Let me start, as most speakers would, by thanking the organizers for asking me to be the Lead Speaker on this very topical topic. I do not know whether it is because I am a graduate of Mass Communication of longstanding (28 years is not a joke, gentlemen of the press). Or is it because I am a Corporate Communications practitioner, which means I’m knowledgeable in news management even if it is for Airtel Nigeria where I have been working in the last 16 years and Cadbury Nigeria where I previously worked for 8 years? Or is it because I have been involved in Fake News twice? Or is it all of the above? Whichever be the case, what is more important, for which I am more thankful, is that the topic is up for discussion at this very time. By that, I mean the period before the Hurricane of general elections hits the shores of Nigeria.
Politics, politicians and political activities quite naturally tend to breed a lot of news and, by extrapolation, a lot of Fake News. Since the outcome of every general election is usually of global interest and consequence, it is incumbent on those who manage news to be acutely aware of the implications of laxity in or dereliction of their duties. The upcoming general elections, just like those of 2014/15, will provide a veritable breeding ground for Fake News. Nigeria will definitely be under the snow. The reputation of any country, organization or individual buffeted by Fake News, especially during important moments like a Presidential election, will be greatly compromised. And that is why I must commend my brother, Fidelis Mbah, and the African Centre for Media Development for their foresight in championing this initiative.
We do have a very formidable panel to discuss this topic, and so I will hasten to lay the foundations for a very robust conversation. As I was studying for this presentation, three key words jumped at me namely FAKE, NEWS and REPUTATION. It would amount to preaching to the choir, if I start defining those three words, but by building a contextual framework I would provide a functional compass for the discussants to navigate the matter in a sharply focused and very productive manner.
So let me say here that whatever is Fake is not real. Isn’t that so obvious, gentlemen? Words like counterfeit, dud, false, untrue, lies, facetious, wrong, etc., etc., readily come to mind when one is looking at the term Fake. The most popular definition of news is “a report of a recent event or occurrence”. Reputation is image or the aggregate perception of an individual, product, service, place or idea. So, what is Fake News?
It is news which is:
• Objectively False
• Factually incorrect
• Provably False
• Inaccurate Report
• Factual inexactitude
• Alternative Facts
From the foregoing, I must admit (and you should agree with me) that Fake News is not a new phenomenon as some people think. Whereas President Donald Trump may have popularized the expression, over the past two years of his residency at the White House, it has been with us from time immemorial. Perhaps, the first documented instance of Fake News (and this information is coming directly from the Roman Catholic Pontiff himself, Pope Francis) could be found in the Old Testament. According to the Holy Father, one fine day, in the Garden of Eden, the devil, disguised as a Serpent, told Eve that eating the Forbidden Fruit would make her and her husband, Adam, as all-knowing as God! Eve believed the Fake News and the rest, as we all can attest to, is now history!
Away from the Bible into the carnal world of politics and government, Fake News have always been deployed by the propaganda industry, especially during the Cold War era, to manipulate the minds of people on both sides of the ideological war fronts. Even in real wars, Fake News has been strategically used to portray opponents as the aggressors and intruders or to show they are going against the rules of engagement and so on and so forth. Those of us who were old enough will remember the Nigerian Civil War or the wars in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Burundi, Bosnia Herzegovina, to name but a few. We should also be able to remember that some of the images coming through the media were manipulated to whip up sentiments. In actual fact, in the more recent Biafran War which Nnamdi Kanu and his soldiers fought against the Zoo, they used a lot Fake News to manipulate the minds of many a South Easterner and indeed people from other parts of the country as well as gullible members of the international community.
But as I said earlier, Donald Trump seems to have popularized the expression in his ludicrous and never-ending face-off with the media. Trump, according to Mike Wendling of the BBC Trending, wittingly or unwittingly made Fake News the 2017 word of the year! He actually gave out what he derisively called Fake News Awards to “deserving” media organizations, who have made life most difficult for him ever since he assumed office. I will never forget his spat with CNN’s Jim Acosta who asked him a question during a Press Conference and he blatantly responded with “You are Fake News!” Which brings me to a very vital point: the key attributes of Fake News
• One, they are deliberately distributed
• Two, they are disguised as facts
• Three, they are deceptive and misleading
• Four, they are destructive or damaging
• Five, and most importantly, they are false!
