacks as well as the Fulani herdsmen crisis across the geopolitical zones in Nigeria have been recorded. Investigations have shown that the propagators of these falsehoods majorly sympathizers of secessionist groups download gory pictures of war victims in Africa and present it as if it took place in Nigeria with the aim of spreading panic and denting the popularity of the present administration.
Last week, I was preparing for work when I got missed call from my mother. It was very unusual for her to make such an early morning call so I knew it was important. Mostly African mothers will always call at such times to warn their children about the premonition they have from bad dreams. I rang her back and she told me my aunt in Spain informed her of the viral news of a Fulani herdsmen attack on a mass transit vehicle at the Lagos-Ibadan expressway leading to the death of several people. In fact, my aunt who received the message via WhatsApp boasted to her that she was in possession of the multimedia files pertaining. I was flabbergasted too and initially, I almost felt disappointed in myself that such information eluded a hardworking journalist like me but I suspected falsehood. I told her I wasn’t aware and I was going to get back to her.
I simply swiftly visited Nairaland.com which is the headquarters of all citizen journalists in Nigeria but there was no report like that. I went through Google using keywords and there was no record of such. I later notified my mother about my findings before series of disclaimers were issued by a concerned transport company, God Is Good Motors and the Edo State government. Out of curiosity, I searched for the WhatsApp message in circulation and saw graphic photos which could claim the life of a hypertensive person instantly on sight. Imagine the grief my mother would have felt if she had no trusted person in the media to consult. I can bet my life that she would have picked up her phone to spread the news. Whosoever gets the news believes it without taking time to verify it. A heterogeneous society like Nigeria where all the major tribes fake unity could be thrown into tribal wars towards a state of instability and total collapse before the veracity of the news is ascertained.
Concerted observations made by this journalist have proved that most of these malicious WhatsApp messages are composed by young folks majorly teenagers who follow political events emotionally with no in-depth knowledge of events. I mean the calibre of people who initiate arguments from the knowledge derived from reading headlines of news reports and ignoring the body of the report. Their top consumers are the elderly people from age 55 and above who are not fully accustomed to how the digital media works. Most of us have uncles and aunts constantly and unrepentantly sending us unsolicited broadcast messages on WhatsApp which they hardly read. My 74-year old aunt in Lagos using a Samsung S4 mobile phone once panicked about a report that the world was going to experience 24 hours darkness and that people should prepare for it. She was so bothered and scared that she called my attention to it. I almost laughed but I expressed caution in order not to offend her. I never believed a well-educated and travelled person like her could be swayed by such a message but she fell for it. This shows that there are vulnerable users that need our protection and guidance to save their minds from pollution by unscrupulous people.
A study of those messages has proven that they are not only unhealthy for a fragile country like Nigeria but they are also divisive. There is a need for the Federal Government to look into the menace of Fake News dissemination through WhatsApp to safeguard the already faltering health of the country as it portends a real disaster.
Countries in Europe as well as the United States of America are already finding ways to block the spread of Fake News even though progress has been limited. In the wake of the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election in the United States of America, pressure is being mounted on Google, Twitter and Facebook to tackle Fake News.
This accounts for one of the reasons why Facebook announced a major move to limit the appearance of news articles on timelines to focus on activities of your friends which was the initial trend before the page advertisement craze which raked in a lot of money for the company.
Osayimwen Osahon George is a Political Scientist and a Journalist. He writes from Lagos State.