Apr 14, 2020

Fake News and The War Against COVID-19 – Nonso Anyasi

There is no gainsaying that the entire planet earth has been held hostage by the novel Corona Virus pandemic which has spread across the different continents and has caused its human population to run into hiding in a concerted bid to halt the spread of the virus. The various lockdown orders issued by governments all over the world has compelled citizens to spend entirety of their time indoors and nearly idle, with many having little to do but scavenge the internet in search for updates on the war against the pandemic. The increasing idleness occasioned by the stay-at-home orders worldwide, coupled with widespread panic and the nearing collapse of several economies have led to the surge and development of fake news relating to the cause and effect of the virus all over the world. Several individuals and organizations have resorted to manufacturing and spreading fake news largely bordering on conspiracy theories to advance their selfish interests. The continuous activities of these fake news merchants have begun to take its toll on the global battle against the pandemic outbreak.

Freedom of expression and the press have always been distinguishing hallmarks of any democratic society. Without these fundamental liberties, a government which purports to be of the people, by the people, and for the people cannot function as such. The practice of democracy in a populous nation is best utilized through the use of the representative system wherein some persons are appointed or elected to make and implement policies on behalf of the citizenry. These representatives need to know the wishes of their constituents. Likewise, the citizens also need feedback on the performance of their leaders. The media provides a bridge through which the needs of the citizens are communicated to their leaders, and vice-versa. The media therefore plays a very crucial role in the sustenance of any democratic society.

The media can however be sabotaged to suit the selfish interests of a select few through the dissemination of unverified or manufactured information also known as fake news. These selfish interest may be fueled by either pecuniary gain or some other political benefits. Fake news is often employed to shake the citizens’ trust in their elected representatives by discrediting the achievements and exaggerating the shortcomings of the government. This crafty use of fabricated news is known to have toppled past governments. Nigerian coup plotters understand the power of the media in controlling a government, hence they tend to take-over the media houses simultaneously as power is seized from the Head of State.

Following the discovery of the index case of Corona Virus in Nigeria, several citizens characteristically took to social media to re-affirm their absolute distrust and loss of confidence in the efforts of the Buhari-led Federal Government to combat the spread of the virus in Nigeria. Some political miscreants and troublemakers saw the pandemic as an opportunity to score cheap political points as they attempted to undermine public confidence in the federal and states governments. However, as the Federal Government reeled out its plans for the battle against the outbreak, some persons also seized the initiative to resort to the incessant use of fake news to frustrate the Federal Government’s effort in the battle against the outbreak.

Dissemination of fake news has always been a threat to the existence of any society. The threat is more pronounced in a democratic society, given the presence of a near-absolute freedom of expression and the press. With the advent of the internet and the social media, the threat has aggravated to even greater proportions. Fake news was previously curtailed under military rule by censoring the media houses and monitoring information disseminated therefrom. Editors-in-chief of newspapers were held accountable for their publications. Libel suits were common as aggrieved individuals whose interests had been slighted by fake news merchants sought succor from the courts. The duty of care on the media to verify information was very high due to fear of the repercussions of peddling fake news. This fear however affected the quality of news released, as news merchants were sometimes intimidated into disguising the truth in order to please those in power.

In the democratic era, the constitutional freedom given to the press to disseminate information has made the battle against fake news challenging. The internet and social media has further been utilized by fake news merchants who benefit from the anonymity granted by the internet to continue their news-fabrication activities. The Nigerian government has likened the effect of fake news on our multi-ethnic and multi-religious society to a time bomb waiting to explode. Several campaigns have been launched to curtail the spread of fake news capable of undermining the peace and national unity of the nation.

The battle against fake news is met with stiff resistance from the news merchants who are often sponsored by opposition politicians benefitting immensely from the societal unrest created by such fabricated news. They feed on the gullibility of innocent citizens who accelerate the dissemination of unverified speculations through the aggressive use of social media share buttons. This can result in widespread anarchy and societal instability which consequently leads to democratic overthrow and a return to authoritarianism. The 1966 coup which ushered in military rule in Nigeria was preceded by such propaganda-induced ethnic violence.