The sixth attribute, which is probably where Donald Trump thrives, is that they are Fake News because they are unfavorable! Remember the photos of his inauguration which was compared to those of Obama and how his former Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, came up with what he termed Alternative Facts to discredit the comparative analysis. It’s all part of the Fake News thing. What I mean here is that sometimes, the term Fake News is abused or given a Fake interpretation, by those not favored or positively impacted by such news.
Fake News, of course, comes in various forms, different shapes and sizes. It could be a textual report. It would be a photo. It could be a video. It could come as a meme or even a tweet! Having mentioned Twitter, perhaps, I might as well quickly address one of the most critical issues regarding Fake News, which is the source or sources.
Social Media ranks highest followed by mainstream media and then influential individuals. The inter-relatedness of these three sources further compounds or complicates the matter. Fake News from a powerful or influential individual in the social media can (not can but will) make headlines in mainstream media. And I will give you one or two examples here:
“Oby Ezekwesili” was once credited with an anti-Buhari message which went viral especially on WhatsApp. Vanguard Newspapers picked it up and made a big story out of it. Regrettably, it turned out the message did not emanate from Mrs. Ezekwesili, who threatened the newspaper with legal action, if it didn’t retract the story. Being a responsible newspaper, Vanguard retracted the story and apologized.
I have personally been involved in at least two incidents: One was when, based on information I got from a very close ally of President Buhari (well former close ally as it is now), I went to town with a Facebook post that GMB, as we used to call him during the Presidential elections, had a daughter who was married to an Igbo, Christian, retired Army Colonel from Anambra State. It was such a big hit in the social media and the Buharists made a meal of it. This was later refuted by the Buhari Campaign Organization or so and, with eggs on my face, I had to apologize to my numerous followers and pulled down the post.
Most recently, based on my confidence in the credibility of a top government official, I shared some photos purportedly from the northern parts of the country showing a massive crowd welcoming President Buhari (the same Buhari!!!). It was later discovered that the photos were not only not from a Buhari campaign but they were also file photos from an opposition rally. Again, I apologized and pulled down the posts. In both cases, I relied very much on my sources.
How does Fake News affect the image of a country and what must be done? These are the two key questions we have really come here to answer today. I believe the panel has many ideas, opinions and suggestions but let me hazard a few. Before I delve into this conclusive part of my presentation, I would like to take a moment to look at what actually inspires Fake News. In other words, what are the motivators or the objectives? I will compartmentalize this into three: Financial or pecuniary gains, Propaganda and Partisanship.
Financial: With so much money being made nowadays from social media algorithms, some smart fellows, even criminals, set up Fake News sites, which thrive on false, sensational news to attract massive traffic to their sites so as to make money. The example of some crook online news sites discovered in Macedonia comes to mind here. The youngsters made a lot of money by spreading cooked up stories and driving traffic to their sites for revenue from Facebook and Google, especially.
Propaganda: Some countries or organizations deliberately sponsor Fake News to de-market their competitors or to actually get ahead. The key consideration is not revenue but influence or damage by swindling or swinging public opinion. Russia is good at this. China too. ISIS and Boko Haram also revel in it.
Partisanship: Political parties or politicians do set up Fake News sites to peddle falsehoods against their opponents. No doubt, APC and PDP, the two leading political parties in Nigeria do. So much has been said about the impact of Fake News on the US elections which resulted in the emergence of Donald Trump. In Nigeria, during the epic battle between President Jonathan and General Buhari, so many Fake News sites and Parody sites mushroomed with deleterious consequences on public perception of the two leading candidates. The opposition party then, APC, was brilliant in this regard and did inflict serious injuries on the perception of the ruling party. Today, the tide had turned and PDP is paying the ruling APC in kind! Tit for tat, you would say.
Hybrid: There is one category that seems to bestride the worlds of financial gain and partisanship even if unintentionally. Over 140 fake news sites were discovered in Macedonia by Craig Silverman, News Editor of Buzzfeed, at the height of the US Presidential elections! While the masterminds had no interest in the US elections, (but were indirectly influencing things), they made a ton from revenues coming from online advertising!
If news is one of the pillars of image-building, then it goes without saying that good news will help create a positive perception and build a positive image while fake news will create a negative perception and build a bad image. A country with a good image will:
1. Attract investments and investors
2. Attract tourists
3. Earn and retain respect in the international community
4. Products will be attractive in international markets
5. People will be accorded respect and considered for international appointments
6. The media will have credibility and earn respect around the world
On the contrary, fake news will erode and destroy all these and rather de-market the country.
