Fake news, hate speech and the 2019 general election ­—The redemptive role of the Nigerian media

fake newsA vignette:

A friend of yours confided in you that she intends to drop out of school to get married. Write a letter to her giving, at least, three reasons why she should stay in school. (WAEC, English Language; Paper 1, 2011) Word length = 450

That was how we all started. This or similar instructions confronted us in our examination halls, and uncorked our creative impetus. If truly you had a female friend, she most likely did not intend to drop out of school. If she intended to, it probably was not because she wanted to marry. If it was because she wanted to marry, she probably had not told you so. If she had told you, you probably did not have three explanations to give her. But now within the period of 50 minutes, you must create this friend of yours. She must be a female teenager who is a student. She must be a nice girl, brilliant in school with a most promising future. You must also create her husband-to-be, possibly a good-for-nothing paedophile. And you must create three reasons that she should not drop her ambition and follow this danIska of a man. Those who pass the essay question are only those who could call into graphic existence such non-existent things as these. Do you now realise how long ago you started writing fake news?



To say that it is an honour to be asked to give this year’s FRCN lecture is indeed trite. A sheer review of those who have stood here in the last few years attests to the importance of this lecture: in 2013 this lecture was given by Prof J. I. Elaigwu, world-renowned professor of Political Science; and in 2014 the legendary Alhaji Maitama Sule took the podium; in 2015 this lecture was by Governor Owelle Rochas Okorocha, Executive Governor of Imo State; in 2016 Dr Obadaiah Mailafia, Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria delivered this lecture. Last year, it was one of the best Nigeria has in investigative journalism, Mr Dan Agbese, who stood on this podium. So I stand here with some measure of trepidation imposed by history, as I try to extend the conversation from where Mr Agbese left it a year ago.

I cannot imagine any topic that is timelier than the one chosen by the organisers of this lecture. As we move towards another round of electoral rituals, the periodic legitimisation of our rights to be called a democracy, there is widespread fear across the nation that merchants of hate would deploy the tools of information technology to mislead voters and ignite violence. The fear is not only widespread; it is also justifiable. There is already clear evidence of chaos produced by misinformation. For instance, about two months ago, the Police Public Relations Officer, Plateau State Command, Mr Tyopev Matthias stated that the Jos massacre in June this year was actually ignited by photos shared on Facebook, most of which were fake (Adegoke & BBC Eye, 2018). In another instance, as soon as Alhaji Atiku Abubakar picked his party’s nomination, hackers created a fake Twitter account in his name and used the account and name to thank an imaginary Nigerian gay community for their support. Many were misled. Worse still, two reputable newspapers believed the news and published it as major news stories. One headline ran: “2019: LGBT movement endorses Atiku; gives reason”.

The handwriting is clearly on the wall, and it is indeed important to discuss fake news and hate speech at such a time as this.


Fake News and Hate Speech: What are they?

There is a huge amount of confusion around the definition of these deceptively simple terms. And, surprisingly, those who are smart are capitalising on this conceptual confusion to foster their agenda. I shall return to this soon. But now, what is fake news?


Fake News

In academic presentations, scholars raise the profile of their presentation by, almost all the time, claiming that there is not one definition of the concept they are writing about. Driven by an aversion for whatever is simple, they (that is, we) often prefer to complicate everything to the point that the world is looking up to us to tell them what to think. While it would be an extreme to claim that all concepts are simple, it is indeed an extreme to insist that no concept is simple.

There are many definitions of fake news but they all come to two: the definition that we know, and the one imposed on us by politicians. Fake news is an account that did not occur. It is the product of a person’s imagination for purposes that may or may not be mischievous. And this is why someone observed that the term “fake news” is an oxymoron since news is supposed to be factual (rather than based on imagination or opinion) (Kershner as cited by Tandoc, Wei Lim and Ling, 2018). All the same, the term “fake news” has come to stay. Any story, presented as news, but which does not reflect what happened, or which reports what did not happen is fake news.

The second definition of fake news, that is, the definition imposed on us by politicians, is the Trumpian definition of fake news. Any news that does not support the views and ambitions, the methods and the ends of a given politician is fake news – in the views of that politician. This is not a Nigerian malaise or invention. While we should not credit President Donald Trump the honour of being the exponent of this aggression on our collective intelligence and profession, we cannot deny him the reputation of being the fieriest fanatic of that view. Every news item that suggests that President Trump might be wrong is fake news.

If politicians would define fake news in their terms and from their own profiteering standpoint, and leave journalists and the rest of us to adhere to the definition of fake news that we know, there would be little worry about the consequences of fake news. Fake news would be benign. Rather, they define fake news, and proceed to impose that definition on the rest of us. You could almost imagine a conversation between Jamal Khashoggi and the vultures that tore him to pieces:

“You have been spreading falsehood about our Kingdom and about our leader.”

“I swear that I write nothing but the truth.”

Here in Nigeria journalists undergo tutoring and re-tutoring daily in the hands of the men and women in power. It is especially bad at the state levels where we have emperors. The year 2017 recorded an upswing in the arrest of journalists in Nigeria many of which went down to what constituted fair reporting and fake news. The difference between “many people were killed” and “people were killed” accounted for the arrest and detention of Audu Makori – even after he retracted and apologised. In essence, “people were killed” was right news; “many people were killed” was fake news. The reason for Aku Obidinma’s arrest and 60 days in detention, last year, essentially boiled down to this fundamental difference in definitions. The list of such people and events is long (Paradigm Initiative, 2018).