However, given the wide-reaching effects of the Federal Government’s Lockdown Order, the tactics employed by previous administrations in the battle against fake news cannot succeed in the present socio-economic clime in the wake of the outbreak for a number of reasons. Firstly, majority of the fake news being spread about the virus, although being carefully crafted by mischief makers are not being disseminated through the traditional means of media via which attribution can be easily ascertained. The sponsors of the fake news have chosen to employ the anonymity of the internet and the social media to spread such harmful and bogus information which is almost untraceable to them. WhatsApp BC’s, voice notes and videos have become a favourite weapon in the arsenal of fake news peddlers who are assured that such nefarious publications cannot be traced back to them.

Another unsavory factor which has seriously hampered the government’s efforts in the fight against fake news in this pandemic era is the mass ignorance and illiteracy which has threatened to envelope the Nigerian public. Sadly, this ignorance which is fueled by rising panic appears to have transcended beyond the borders of Nigeria, as citizens of other Countries have also begun to construct conspiracy theories on the outbreak and spread of the virus. In the first week of April alone, the United Kingdom authorities were confronted with the task of disputing the relationship between Corona Virus and 5G technology. The UK authorities who were not quick to combat this conspiracy theory sadly suffered casualties as several 5G installations around the Kingdom were attacked by ignorant citizens in a series of what they termed “reprisal attacks” against the virus. The United States has also been faced with a similar battle against several theories linking the cause of the outbreak to biological and economic warfare by the Chinese. Although some of these theories have neither been conclusively proved nor disproved in the home countries where they emanated, snippets of these theories have crept into the Nigerian territory and the Nigerian Federal Government has an added burden of disputing these conspiracies whilst they persevere in their efforts to halt the spread of the virus.

The effects of the spread of fake news in Nigeria during the pandemic has been massive. The chief result of fake news is loss of public confidence in the government. This in turn leads to dire consequences such as willful disobedience to the directives of the government on preventive measures of social distancing and personal hygiene which can degenerate to a massive spread of the virus. Another effect of fake news which is currently being felt in Lagos and Ogun States is public unrest which has threatened the security of some border towns along the two states. Some selfish Nigerians have inspired other citizens to view the lockdown order with resentment, thus creating grave security implications. The spate of armed robbery incidents and cult clashes which can be directly linked to information about the lockdown order have tremendously tripled in the affected states in the past weeks. Several mischief makers also thrive on fueling further insecurity and panic in the affected areas by sharing false reports of robbery attacks, thus frustrating the efforts of the security forces who are tasked with the challenge of sieving genuine cries for help from false alarms.

The Nigerian economy is also suffering an indirect consequence of the activities of fake news, as some indigenous and foreign businesses are the targets of sponsored campaigns built on false information. It is not uncommon to see an army of Social Media Influencers leading a harshtag campaign for the boycott of a particular brand due to reasons not unconnected to the Corona Virus pandemic. The extent of the effect of fake news on the Nigerian economy would be greater appreciated in the post-COVID-19 era, when we would have greater flexibility in assessing the extensive damage suffered by each sector of the economy.

The best way to combat fake news is by simply disbelieving the information peddled. This is possible when the level of literacy and political tolerance is high. A joint effort by the government, digital and traditional media agencies is needed to educate Nigerians not to believe everything they hear and read without verifying the source of such information. The Federal Ministry of Communications and Digital Economy led by the tech-savvy Dr. Isa Pantami has been remarkable in its efforts to lead the frontline in discrediting fake news spread digitally, however, it needs to take more proactive steps to educate Nigerians on the activities of fake news merchants and the effect of fake news on the war against the pandemic. Furthermore, media practitioners, especially verified digital media operators, should resist the temptation of resorting to unsubstantiated sensationalism in exchange for quick pecuniary gains. When objective honesty is its’ watchword, the media plays a key role in the sustenance of democracy. Social Media stakeholders also have a crucial role to play in ensuring that their platforms are not utilized to share fake information. This would albeit be difficult, but not unattainable, given the near-absolute right to information which exists in the international community. WhatsApp has announced plans to limit the use of its “Forwarding” functionality to limit the spread of fake news which is primarily spread by forwarding and copying on its platform. It is suggested that other Social Media Sites like Facebook and Twitter take similar proactive steps which include but are not limited to deleting posts which other users have identified to be fake, banning/suspending known peddlers and distributors of fake information from the use of their platform, until this outbreak is over.

The war against the Corona Virus pandemic requires active participation from everyone. With all hands on deck to battle the counter-attack of fake news, we can eliminate the avoidable effects of fake news and make considerable wins in the global war against COVID-19.

 Nonso Anyasi