What do we do?
There are two important battles that must be won or lost before we can all be on the same page not only with regard to the dangers of Fake News but also how to tackle it. The first battle is that between speed and accuracy. There is a general predilection on the part of Social Media users and journalists to be the first to break news, even if it meant sacrificing accuracy (which is what often happens). Truth be told, accuracy is more important than speed. Between speed and accuracy are the facts or the truths in the story.
The other battle is that between rights and responsibilities. Every right has responsibilities attached to it. This is the dilemma people face when insisting on Freedom of Expression. In between rights and responsibilities are the laws that govern our behaviors. So, in dealing with the menace of Fake News, we must keep a top of mind awareness of the need for accuracy as well as the responsibilities that come with our rights.
In no particular order, here are my immediate thoughts on how to mitigate the prevalence of Fake News:
1. We must strengthen our institutions that are directly or remotely connected to the issue under focus namely the media and the judiciary. The media to ensure that they abide by their time-tested principles and ethics, and the judiciary to ensure compliance. Ethical journalism will naturally reduce Fake News to the barest, if it cannot totally eliminate it. That will send a signal that the Fourth Estate of the Realm is alive to its responsibilities. Punishing offenders will equally send a good signal that we, as a country, have Zero-tolerance for Fake News.
2. As media practitioners and indeed social media users, most of who have become citizen journalists, we must self-regulate our activities. We must subject ourselves to the rules of the journalism profession, for those who are journalists. For others, who basically play on social media, Facebook has provided an easy guide on how to identify and avoid Fake News.
• Be skeptical of headlines. False news stories often have catchy headlines in all caps with exclamation points. If shocking claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they probably are.
• Look closely at the link. A phony or look-alike link may be a warning sign of false news. Many false news sites mimic authentic news sources by making small changes to the link. You can go to the site to compare the link to established sources.
• Investigate the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust with a reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their “About” section to learn more.
• Watch for unusual formatting. Many false news sites have misspellings or awkward layouts. Read carefully if you see these signs.
• Consider the photos. False news stories often contain manipulated images or videos. Sometimes the photo may be authentic, but taken out of context. You can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.
• Inspect the dates. False news stories may contain timelines that make no sense, or event dates that have been altered.
• Check the evidence. Check the author’s sources to confirm that they are accurate. Lack of evidence or reliance on unnamed experts may indicate a false news story.
• Look at other reports. If no other news source is reporting the same story, it may indicate that the story is false. If the story is reported by multiple sources you trust, it’s more likely to be true.
• Is the story a joke? Sometimes false news stories can be hard to distinguish from humor or satire. Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story’s details and tone suggest it may be just for fun.
• Some stories are intentionally false. Think critically about the stories you read, and only share news that you know to be credible.
3. The Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, etc.) Act 2015 should be amended and clarified so it unequivocally addresses the issue of Fake News without ambiguity. Germany, France and Australia are three countries which have made laws that specifically address the issue of Fake News by legislating the use of Social Media. The UK, through the Home of Office, Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Health, is currently working on new laws to legislate Social Media. Again, we must be mindful of the fact that our rights come with responsibilities and in between the two are the rules of engagement, the laws, which we must respect and obey.
4. The sudden outbreak of Social Media deserves to be managed by every right-thinking individual, organization and country. Everything that has a good side would have a downside, if you look close. For Social Media, one does not need to consult an oracle to see and feel the negative side including the rapidly spreading epidemic of Fake News. The government, through the Ministry of Information, should run a campaign to enlighten the people on the uses, abuses, advantages and disadvantages of Social Media, with the perception and reputation of the country at the top of the mind. I cannot forget the great job which Prof. Jerry Gana, did back in the day, with MAMSER, which has now metamorphosed into the National Orientation Agency (NOA). NOA should rise up to the challenge of educating the people on the advantages and disadvantages of Social Media and the evils of Fake News.
Let me now cede the microphone to the eminent panelists to further dissect and earn their spots on the podium. The only thing left for me to do is to thank the organizers for giving me the opportunity to lead this discussion on a trending yet disturbing issue, Fake News.
I should also thank you the audience very much for your time and attention.
Oparah, director, corporate communications & CSR, Airtel Nigeria, presented this paper at a workshop on ‘The Effect of Fake News on Nigeria’s Reputation’ organised by the African Centre for Media Development