Many people would say that the menace of fake news came with the advent of the social media. Fake news has been around with us, but it became a global phenomenon in the buildup to the 2016 election in the United States. Since then fake news has become a global threat, touching on politics, economy, and virtually every other thing. Nonetheless, the social media, because of its reach and speed, has helped to bring to the front burner the menace of fake news. Fake news is also spread using the traditional media platforms. “Fake news is a global issue. It is not just a Nigerian issue, but we are more concerned about Nigeria because of the potential it has to our corporate existence. It is true that the major pivotal of fake news is probably the social media but gradually it is also penetrating into the traditional media. The moment a media organization loses its credibility, the society is in trouble”, said Lai Mohammed.
It was probably President Buhari’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Muhammed, who popularized what is known in Nigeria today as fake news. To control the menace of fake news in the country, the Federal Government tinkered the idea of promulgating a law against purveyors of fake news. Speaking at a public function in Abuja, Lai Mohammed noted that fake news was capable of damaging Nigeria’s reputation abroad and strewing national disunity. He had earlier described fake news as a “time bomb”. He said: “Misinformation and hate speech threaten the peace, unity, security and corporate existence of Nigerians. In particular, in a country like Nigeria which is multi-ethnic and religious, fake news and hate speech is a time bomb.”
During a symposium organized by the BBC in 2019 on fake news in Nigeria, it was highlighted that fake news was more dangerous in stoking rivalries and conflicts between different ethnic nationalities. The symposium which attracted some top personalities in the country, including the Nobel Prize Laureate, Prof. Wole Soyinka, who described the menace of fake news as capable of causing World War 3. He said: “I have said this before that fake news may cause World War 3 and that fake news will be started by a Nigerian”. Soyinka added that fake news was also capable of forcing Nigeria’s nationalities into ethno-tribal cocoons”.
A bill against fake news had emerged in the Senate on November 5, 2019. The Bill: “Protection from Internet Falsehoods, Manipulations and Other Related Matters Bill 2019”, became popular among Nigerians as the Anti-Social Media bill. The Bill, sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, sought to criminalize the use of the social media to peddle false or malicious news and had passed second reading on the floor of the Senate before public outcry came down hard against it. The sponsor of the Bill said it was aimed at preventing falsehoods and manipulations in the internet transmission and correspondences in Nigeria. The Bill also provided stiff penalties for offenders.
Fake news is not new in Imo State. We have had to live with its ugly consequences. In the build-up to the 2011 governorship election in the state, a group known as the Alliance for Good Governance became the chief purveyor of fake news. It was from this nebulous organization that Imo people were fed the fake news that the Ikedi Ohakim administration awarded contract for the dredging of Nworie River to the tune of N18bn. There was no social media as we know it today, but the newspapers and radio stations fed fat on the fake news. It took the effort of a non-journalist in the state to unravel the fact that the contract for the dredging of Nworie River was awarded by the NDDC for far less than N18bn. But that was after Ohakim had left office in 2011.
There was another fake news that Ohakim had ordered that no one should wear “bathroom slippers” in Owerri. He was also quoted to have said that Owerri was not meant for the poor. Another fake news had it that Ohakim said that education was not for the poor. And of course, the father of them all was the fake news that Ohakim beat up a Rev. Father. As usual, all the media houses in the state fed fat on the fake news. In no time it became both a national and international news item. If there was anything we battled to diffuse during the 2015 and 2019 governorship election campaigns, it was the fake news that Ohakim beat up a Rev. Father. Many people are not persuaded yet that Ohakim did not beat up the Rev Father. Not even the recanting of the respected Rev Father Ejike Mbaka on the matter in August 2014 could persuade many of those who swallowed the fake news hook, line and sinker to accept that what they had believed was a ruse.
No government or top politician in Imo State since 1999 has been spared from fake news. A former Senator in Okigwe Zone had his own baptism with fake news when he contested the 2007 governorship election. He was accused of engaging in everything evil. Governor Okorocha also had his share of fake news. However, the menace of fake news and hate speech has taken a frightening dimension since Distinguished Senator Hope Uzodinma became the Governor of Imo State.
The opposition in the state has found pleasure in manufacturing and spreading fake news. With what we have seen from the current opposition in the state, it might be safe to conclude that what we had in the past was child’s play. Few months ago the opposition churned out a lie that Governor Uzodinma had turbaned three Emirs in the state and created three emirates as well. The opposition had also churned out the lie that the Governor had renamed the Imo State University to Abba Kyari University. Not done, the opposition churns out the lie that the Governor has done nothing since he assumed office. They have also credited the achievements of the Governor to the last administration. On Thursday, May 21, a fake press release appeared on the social media with the fake news that the Governor had approved the establishment of 15 almajiri schools in the state, 5 in each of the three zones of the state. Nothing could be more ridiculous.
Perhaps the most painful of the fake news churned out by the opposition is their narratives on the covid-19 pandemic, forging of government’s letter-head, government press release and signature of government’s officials. Speaking on the threat posed by fake news in Imo State, the new Director General of the Imo State Orientation Agency, Hon. Ethelbert Okere, said that the peddling of fake news misinforms the people and poisons their minds to the extent that they no longer see anything good about the government and her officials. He added that fake news poses great danger to the society at large. He said: “Imagine a situation where a fellow or a group of fellows would forge the letter-head paper of government and use it to issue a press statement with forged signature of government functionary. That is criminal but we will, through advocacy, let such people drop such habits both in their own interest and that of the entire state” (sic).
We agree with the Imo Orientation Agency DG that criticism is an essential aspect of democracy, “but it must be constructive and based on facts, not lies concocted to score political points” (sic). We must make concerted efforts to preserve our state and not tear it to shreds in the name of politics.