We shall return later to what I consider the proper response to this conceptual colonisation which has become an excuse for the expression of totalitarian tendencies. But I must quickly say that many Nigerians are blindly guided by this opportunistic definition of fake news. I belong to a WhatsApp group of about 250 people, a group created to discuss “politics”. You need not spend up to an hour with us to realise that most of the visible members have fully subscribed to the politicians’ definition of fake news: it is any news that does not favour the methods and objectives of my preferred candidate – even if that news is accurate. It usually follows this manner:

A: BREAKING: Nigeria records fall in maternal mortality …

B: Fake news! APC lies

A: But this is UN data …

B: Which UN? Anything is fakeable by these people

A: But you believe the Jibril Sudani story

B: That one has been proved…

And soon, the person who discredits the data returns with:

B: Fire guts EFCC office; all vital documents, computers, microchips, everything destroyed!

A: Fake news! Only a few discarded files were burnt.

Now where do we begin? A couple of years ago, even those who disregarded the positivist approach to research held some respect for hard core data, and would at least, contemplate it before discrediting or discarding it. We have lost all of that, and quickly within a short time. We entered the post-truth era and nothing is sacred any more. It appears data no longer has value once it does not serve our purpose. Telling the truth no longer matters, and respecting the truth when told no longer matters. What should worry us is this: when we close our eyes to the truth long enough, we become totally blind to it.

Having dispensed with the politician’s definition of fake news as inexcusably intolerant and predatory, we must turn to a discussion of hate speech.


Hate speech

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (2013:4) noted that hate speech includes:

(a) all dissemination of ideas based on racial or ethnic superiority or hatred, by whatever means;

(b) incitement to hatred, contempt or discrimination against members of a group on grounds of their race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin;

(c) threats or incitement to violence against persons or groups on the grounds in (b) above;

(d) expression of insults, ridicule or slander of persons or groups or justification of hatred, contempt or discrimination on the grounds in (b) above, when it clearly amounts to incitement to hatred or discrimination;

(e) participation in organizations and activities which promote and incite racial discrimination.

One important point that this broad definition or description misses out is religion as a basis of hate speech. It notes race, colour, descent, and national or ethnic origin but sadly misses out religion.

Hate speech emerges from a deliberate act of reducing the humanity in a person or a group, a process of making them a thing, an object of much little worth. It follows a process of essentialisation: collectively sizing up a group of people, selecting what annoys us most about them, and tagging it on their forehead as their name or identity or word by which they should be known. This tagging is then fuelled by relentless repetition until it sticks.

Hate speech comes in two clear forms. One is the clear spewing out of bad and demeaning words. Cockroaches, mosquitoes, snakes, rats, infidels, unbelievers, monkeys, baboons, barbarians, bush meat and many more are the demeaning and bad expressions that have been used to describe people in Nigeria, and by Nigerians. Nigeria itself has been called a zoo and those citizens from five of the six geopolitical regions have been referred to as animals. This brash shearing of people of their humanity occurs in casual conversations, in songs and recitations, in official communications and even books and treatises. Unfortunately, it also occurs on the disciplined traditional media, even in editorials.

Let us step back in time a little to 1964.

Prodigal sons with unyielding contempt by reason of their treachery, double dealings and deliberate hypocrisy

(Eastern Nigeria Outlook describing Midwest Democratic Front in March, 1964)

And this …

… an impressive assembly of intellectuals…in display in Kano…But they are intellectuals who are good in political jingoism and rhetoric but useless in council. We are referring, of course, to the strange characters, wolves under the cloak of gentility who are attending the NCNC convention which opened in Kano yesterday … irresponsible and irrational, a conclave of disunited people, a pack of rebels, carpet-crossers and crooks”.  Nigerian Citizen, 1964 (23 Feb, 1964)

These archival examples illustrate the fact that hate speech is an old phenomenon, and may have been behind some of our interethnic woes in the country. The first sample is from the Eastern Region newspaper and the second is the Northern Region newspaper: hate speech cut and cuts across Nigeria.

Being the text of the 13th Annual Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) Lecture, delivered by Professor Ayobami Ojebode of the Department of Communication and Language Arts, University of Ibadan.

The other form of hate speech is far more subtle and dangerous. Bad and demeaning words may form the major vocabulary of hate speech, they are not the only expressions of hatred. More dangerous than these are words that are ordinarily pleasant but have overtime attained a demeaning status. Examples are: aboki (ordinarily, friend), onye ofe manu (the one whose soup has oil); Nyamiri (give me water). How does the look of a person’s soup become an expression to insult her or him? The process of essentialising is indeed a complex one. It is euphemistic and yet caustic.

So we need to be alert, and I think we already are. Nigerians understand what the word “friend” means in the expression “Police is your friend”, and they react appropriately when they hear or read that. Not all harmless words are indeed harmless. This is why we must create a national directory of hate speech, to be constantly updated and reviewed. Those who are in doubt as to the hate content of an expression can at least conduct a check.


When fake news meets hate speech

How many of us still remember our girl friend, the young teenager who informed us that she would drop out of school and follow her dream man? What all of that pedagogical experience was meant to accomplish was to sharpen our creativity and nurture our imaginative ability. These are the very skills that are deployed by writers of fake news. Should we throw away the baby, the bathwater with the sponge and the soap?

Not all fake news or instances of misinformation are malicious. Stand up comedians, writers and children generally create vivid scenes that if well structured along the 5W’s and H would qualify as faultless fake news. We need to pay closer attention to the variants of news so that we know what to tackle.

When we cross writer’s intention with content integrity, we have nine variants of news in our current information ecosystem. And when we examine the undercurrents of these nine variants, we will see where hate speech and fake news meet.

There are three possible intentions of a today’s news writer in the post-truth environment: to amuse the audience, to amass traffic and thereby money, or to attack, demean or scare a person, group or organisation. The content of a piece of fake news may be factual, twisted or completely fabricated.  The chart that follows summarises the possibilities.

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