UNNERVING RISE OF FALSE NEWS
The upshot is that false news is a growing trend and is likely here to stay. Just as the social media, it will only evolve in more diverse ways. – The author
Our intertwined world is encountering a vastly changed narrative of news flow, reportage and cause-advocacy via media.
The change is linked to growing universal rage — the so-called “age of anger”, and a sense of audacity, which drives anti-establishment sentiments and protestations.
Yet two realities are incontrovertible: fake or false news, hate speech and post truth via social media are spiraling globally, as the mainstream media is battling a crisis of legitimacy.
But just as the social media accentuates mass communication, it has thrown up an unnerving flip side –false news and post truth- which makes social media an adverse game changer.
Those who contend that social media offer a level playing field, overlook the pitfalls.
The scariest part of false news is the absence of an undo button. Evidence exist that false news has for some nations, become a tool of statecraft.
Russia meddling with recent U.S. elections is a case in point. Globally, the social order is being changed.
Alternative or rogue governments are being elected, due to the impact of false news.
Also, false news is now abetting recrudescence of rightwing extremism in Europe. The global tsunami of disinformation is replete with hybrid threats fostered by hoaxes.
Yet, the most insidious generators of false news, is the lone perpetrator, sequestered by choice in a room or café with an iPhone or tablet and access to Wi-Fi, who feels the awesome power afforded by anonymity and driven by indignation or righteousness to redress perceived societal ills.
The desire to shape opinion by legerdemain and revenge are also compelling factors.
Indubitably, false news is now the electrified third rail in global politics, Nigerian politics included.
With its vast reach, false news retains huge capacity for destructive consequences. Worryingly, there is no agreed antidote.
Recently, the Czech Republic set up a specialized anti-fake news unit to combat Russian fake news inundation.
In Africa, the response has been slow, notwithstanding that within one month, the news of the demise of Gambia’s president-elect Adama Barrow and of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari were published and gained currency, until refuted.
Less perturbing but equally fabricated news included, Eritrea polygamy report; Tanzania’s president ban on miniskirts; and Nigerian lawmakers making 11 years the age of sexual consent?
All these are examples of the dreadful phenomena we confront daily. There is real and false news.
Until recently, false news was rare and benign, except for some non-injurious clichés; “bad news is good news” and “no news is good news”.
Not anymore. False news is bad news and therefore trouble.
While rhetoric remains the bedrock of political obfuscation, false news stretches rhetoric beyond the acceptable.
Moreover, false news is primarily fueled by politics and peaks during electoral periods. Hence, the 2016 U.S. elections added credence and impetus to false news.
Why the sudden groundswell of false news?
The social media is false news breeding ground. All that’s required is just a click of the “share” icon.
Besides the anonymity provided by social media, the convenience of instantly tweeting or retweeting a news item, without confirming the veracity, underpins the spread of false news, but not the reasons for fabricating untruth.
Interestingly, the attentive public has unwittingly become part of the problem.
The natural instinct to question the authenticity of a news report, has been dulled by the euphoria of being among the first to share a scoop, be it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or WhatsApp.
What is overlooked is false news potentials as a tripwire for mob action or restiveness and possible national security implications.
False news traits include sensational and captivating headlines; oftentimes without a direct quote from the subject of the story.
False news goes beyond stretching the truth, often in malicious and troubling ways.
Hence, false news is not just capable of upturning nations’ social balance, but capable of fostering and foisting violent extremism.
False news abets political exigencies, more so where State controlled broadcast media outlets and on air personalities resort to spewing of verbiage during unmodulated call-in programmes.
There exist an inextricable nexus between false news and hate speech. Both aim to hurt.
This explains why ahead of the 2019 elections, the Abuja-based Savannah Centre for Diplomacy, Democracy and Development (SCDDD) constituted the Democracy Stability and Media Accountability Project (DESMAP) Council.
The Council is “to address the administrative and legal gaps that exist in the extant body of laws and code of ethics on journalism and media practice, especially as they relate to the propagation of dangerous, false news and hate speeches.”
Nigeria is facing its share of false news, but despite the broad awareness of the negative impact of false news, the Federal Government is yet to contextualize fully the alarming challenges posed by false news and hate speech, and thus has not risen fully to the task.
By Oseloka Obaze & Chiagozie Udeh