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 text of the 13th Annual Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria (FRCN) Lecture presented by Professor Ayobami Ojebode, Department of Communication and Language Arts
University of Ibadan, Ibadan.
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?
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.
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.
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.
A piece of factual information may be meant to amuse. For instance, many of the reports as the jollof rice war between Ghanaians and Nigerians belong here. That terrific war began in 2015 and is still on, three years after. It was reported in the major newspapers including even the BBC (See BBC, 2017). The Honourable Minister of Information and Culture and the Vice President were gallant on the battlefield while the battle lasted (See, for instance, The Cable, 2017; The Vanguard, 2017). When Nigeria’s Atinuke Ogunsalu won the first global jollof rice competition held in the United States in 2017, we thought the battle was over and we should embark on post-war efforts. But it was not. This year, the Gambians won the war.
A piece of factual information can also be meant to amass followers, clicks, votes and money. Political marketing and Public Relations are examples of this. The aim is to make profit. When a piece of factual information is designed to hurt, that we call, for lack of a better term, “vicious truth”. It is truth driven by hate. The quick point here is that not every factual and accurate news is harmless or noble.
A piece of twisted or exaggerated information may be designed to simply amuse people. Satires belong to this category – there is usually some truth in them but the truth is always extended or exaggerated or twisted. When driven by profit and greed, they become unethical marketing and Public Relations. They manifest in the form of massaged statistics, twisted logic when driven by hate.
When a piece of fabricated or contrived news is designed to amuse, you have tainted humour in there.
BREAKING: The Minister of Information has apologised on behalf of the Federal Government for the failure of harmattan to kick off as scheduled. Speaking after the Federal Executive Council meeting, he assured Nigerian that this year, there will be enough harmattan to go round so that they will have a wonderful Christmas.
This is certainly fake news, but it is not meant to do harm. Silly as it is, it cannot be regarded as malicious. It is driven by the human craving to amuse and be amused. When such a piece is driven by greed, it is a different product that you have. Unethical marketing and political Public Relations fall within that box. When fabrication is driven by hate, then we have the worst product that we can imagine.
What is the reward of this academic exercise? Several, I would say. With this basic mapping that we just did, we now have a clear idea of where the landmines are. No one should worry much about factual information designed to amuse. Who would really have a sleepless night over jollof wars? If all wars were like that, I would be a soldier. In a recent interview, Professor Wole Soyinka, after expressing his known disdain for all the frivolities on social media, acknowledged what he called “the partnership of technology for freeing or freezing the imaginative function” (Chutel, 2017). If we discredit and forbid all forms of fabrication, we will be doing injustice to the creative mind, and by a short extension, humanity.
What we should worry about are twisted or fabricated contents driven by greed. And what we should gang up against are factual, twisted or fabricated contents which are meant to harm and are driven by hate. In the campaign towards the 2015 elections, we had a barrage of such contents from all strata of our leadership.
They came from expected quarters, such as from a militant:
There will be no peace, not only in the Niger Delta, but everywhere if Goodluck Jonathan is not president by 2015
And from politicians:
It is going to be rig and roast. We are prepared not to go to court but drive them out…
Sadly, they came also from unexpected quarters, such as from a traditional ruler:
On Saturday, if anyone of you, I swear in the name of God, goes against my wish … the person is going to die inside this water…
From a cleric:
It is a sin to vote for someone who cannot lead you in prayer, and you will be punished for it. Anyone married to a kafir cannot lead you in prayer.
From another cleric:
… if you see anybody here kill him! Kill him and spill his blood on the ground. I am saying that to you, what nonsense, what devil.
From a former minister:
They are collectively unlettered, uncouth, uncultured, unrestrained and crude in all their ways…Money and the acquisition of wealth is their sole objective and purpose in life
From a governor:
Those who want to take power through the back door will die. They will die.
And if you still think women are the weaker sex and compassionate mothers, listen to this:
Anybody that come and tell you change, stone that person… What you did not do in 1985, is it now that old age has caught up with you that you want to come and change…You cannot change rather you will turn back to a baby.
