Last week, a reputable Nigerian daily newspaper reported a story which claimed that the United Nations was finalizing plans of creating a new country out of Nigeria and Cameroon. To achieve that, at least 24 local government areas were going to be ceded by Nigeria to this 'new country'.
By the next day, other media outlets had picked up this news and carried their own versions of it. TV stations had invited panelists to discuss the topic and different social media commentators had added their own voices in posts they had published on their accounts.
In almost every society, three groups of people are in control of the information that shape individuals' views of themselves and the world around them: teachers, the clergy and the media.
These people create and disseminate knowledge and often occupy a particular 'high ground' that makes the audience willing to accept the knowledge and view point they are passing across. Over time, we become a product of all that knowledge and engage with our world on the terms of that knowledge.
These groups need to constantly, outside of any other regulations in society, create and enforce systems of self-regulation and member development. The power they wield is too great for them not to accept the accompanying responsibility of self-regulating.
A lot of times, we focus more on that tag, the fourth estate of the realm, that assigns some kind of role to the media as a watch-dog over government and the society and neglect to ask a begging question: who watches the watch dog? When things go wrong with the watchdog, who tells the public that story?
The simple reason why everyone took that story seriously last week was because of the platform that first reported it. Known to have a long history of quality reporting, others didn't bother to interrogate the claims further with the assumption being that the first newspaper must have carried out required fact checks (highlighting another worrying threat to quality journalism - the practice of arbitrarily and criminally re-producing other peoples stories. This is however a topic for another day). The first publication served as the endorsement and from there, it slipped into the news stream.
Unfortunately, none of the stories published the next day showed that anyone had many any attempt to get the United Nations comment on it, or comments from the National Boundary Commission, Ministry of Foreign Affairs or anybody with any authority to speak to the matter at all. None. It seems no efforts were made to verify the authenticity of the position or person of the author of the source material or if any of the claims contained were true.
According to Wikipedia, "Fake news (also known as junk news, pseudo-news, alternative facts or hoax news) is a form of news consisting of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media."
I did a quick Google search on the day the disinformation first surfaced and wasn't surprised to find that there was only one other reference to this creation of a new country and it was in the same newspaper dating back to December 1, 2019. For anyone who has been watching unfolding situations in Southern Cameroon however, it was easy to see a direct attempt to plant this falsehood by some of the actors in that conflict. As a matter of fact, the name of the quoted author of the letter turns up mostly in Google searches as a council member of the Southern Cameroons National Council arrested by Cameroonian Gendarmes for secession.
The source material of the first story in December is an alleged letter written to this person by the UN Secretary General and the source material of the second story is an alleged letter written by the person to the UN Secretary General. It should therefore raise several flags that the only evidence of this planned act to create this new country exists in private correspondence (made public by only one side) and backed by no official statement.
According to the UNESCO Handbook on Journalism Education and Training, "Journalism, Fake New and Disinformation", "...the purveyors of disinformation prey on the vulnerability or partisan potential of recipients whom they hope to enlist as amplifiers and multipliers." They successfully got a good number of amplifiers and multipliers among Nigerian media organizations.
A Pew Research centre study recently found that most Americans rate the problem of fake news as bigger than racism, climate change or terrorism. Here in Nigeria, we shrug it off and move on without a deep introspection of the damages that the piece of false content has created.
The danger in the continued spread of fake news is that it makes people even more skeptical of consuming information from traditional media sources. Brands that have been built over decades get destroyed in seconds due to the carelessness and unprofessional conducts of a few.
Even in the now available evidence that this news story is fake, we have received no apology from those who published them. Thisday newspaper stood out though. They immediately unpublished the link and went ahead to put up the result of the fact check they had carried out which proved the story was fake. people who should know to ensure the fact that the news is fake does not remain on the internet for posterity sake and for their own credibility. This is how it should be. Leaving the fake content online leaves people who are not aware of what has transpired, vulnerable to being misinformed anew.
Today's society is inundated with information and the need for trusted and credible sources has never been greater. This is not the time for media organizations with traditions of requisite fact checking processes to begin to give up those functions. That is what the entire profession is anchored on. Without that confidence that a piece of news content has passed tests of quality and integrity, the public is left with no guide to identify where to get trusted information to make critical decisions about their world from.
The truth is that quality journalism in Nigeria is dying. I am not talking about the problem posed by the standard of education which provides the industry with graduates that leave a lot to be desired or the corruption that has seeped into almost every tier of the industry.
I am talking about an industry that is contracting under the pressure of financial constraints. Over the last five years (interspersed with a recession, declining government spending, sky-rocketing forex rates), this has worsened. The Covid-19 pandemic has gone on to fully expose the harm their finances have undergone. A number o f the 'big' media houses have in the last three months terminated the employment of a good number of staff and this makes it even easier for quality journalism to suffer.
So, while we may on one hand raise a clamor for the industry to double down on strengthening internal mechanisms for dealing with fake news creators, even to the point of considering a blacklisting protocol for practitioners and organizations found wanting the way other industries blacklist people who fall short of ethical standards, we also need to begin to think as a people of how we can get involved in ensuring the industry does not collapse. It will be to our collective detriment if this is allowed to happen. Do not let anyone deceive you. Running a news blog is a completely different service from running a professional news production operation. There is presently no substitute for the value of that service in modern society.
As recommended by UNESCO, "strong ethical journalism is needed as an alternative, and antidote, to the contamination of the information environment and the spill-over effect of tarnishing of news more broadly."
Given the pressures the Nigerian state is currently under-going, the need for all key sectors to be able to feed in the best of their output is imperative. The collapse of the fourth estate will worsen our perilous state. Media-focused CSOs need to increase their engagement with the sector, not only in terms of helping improve the quality of output, but also in the areas of strengthening operational capacity.
Hassan Abdul writes from Wuse 2, Aubja