Vanessa Obioha argues that purveyors of fake news exploited the EndSARS crises to incite fear and ethnic divide
On the night of the infamous Lekki shootings, social media swarmed with different kinds of reports, painting a gory image of the incident. Almost everyone was glued to the microblogging site Twitter — including traditional media organisations — where updates flew in milliseconds. On Instagram, however, a popular disc jockey Obianuju Catherine Udeh aka DJ Switch streamed live from the venue.
There were reports of death, missing persons, allegations that the unidentified security personnel took the dead bodies away to hide their culpability, accusations that the CCTV cameras were removed and street lights turned off and even the defamation of a soldier, Brigadier General Francis Omata as the leader of the attack.
These news spread like wildfire, eliciting fear, grief and anger. Celebrities in the entertainment and sports sectors didn’t withhold their ire. They slammed insults on the Lagos State governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and the Presidency, called on international bodies to sanction the administration of Muhammadu Buhari over what they termed as Lekki Massacre, accused a former Lagos State governor and National Leader of the ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Tinubu of masterminding the attack since he allegedly has vested interest in the Lekki Concession Company that oversees the tollgate.
While the Presidency kept mum, the Nigerian army consistently slammed the reports of its complicity in the attack as fake on its official Twitter handle.
However, the narrative took a different direction in subsequent days. Sanwo-Olu in an address last Wednesday morning stated that no death was recorded from the attack but acknowledged that some protesters sustained injuries which ranged from mild to moderate. He also showed images of him visiting the hospitals. His denial that nobody died at the protest ground incensed the social media denizens. They branded him a liar, claiming that they had proof. After all, 78 people reportedly died according to a Twitter account attributed to DJ Switch. The global human rights group Amnesty International also reported that their investigations disclosed 12 people had been killed. They saw the governor’s address as a way to cover up for the perpetrators of the attack.
Meanwhile, hoodlums went on a looting and arson spree on the streets of Lagos. Government institutions were attacked, family homes of the governor and companies allegedly linked to Tinubu were razed as more news of government’s involvement continue to circulate on social media.
Oriental Hotel, one of the facilities vandalised for the alleged linkage to Tinubu would later debunk the news, clarifying that the hospitality venture is owned by Western Metal Products Company Group.
As tension swelled in the country with conflicting information both on social and mainstream media, a foul play became apparent.
Further investigations revealed that some of the images, videos, and posts circulated on Twitter, WhatsApp were fake news. Notable examples include the sharing of a sketch from a movie which showed a young man carrying a lady with blood stains as a victim of the Lekki shooting. Nigerian singer Yemi Alade was among those who shared the image. Senator Dino Melaye’s photo of one of his cars riddled with bullets posted on Twitter and Instagram deliberately misled users to assume that he was a victim of the #EndSARS protest. The Senator would later clarify the post.
There were also several posts inciting ethnic discord on Twitter. Such posts raised an alarm that the Igbos were responsible for the attacks on government properties in Lagos. Audio credited to the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) Nnamdi Kanu ordered Igbos to destroy the properties belonging to the South-west people. Kanu has disassociated himself from the report, stating that it was a manipulation of the federal government to malign his character.
What the Lekki shootings have done is to pitch the fact versus fiction war in Nigeria. Fake news is not entirely new to Nigeria but since the advent of social media platforms, the impact has been overwhelming.
These platforms initially created to shrink the world into a global village has become a thriving ground for purveyors of fake news. Following this development, many governments in the world started taking conscious efforts to deal with the proliferation of misinformation spread on these platforms.
The American government for instance since the 2016 election, has continuously held founders of these platforms responsible for the promotion of fake news on their platforms. In 2018, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was invited to the US Congress following an investigation that showed the platform promoted adverts from Russian propagandists which interfered in that year’s election and harvested users data.
But the United States was not the only place the tech company faced allegations. In Brazil, Mexico, India, the platform was scrutinised for its involvement in disseminating misinformation that affected the outcome of elections.
While Facebook initiated measures to curb the spread of fake news, Twitter, the microblogging site which allows a limited number of words didn’t take immediate actions because its founder Jack Dorsey found it dangerous for his staff to serve as ‘arbiters of truth’. Nevertheless, the platform devised a way to flag down posts they found false or misleading.
