The Fake News Virus



Health Minister Dr. Osagie Ehanire observed the other day on a television programme that “the government is tackling the coronavirus just as it is battling fake news about the virus.”
The minister was referring to an aspect of the current public health crisis which is often downplayed as strategies are proposed from various perspectives to resolve the problem. He should know what he is talking about as a professional.

In other words, the Nigerian healthcare delivery system may actually be confronting two viruses – the coronavirus and the fake news virus. While coronavirus is in the realm of microbiology, fake news is a social virus. When fake news goes viral the effects could be as devastating on the society as the uncontrolled spread of the microbes.

Yet, the danger of disinformation is being underestimated in the present circumstance. Fake news could cause so much panic in the system and that could be the trigger for chains of events that no one might be able to predict the end. In any operation (especially a life-saving one for that matter), information is light; but fake news could darken the atmosphere of action.
The world is preparing for a potential pandemic of a virus that doesn’t respect geo-political or ideological boundaries.

Nigeria has commendably woken up to that reality. The federal and state health authorities are working in synergy to combat the coronavirus. Estimates by the World Health Organisation (WHO) point to the fact that the virus could be more lethal; different countries are gearing up to manage the disease in tune with their local peculiarities.
This is, therefore, no time for the distraction of lies and mischief being spread as news related to combating the virus.
The federal and state officials are busy providing the facilities to isolated patients and tracing those who should be quarantined as well disseminating information on the management of the situation.

During the Ebola crisis six years ago, the management of information was particularly remarkable. That helped a great deal in the battle against Ebola virus disease.
Whatever efforts the health authorities are making in the aspect of information management in the battle against coronavirus are being undermined by the fake news merchants.

In a manner that clearly suggests that humanity is increasingly taking a flight from the social landscape, some persons callously misuse the social media to spread falsehood thereby putting the lives of others at risk. One person has played pranks, falsely claiming to be the driver of the Italian who is the index case. Another one even resorted to blackmailing the authorities, asking them to pay him N100m as a condition to be quarantined. He threatened that he would otherwise spread the disease. Before the index case was officially and responsibly reported, fake news practitioners had reported the lies about some phantom Chinese being diagnosed of the disease in different parts of the country.

In another outrageous story, a man’s picture was stolen and used as that of the driver claiming to have had contact with the index case. The gentleman has since refuted the false claims. You could imagine the trauma the man must have suffered in the hands of the fake news manufacturers. Names of hospitals and hotels were recklessly published as places where allegedly infected persons were found.

As against the reports from the credible media globally, fake news purveyors continue to distort the reality of what is happening in China as the epicentre of coronavirus. While that country is exemplarily mustering the capacity to contain the spread of the disease a lot of lies are published about it. There have been false reports that China was seeking court orders to kill the victims by firing squads. Some others have lied that the corpses of the victims are turned into corned beef to be shipped into Africa. For some other liars all cargoes from China have been inoculated with the virus.

Besides, all manners of “doctors” and “pharmacists” are making online prescriptions and proclaiming cures for the disease. These proclamations are published without any regards to the rules of drug administration in the country.
A lot hate speech has been spread about China.
The WHO is ably coordinating the fight against the virus globally. Like other countries, Nigeria is officially benefitting from the scientific information and the protocols established by the world body. The information from Nigeria is also being professionally fed into the global pool by the authorities. This productive flow of information is being disrupted by some lawless persons toying with scientific information with reckless abandon.

Again, this brings to the fore the extant question: what is to be done about fake news?
The recent attempt to legislate against fake news and hate speech was resisted by lovers of freedom. But the libertarian argument seemed to have been overstretched to the extent that the evil of fake news was eclipsed in the heat of the controversy. Some liberal arguments seem to suggest that fake news and hate speech are no problems at all. Or as some would say, “hate policies are bound to generate hate speech” and perhaps fake news too. That is trivialising a serious issue. It is also a simplistic approach.
Yes, whatever law that could circumscribe the frontier of freedom should be resisted fiercely. However, that should not be done in denial of the menace of fake news. No one should have the freedom of mass deception especially in a dangerous situation.

