Fake News Controversy

The Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, recently sparked some controversy when he stated that the spreading of ‘fake news’, (predominately by social media, he reported), “is so serious that it threatened to break the country rapidly even more than insurgency’’.

This was part of a speech he gave in early February at the National Security Seminar in Abuja with the theme “Consolidating on the Gains of Counter Terrorism Operations in Nigeria’’, organized by the National Defense College of Nigeria, the Office of the National Security Adviser and the Alumni Association of National Defense College.

Minister Mohammed shared his belief that different groups continued to use, (and generate), fake news reports to tear the country apart by driving a wedge between different religious groups or other affiliations, potentially inciting more violence and discord. The minister cited several examples highlighting the problem, one of which was the claim across social media that the military was funding the Fulani Herdsmen responsible for killing over a thousand civilians in the North-central Nigerian state of Benue. Although the reality of that violence is not in question, the minister vehemently denied that there was any actual evidence that the military was funding these herdsmen in any way, and such a belief by the citizens was generating extreme fear and mistrust of the military for no reason.

It does also appear that Nigeria is not the only country that is seeing a rise in social media circulating ‘fake news’ to drive a public perception and initiate actions in response. For anyone familiar with the recent U.S. presidential election, the notion of incorrect information or fake news being propagated across social media, is certainly not something ‘new’. During the U.S. election, there were numerous ‘stories’ that were posted as facts across social media with to foster support for one of the candidates, or in some cases, generate hate for the other candidate. If the reader of the article agreed with the content of the story it would be blasted out as fact again and again. In one example, Trump supporters circulated a story that the Pope was endorsing Trump, and Clinton supporters circulated another story indicating that the Pope was in fact supporting Hillary and praying for Trump. Both stories were accepted as fact and reposted with no attempt to understand the actual source of the story by either side or whether it was an accredited news organization authoring the information.

In Nigeria, another example that Minister Mohammad cited to support his point was the recent case where social media widely reported that President Buhari was dead and not in London on a medical vacation (link here to previous blog article about missing Prez). This began to increase the unrest in the country and alarm citizens for no reason. The only way that this fake news was refuted was when the ‘real news’ of President Trump’s phone call to President Buhari in early February was verified and widely communicated through well reputed news organizations. (Link here to previous blog on Trump phone call to the Prez).

So how will Nigeria or other countries combat this problem of fake news? … Minister Mohammad is lobbying for a much more robust and comprehensive communication strategy that also utilizes social media. He recommends having members of the government and military be very active on social media, monitoring and correcting stories as needed, ‘beating the fake news propagators at their own game so to speak’, or at least levelling the playing field. This would be of course in addition to continuing with extensive communications in the more traditional news channels to reinforce the true messages.

Will this new strategy succeed? Only time will tell, but it is certainly something other countries will be watching and hoping to learn from as well.