The human proclivity for hatred and falsehood does not respect age, religion, gender or ethnicity.
Yet, producing or spreading fake news and hate speech is not reflex action. It is a deliberate and calculated attempt to mislead, intimidate, demean and defeat a person or a group of people. In fact, it is like warfare. No wonder that the most virulent peddlers of hate speech in some parts of the North call themselves sojojin baka – soldiers of the mouth or those who fight with mouth. Wherever there is a fight, there is always a weapon but there is also always casualty.
Fake news and hate speech together form a weapon, a deadly one, in the hands of merchants of hate. These merchants of hate come in various forms. There are massive online influencers whose merchandise is hate and fake news, and they have large following. How does one resist the urge to mention a person like Idris Ahmed who sits in the comfort of his rented flat in Coventry, United Kingdom and gush out hot hatred on Facebook on a daily basis? On October 3, he wrote on Facebook:
The Berom terrorists are in a class of their own. They are the worst savage barbarians Africa has ever produced. We must WIPE-OUT the Berom terrorists, by whatever means necessary. (See Adegoke & BBC Eye, 2018)
And that is not the worst he ever posted. And the comments of his followers were even worse. His notoriety has earned him repeated blocking by Facebook.
The number of Nigerians spewing hate across the Atlantic is on the rise indeed. Crawling all over the cyberspace, they produce and circulate videos, audios and texts calling people to arms. The Diaspora once remitted home only money; now, some of them remit much more.
Professional commentators are the second group. These ones comment on every news story on newspaper websites – some of them draw wages from their principals for the job of spreading hate among principals’ political opponents. Hiding under the anonymity provided by the Internet, they deceive, demean and dehumanise people and ethnic groups.
The third group of hate merchants operate offline and “below the line” exploiting cheap technology. The sojojin baka, earlier referred to, and other groups like them compose hate narratives and hate songs. Some even produce cheap CDs for the wide circulation of their gob of slime. This is really lethal because these people target the least literate segments of the society who do not use the Internet. These are people who cannot fact check, even if they wish to, and have not been trained on the use of the critical faculty.
When fake news meets hate speech, the consequences can be devastating. We have been witnesses of massive destruction of lives and property linked to fake news, and hate speech.
It begins in a schoolroom,
on a street, in the market, at a shop:
Inzoka, inyenzi. (Snakes, cockroaches)
You are animal—
you deserve to be killed.
It requires no training,
merely a lifetime to learn.
To commit genocide,
simply forget your victims are human.
Forget you are human as well
(Laura Apol, Genocide I begin to Understand)
In this short poem, Apol tells us that violence and destruction have subtle origins. They begin as jokes, aliases, and harmless banters. They begin in the unlikely places – schoolroom, market, and shop. They begin slowly and grow overtime. Like the frog in the boiling frog hypothesis, we adjust our psyche, we shift our standard, we expand gradually and become insensitive to the heat. She also tells us that linguistic violence always goes before physical violence. At the end, both victims and perpetrators of hate lose their humanity: simply forget your victims are human; forget you are human as well.
But this does not always have to happen. In addition to big workshops aimed at media organisations, militant groups and other adult citizens, suppose we begin to integrate critical and reflective thinking in our primary and secondary school curricula. Suppose we begin to teach kids not just the language of love but also the skills to detect and respond to falsehood and hate speech. Suppose each parent, each uncle, each aunt, each neighbour takes it upon himself or herself to teach a child a day on the dangers of hate speech and the skills for detecting fake news. That way we would be building a sure bulwark against the next genocide. As a fragile and conflict-affected state, our fragility sets up for repeated conflagration, but we can and should do a lot about it.
The Redemptive Role of the Media
If 2015 was our all-time low in hate speech and fake news for electoral purposes, does 2019 promise to be better? Government agencies, security agencies, media houses, and non-governmental organisations have rolled out an all-out campaign against fake news and hate speech especially as the elections approach. Yet, the rate of fake news and hate speech does not seem to be abating.
