Barely two months to the general elections, fake news has been employed by some supporters of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as a campaign strategy to discredit one another.
It’s against this background that BBC World Service brought together stakeholders at a one-day conference tagged: “Nigeria 2019: Countering Fake News” to seek solutions to this problem ahead of the general elections.
Nobel laureate, Wole Soyinka, a panelist at the event which took place on Wednesday, January 9, 2019, described fake news as deliberate, destructive and a likely cause of a World War 3.
“I’ve said this before that fake news may cause World War III and the fake news will be started by a Nigerian,” Soyinka declared causing mixed reactions in the audience.
A young lady who sat by my left-hand-side whispered: “That is a very serious statement. Very serious,” she emphasised.
“But, fake news is serious, too. Very serious,” replied a tall, dark man by her side as she nodded in affirmation.
As calm is returned to the Congress Hall, venue of the event, Soyinka continued: “I’ve been killed several times on the internet; I actually enjoy reading my own obituary.
“Those who create fake news are sick in the head and they are also cowards because they lack the conviction of their own that beliefs and so they transfer to others what they are thinking.”
The Nobel laureate called for the criminalisation of fake news as means of reducing the menace.
“We need to accept the fact that fake news is real and it should be treated as a crime. There are already existing laws to prosecute offenders of fake news in the country,” he added.
Osinbajo on fake news
In his keynote address, Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, recalled a recent incident where fake news almost caused him marital discord.
“I have been one of the targets of fake news,” Osinbajo began. “It can also sometimes cause you marital peace. I got a call from my wife about three or four weeks ago and she said Yemi what are you doing with strippers and I said what do you mean by strippers? So, I read a story in a famous blog that said, ‘Osinbajo caught with strippers’.
“And there was a photograph of me sitting between two perfectly clothed ladies but underneath this picture, the same ladies were not wearing much.
“In fact-checking the photographs with these two ladies at an entertainment event were taken when they were perfectly clothed but by the time the story was put out, it was as though I had taken a photo with them at the time they were not clothed at all.
“As it turns out, I wasn’t in the picture of where they were not wearing clothes but just the caption, the stories and all that gave the impression that here I was in the company of these ladies at a point when they were doing their business. I think the capacity of fake news to cause great harm is not in doubt at all,” he stated.
Fake news and INEC
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), has also felt the heat.
Just recently, the PDP spokesman, Kola Ologbodiyan, raised an alarm that the electoral body had “appointed President Muhammadu Buhari’s niece, Amina Zakari, to announce results of the 2019 presidential elections”.
But, INEC’s national commissioner, Festus Okoye, said Zakari’s role as head of the collection center committee has nothing to do with actual collation of votes.
He noted that INEC would ensure timely release of election results in order to counter unverifiable figures that may get into the public space by purveyors of fake news.
Countering fake news
The President of the Nigerian Guild of Editors and Editor-in-Chief of the New Telegraph newspaper, Funke Egbemode, urged journalists to ensure that stories and claims are verified before publishing.
Similarly, the founder of Bella Naija, Uche Pedro, urged the authorities to employ technology in the dissemination of information to the public.
Paying tribute to Nigeria’s “vibrant” national and regional media, the Director of BBC World Service Group, Jamie Angus, revealed plans by his organisation to counter fake news in Nigeria, especially during the elections.
"As the internet becomes ever more accessible with cheap smart phones and free data, and as free Apps that can mimic mouths, voices and facial expressions become more sophisticated and freely available …the challenge will grow; fakes will become harder to spot, the 'cloning of President Buhari' is just a taster of what armchair deep fakers will be able to achieve," he said.
"The BBC will be doing fact checking around claims made during the election campaign. Our African digital team have been learning about specialist data journalism techniques, in order to deliver fact checks on health, education and the economy.
"A lot of what we can do to fight fake news is to use the basic tools of journalism – check the story, check the facts, check the source," he added.
Angus noted that the recent expansion of BBC West Africa was to cater for the information needs of Nigerians -- its single largest audience outside of United States of America and the United Kingdom.
Earlier, the head of BBC Africa Languages, Oluwatoyosi Ogunseye, said the global media organisation would be deploying fifty reporters to all the states in Nigeria for the election coverage.
"For this election, the BBC will have about 50 reporters in Nigeria. There will be minimum of one BBC reporter per state, with some states having more than two reporters," she announced.
This, according to her, would ensure that news on the elections get to its over 34 million readers, listeners and viewers across the globe in good time thereby reducing the spread of false information.
The media organisation would also be engaging 10 governorship aspirants across selected states in a debate from Thursday, January 10, 2019.