Perhaps, the man we should give the honour of popularising the term ‘fake news’ is President Donald Trump. In the months leading up to his election in 2016, he threw the phrase around, branding renowned news outlets like CNN, CBS as peddlers of fake news.
In Nigeria, recent times have seen an exponential increase in the amount of ‘fake news’ being reported. By a cursory glance, one can see that the proliferation of fake news is making a mockery of journalism even though it’s been a reputable and essential profession. Being a mass communicator, I had to ask to assess what fake news really is and the effect that it has on society.
What is fake news?
Gelfert Axel (2018) in a paper titled: “In Fake News: A Definition,” states that we can understand ‘fake news’ as a deliberate, false presentation of information geared toward manipulating the audience or readers. It is a tool of propaganda that may take on the form of:
Usually, certain news organisations do this when facts on a matter are unclear. Falsehood here may also refer to leaving out an important detail.
Consistent with the practice of Yellow Journalism, journalists may rely on emotive appeals that manipulate the audiences’ feelings and drive them to view the information in a particular way.
Framing is a technique in the agenda-setting concept. Certain aspects of a story can be selected and presented within a field of meaning. Thus, the information itself is not untrue, but the way it is presented affects how it is viewed.
Therefore, with fake news, the pillars of journalism – fairness, objectivity, balance and accuracy – are not observed. Mind you, someone ALWAYS benefits from the dissemination of fake news.
History of fake news
It is so easy to surmise that the prevalence of fake news is a 21st century problem, made easier by the incursion of the Internet. But, I did a bit of digging and discovered differently. The Telegraph reports that it was effectively used by Octavian (who later changed his name to Augustus) as far back as 31 BC to clinch victory over Marc Anthony in the final war of the Roman Republic by carrying out a campaign that misinformed the people.
The late 19th century saw fake news become the norm as Yellow Journalism took centre stage to boost readership. Vulgar headlines, factual errors, unsubstantiated claims were blatantly featured.
In 1925 Italian leader, Benito Mussolini accused the papers of his day of being carriers of fake news for reporting his ill health. Timeline Reports states that he claimed they were “ready to stop at nothing to increase circulation and make money.” It is worthy of note that the report turned out to be true, but that does not eliminate the fact that ‘fake news’ was a thing back then.
Back home in Nigeria, with multiple interests to be promoted, the media became the perfect tool for such, turning journalism into a market for the highest bidder where facts can be taken to the anvil to be beaten into shape.
As the years passed by, the Internet became a widespread phenomenon. Anyone with Internet access can post information for public consumption and most times, the information is based on gossip and conjecture. Quite unfortunately, some major news outlets run these stories without critically checking their accuracy.
Impact of fake news on the Nigerian democracy
A typical example of fake news in circulation is that President Buhari had shut down the Aso Rock Villa Church in 2015. Femi Adesina, the president’s special adviser on media and publicity described the report as false.
Another is the claim that the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) leader, Nnamdi Kanu had apologised to President Buhari for calling the president a terrorist and paedophile. However, Kanu’s lawyer Vincent Obetta denied the apology.
Shifting the focus to the online environment, Dr Kemi Omololu-Olunloyo and Linda Ikeji, have been repeatedly accused of spreading fake news to the point that Omololu-Olunloyo was arrested in March 2017 for a controversial statement she made about the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo.
In July 2018, Premium Times reported that the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed announced that the government had launched a campaign against fake news. Mohammed said, “It is a clear and present danger to global peace and security. It is a threat to democracy.”
Democracy is an idea that emphasises the plurality of views, free flow of information and fair representation in the government. However, the dividends of democracy can only be reaped when there are truth and fairness in public information. There is no real democracy in a nation where individuals – whether political office holders or private citizens – are defamed at will.
More so, the fact that the end-game of fake news is to exploit and manipulate is cause for concern, it then brings to mind the image of a puppeteer pulling the strings of a puppet. The people are being herded in a direction that satisfies the puppeteer’s selfish interests.
We must not forget that democracy is supported by the tripod of the supremacy of the law, equality before the law and principle of individual rights. All these are held together by reliable, factual, information. So, how can the populace choose a credible leader when they are fed with lies or slanted stories?
As the fourth estate of the realm, it is the job of the media to preserve the sanctity of democracy by being watchdogs and offering a platform for the presentation of different views, but at this rate, the Nigerian democracy is at great peril.
At present, there is little regulation of the mode of entry into the journalistic profession. For example, an engineer with a flair for broadcasting could quickly get a job as a presenter at a radio station.
Thus, it is imperative that journalism is marked by strict standards and ethics of performance with specific penalties if rules are disregarded. There should be a high level of professionalism demanded of media practitioners, much like the way no random person can pick up scalpel or defend suspects in courts simply because they have a knack for it and read up on the procedure. This is important because when media practitioners are not grounded in the foundation of the profession, they resort to gimmicks to push circulation or ratings.
In conclusion, I understand that the regulation of the Internet appears not feasible and would be dangerously close to the infringement on the rights of individuals to freely access and exchange information. However, I believe the onus is on reputable media organisations to sensitise their audiences on how to recognise and ignore fake news by setting the standards of news reporting and condemning fake news in every form.