For the media to lead or support the fight against fake news and hate speech, it must first redeem itself. Within the last one year, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) has recorded and sanctioned 260 cases of hate speech on radio and television. It has sanctioned 347 cases of unverifiable claims, which is a cousin of fake news. A few examples will illustrate the need for the traditional media to address its own recalcitrance on this subject. On 03 February, this year, the NBC warned TVC (Lagos) for hate speech; barely a month after, TVC got a second warning for the same offence. About a week after the second warning, it erred again and was fined N500,000. Express FM (Kano) was fined for hate speech on 12 September, 2018. It was fined again for the same offence on 16 September, and again on 17 September. Therefore, for the media, charity must begin at home. Physicians, heal thyself.
It is important for the traditional media professionals to realise that many Nigerians in search of authentic information turn to them. In the coming elections, as they have done in the past, people will roam from website to website and from blog to blog, in search of sensations. After that, most people will turn to their television, radio and newspaper (online or offline) for the real news. Nigerians are getting wiser – many now know that these thousand websites that spring up shortly before elections and disappear after are not to be taken seriously. They know that anyone can tweet anything or post anything on Facebook. They are expecting that the good old gatekeepers in the media industry will again serve them well in the 2019 elections.
The National Broadcasting Commission, the National Press Council, the News Agency of Nigeria, and other stakeholders should lead us in the compilation of a national directory of hate words and expressions. This should be updated constantly and be made available to the public. A Europe-based organisation is currently doing this in 25 languages none of which is a Nigerian language. We should compile our own directory. Then those who will have committed hate speech in error will have a guide to consult. I have the word of the Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research, Innovation and Strategic Partnership) of the University of Ibadan that our expert lexicographers in Ibadan and the University of Ibadan Management are willing to participate in this project.
Traditional media – offline and online – should resume their role as agenda setters. In the fake news of the gay community and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, one wondered: why would The Nation and Vanguard be led by online sources whose existence is shifty and character dubious? Who should depend on whom for leadership? As traditional media return once again to the basics of journalism, they would be immune to the onslaught of fake news and hate speech. The basics of “if in doubt, leave out” and “if in doubt, find out” should be more strictly observed in the coming elections. Only a redeemed media can redeem the nation from drowning in the turbulence of malicious misinformation and hate mongering that is already gathering.
Part of that redemptive role in the coming general elections would be working as a counterforce to fake news and hate speech. Media organisations could have an item on their website menu named “FAKE NEWS”, like a flying banner where citizens in search of truth can check and find the latest fake news. Countering fake news should be news. And as we zoom in on the elections, we should realise where fake news and hate speech will cluster: you will find them around campaign issues, voting schedules, distribution of voting materials, disruption of voting, and election results. Traditional media should specifically vet any reports around these “flash points” of fake news. And when they are sure that the result is genuine, they should vet again.
There is need for partnership across media platforms and organisations for truthful and hate-free reporting in the coming elections. Premium Times Centre for Investigative Journalism has been at the forefront of this kind of partnership with its dubawa.org. Dubawa works with other fact-check organisations to debunk false claims and fake news. On its website, one would find scores of fake news and how they are debunked. Dubawa.org also allows citizens to interact with it thereby becoming part of the debunking partners and collaborators in sanitising the society. We need to broaden this kind of partnership and set up an alert system to which all partner media houses can subscribe. Once a fake news item or hate speech “breaks” the alert informs every subscriber to the outbreak. Even INEC should be a partner on this.
Finally, and this is to my constituency: beyond the 2019 elections, our communication curricula must be urgently reviewed to better equip our products with the skills and sensitivity implied in the foregoing discussion. Such a review must address not just the skills, but the heart and the head.
The topic of my lecture restricts me to the role of the media in the coming elections. I must however say that fighting fake news and hate speech is more than what the media alone can do. The government, political parties, civil society organisations, the academe, and every citizen have interwoven roles to play. Fighting fake news and hate speech is not about information; it is about our very survival.