Before the outbreak of the coronavirus the public sphere had been polluted by fake news with adverse effects on the economy, polity and society. For these realms to function normally information is important so that wrong decisions are not taken by the state and the society. A number of socio-political and economic problems have been exacerbated by the spread of fake news.
The matter is made worse by the fact that the sensibilities of otherwise well informed members of the public could easily be manipulated by the fake news producers. The gullible members of the society are even more vulnerable. The truth is that with the deluge of information spread with the aid of the new technology, many consumers of information products are yet to develop what the eminent teacher of journalism, Professor Olatunji Dare, has aptly described as “media literacy.” That is the ability to be discerning in the use of information; the capacity to question the credibility of the sources of information in the media.

By the way, the most rigorous argument against the recent bill to check fake news is that there are existing laws to punish whoever publishes fake news and hate speech. Hence there may be no need for another draconian legislation.
Therefore, the challenge of this moment of crisis is to apply the law against public disinformation.
The nation should not wait until fake news begin to wreak enormous social havoc before it becomes alert to the lawlessness of the purveyors of falsehood.

Justice Ikpeme’s Fate

The news from Calabar yesterday was that the Cross River State House of Assembly refused to confirm Justice Akon Ikpeme as the substantive Chief Judge of the State.
The sin of Justice Ikpeme is that she hails from Akwa Ibom and her husband is from Cross River State.

The National Judicial Council nominated her last December as the most senior judge in the state judiciary.
But Governor Ben Ayade characteristically inaugurated his own State Judicial Council to make a counter-nomination to that of Justice Ikpeme.
The governor wants a judge from Cross River State to head the judiciary.

The state House of Assembly was reportedly thrown into confusion as it debated the issue.
Justice Ikpeme’s fate is sadly in the pattern of women suffering blatant discrimination in the course of their career because they are married to persons outside their places of origins.
Akwa Ibom was part of the old Cross River State until the creation of the former in 1987 by the regime of President Ibrahim Babangida.

As Akwa Ibom people celebrated the creation of their state, Professor Olatunji Dare wrote a memorable piece in The Guardian entitled: The Vanishing “Calabar” Man.
Dare was demonstrating the fact that in the eyes of Nigerians outside the Old Cross River State everybody from the state then (including a person of Akwa Ibom) was regarded as a “Calabar” person. Dare put it like this: “It turns out that the friends and acquaintances whom one had always thought of vaguely as being from “Calabar” are actually from Akwa Ibom.”

So, when shortly after the state creation people many people began to identify themselves as indigenes of Akwa Ibom, observers wondered who then was from Calabar.
The point being made was that regardless of the state creation the people remained one. That perception of 33 years ago has hardly changed.

But the identity politics is a notoriously old one in Nigeria.
The fate of Justice Ikpeme is reminiscent of another Judge of the of the Federal Appeal Court. Before he was first considered to be elevated to the Appeal Court, his career had been built exclusively in a state other than his state of origin. A vicious petition came from the state he had served as High Court Judge for years that he could not be considered as a candidate of the state for the Appeal Court. Subsequently, opposition mounted from his state of origin when he was also considered to be the Chief Judge of the state because the “home-grown” judges supported by politicians regarded him as a “stranger.” His career growth suffered some shocks before he was eventually elevated to the Appeal Court.

In one of the south-eastern states the posting of a Catholic priest was rejected by the parishioners because the priest was from another state within the same southeast.
To imagine the enormity of the retrogression taking place in the polity and society, it should be recalled that in the same country, a Yoruba man was the Chief Judge of the old Borno State when Alhaji Mohamed Goni was governor in the Second Republic.

The sharpness of the decline of the forces of integration would be clearer if it is remembered that many decades ago that a Fulani man, Umaru Altine, was once an elected mayor in Enugu and that a Nupe man was once a councillor in charge of lands in Ibadan.

There is the urgent need to find an answer to the question: does the Nigerian elite really want national integration at all?
The rights of citizenship and residency guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution are being flagrantly violated by the political and socio-economic elite for their selfish ends.
National integration would remain a Herculean task until members of the opportunistic elite respect the rights of citizenship and residency of all within any socio-political space in Nigeria.