WhatsApp, another messaging platform is a major source of misinformation and propaganda. It is reported that the Brazilian government uses the social media app to control narratives in the country.
In Nigeria, it is one of the fastest ways to distribute fake news, particularly among the elderly generation who are not too savvy in the tech world. They receive these fake news and without verification, they forward to loved ones.
During the peak of the global pandemic in April, the Facebook-owned service limited the number of forwarded messages to one, down from five.
In Nigeria where approximately 24.59 million people are social network users, according to a 2019 report on Statista, a German database company, the fight to curb fake news is hardly felt. There’s been an increase in social media usage for reporting and disseminating news in recent times due to the lack of trust in traditional media.
The dependence on social media for news is a growing global trend. A survey on Statista website revealed that over 50 per cent of responding internet users in 17 different countries use social networks as a way to keep up.
This reliance can also be attributed to different challenges of the mainstream media such as immediacy and access. However, in meeting up with these challenges, media organisations found themselves unknowingly distributing fake news. A typical example is the widely reported Lekki incident. Not a few media organisations reported inaccurate information from that incident without verification.
Although, the official government accounts are still debatable.
DJ Switch who was earlier alleged to have divulged the number of deaths to be 78 as widely circulated debunked the figure in a video. According to her, the account that conveyed that information was not hers. She maintained that she counted 15 dead bodies but there are no images to show that. The Lagos state government officially declared two dead from the incidence.
There was also the issue of the agents who fired at the unarmed protesters. Were they soldiers or not? Who gave the order to shoot? These questions are yet to be answered.
What is becoming more worrisome is that journalists who are the watchdog of the society are limiting their reports to what is gleaned from social media. Social media platforms have become the fieldwork of some of these journalists. Of course, social media is a source of news but journalists need to explore other sources and report their works professionally instead of descending to the sensationalism paraded on social media.
Another eye-opening experience from the #EndSARS protest is the level of illiteracy of the population. Most Nigerians, particularly the young ones are not enlightened on their fundamental rights and history of the country. Little wonder that when the artiste Falz educated them on the legal system and their fundamental rights, many ‘oohed and aahed’ as if he just solved rocket science.
Critics have long decried the inadequacy of the educational sector and while the President in his first address in the aftermath of the Lekki incident announced a new salary structure for teachers, it is not enough. There is an urgent need to sieve and retrain the people we put in charge of our children’s education. Some public schools in Lagos state have few teachers in classrooms and oftentimes, convert clerks that were employed without clear roles to teachers. Some of these clerks lack the basic teacher’s training and are unfit to hold a chalk in the classroom.
The good thing about the EndSARS protest is that it has exposed the impact of fake news in society. Now, many are calling for the caution of spreading such news on social media platforms. Celebrities who have a large following are toeing the same path, urging their followers to be careful of the news they spread. To be fair, the Senate introduced the anti-Social Media Bill in 2019 to punish peddlers of false or malicious information but the provisions provided in the bill have been comdemned by human rights activists and civil society organisations, including Amnesty International. They argued that the bill will suffocate freedom of speech.
Fake news has no immediate cure. There is no known vaccine to treat the digital malaise. However, Nigeria may want to borrow a leaf from the United States where media literacy education is considered by legislators. According to a recent report on the New York Times, a non-profit organisation Media Literacy Now kicked off the campaign to introduce the course in school curriculum. The subject covers diverse areas of media including understanding how websites profit from fictional news, how algorithms and bots work, and how to scrutinize suspicious websites that mimic real news outlets.
Media organisations and institutions in Nigeria can take up this responsibility. At least, there are TV adverts focused on educating the public on misinformation, more organisations should join hands in controlling the fake narratives before they sink us.
What is becoming more worrisome is that journalists who are the watchdog of the society are limiting their reports to what is gleaned from social media. Social media platforms have become the fieldwork of some of these journalists. Of course, social media is a source of news but journalists need to explore other sources and report their works professionally instead of descending to the sensationalism paraded on social media. The good thing about the EndSARS protest is that it has exposed the impact of fake news in society. Now, many are calling for the caution of spreading such news on social media platforms. Celebrities who have a large following are toeing the same path, urging their followers to be careful of the news they spread. To be fair, the Senate introduced the anti-Social Media Bill in 2019 to punish peddlers of false or malicious information but the provisions provided in the bill have been comdemned by human rights activists and civil society organisations, including Amnesty International