EndSARS: The bad and ugly side of Fake News
By Yemisi Suleiman.
Fake news has been around for as long as human existence, but it has become doubly charged by digital technology and the transformation of the global media, particularly the advent of social media. Today, social media is one of the strongest tools for dissemination of information and most people, have access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram through which they churn out news and information.
However, facts have shown that a huge chunk of stories or news online oftentimes, turn out to be fake and misleading. Through these platforms, people use fake news to malign people or induce them to act or behave in certain ways, all in an attempt to sow seeds of discord or get clicks.
Usually, periods of civil unrest provide opportunity for bad influencers to spread misinformation, and manipulate public perception of events to divide society. With more people relying on social media as a source for news, recent events in Nigeria show that such content, most of the time, influence audiences who are unable to distinguish truth from fact or news from propaganda.
A case in point is the recently-held #EndSARS protests sparked by the purported killing of a young man in Delta State, by men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
Although the young man did not die as was later reported, this misinformation triggered the #EndSARS protests which began online, and later moved to the streets of Lagos and other states of the country, with youths calling for the disbandment of the special police unit.
Trending online in the first few days of the protest, was the story of a young lady from the East, identified as Ugwu Blessing Ugochukwu, whose three brothers were reported to have been killed the same day and thrown into a well by men of the SARS unit.
However, a research by BBC, proved the image is real, but the story false. According to Gideon Obianime, a spokesperson for Ms. Ugochukwu, he revealed that although Ms. Ugochkwu was briefly detained by some members of the SARS in 2018, none of her brothers was killed.
“I think people started adding assumptions to the photo. She has been getting a lot of backlash [over this],” Mr. Obianime told the BBC.
Also, a tweet that was re-tweeted thousands of times during the unrest falsely claimed that Catholic Bishops had marched in support of the protests. The tweet included a photo showing Bishops among a procession of people, most of them wearing black, with some carrying placards.
However, it was later discovered that the photo was an old one, as a reverse image search by the BBC showed it was from March when the Catholic Bishops Conference of Nigeria (CBCN), led a protest in Abuja against killings and kidnappings in the country.
The umbrella body of Catholic Bishops in Nigeria later issued a statement supporting the SARS protests, adding that they had not physically joined in any protests.
As the youths continued in their resolve to attain their goal of making the country a better place, there was also an unproven claim that a soldier cannot shoot someone holding the Nigerian flag.
It was widely shared on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, with some suggesting there is an unwritten military code to that effect.
This misleading claim was debunked by Onyekachi Umah, a lawyer who said that though there were laws about respecting the national flag, but: “Just the fact that someone is holding the flag would not mean they [the army] cannot act.”
In the heat of the #EndSARS protest and a glaring communication breakdown between the government and the protesters, and with fake news spreading like wild fire, what started out as a peaceful demonstration by thousands of youths, degenerated into chaos after the protest was hijacked by hoodlums.
There were cases of looting and wanton destruction of public and private properties across the state, a move which led to an imposition of curfew by Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu.
Later the same day, social media accounts revealed peaceful protesters were allegedly being shot at by the Nigerian military at the Lekki toll gate holdout.
This tragic incident and the global protests that followed, also led to a plethora of rumours that ranged from the absurd to harmful.
As news of casualties from the incident continued to spread, prominent Nollywood actress Eniola Badmus was rumoured to have been shot and killed on the protest ground.
A few days later, she revealed via her Instagram handle: “I would like to inform you guys that I, Eniola Badmus is hale and hearty. Infact, I couldn’t make it today to lend my voice to the #EndSARS movement.”
There were also reports of other supposedly dead people, who later came out to say they are not dead.
In particular, was that of a young man, carrying a dead girl wrapped with the Nigerian Flag stained with blood. This sparked a lot of outrage from the already angry youths. However, the girl in question, Onyinye Francis, debunked the rumours via her Instagram handle saying: “please the lady he is carrying is not dead, it was a drama we acted on 1st October in NCCF Akwa Ibom, with the theme: Heal the world. Please help and share.”
The list goes on and on, with tempers running high and emotions wild, leading to reactions of different dimensions.
One major news that many Nigerians are yet to accept as fake is the Lekki Tollgate massacre of 20-20-20 involving the Nigerian army.
A video circulated by Nigeria’s female disc jockey, DJ Switch showed soldiers advancing towards the unarmed protesters shortly before shooting. Although the exact number of casualties at the Lekki shooting is still shrouded in mystery, the Nigerian Army insisted that they did not shoot any civilian and that there is glaring and convincing evidence to attest to this fact.
A statement by Acting Deputy Director, 81 Division Army Public Relations, Major Osoba Olaniyi, read: “The attention of Headquarters 81 Division Nigerian Army has been drawn to a viral video on social media, in which it was alleged that civilian protesters were massacred by soldiers at Lekki Toll Plaza.
This allegation is untrue, unfounded and aimed at causing anarchy in the country. At no time did soldiers of the Nigerian Army open fire on any civilian.”
While the Nation eagerly awaits findings of the panel set up by the government to probe the Lekki shootings, fake news no doubt continues to circulate feelings of fear, frustration and resentment in the public.
With studies showing that many Nigerians cannot tell what news is fake, important social and political issues must be properly managed by both government and the media, to avoid crises escalating. Perhaps, the time has come for users to be held accountable for what they share.