Fake News as bad news but government must address the challenge legally


Fake news is bad news! It is destructive. It is dangerous. It is capable of causing disaffection and can lead to riots, fights and even wars. They can destroy individual reputations or organisations. Politicians and public servants are mostly soft targets of fake news.

  • By Emeka Oparah

The recent news that the Nigerian military has commenced  coordinated monitoring of the social media to fish out people who peddle fake news and hate speeches have generated a lot of interest and controversy. While hate speeches are as dangerous if not more dangerous than fake news, this piece is intended to examine the phenomenon of fake news for the benefit of communication scholars and practitioners. What is news?

It is a factual report of an event, an incident or occurrence. This report could be in written words, photo(s) or video(s). There are people who are trained to identify, gather, report and disseminate news just as there are recognised or recognisable platforms for disseminating them. News is expected to be accurate, balanced, concise and clear. So, what is Fake News?

Fake news has been with the world since news gathering and publishing started. As the name suggests, it is news that is fake or false, untrue or a lie. It is often fabricated. Only a few are innocent mistakes based, often, on misleading information from un-authoritative, unreliable sources.  In Nigeria, we have had a surfeit of fake even before social media literally democratized news gathering and publishing.  In 1988, Nigerians were hit by the news of the death of Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, former President of Nigeria. In fact, it happened twice in his lifetime-and twice he came out to debunk the news! Previously, in these parts, most of the fake news was mainly news about the demise of prominent personalities which were published in traditional or mainstream media. With the coming of social media, however, it has become more of a daily occurrence as fake news is published, distributed and re-distributed via blogs, Facebook, twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and other related platforms.

Why fake news?

It is oft intended to mislead, deceive, destroy or gain upper hand against an individual or group.  Fake news is commercial, when news is cooked up, embellished and sold to make money. This form is what is described as Yellow Journalism. Rivalries between persons or groups, especially the political types, have given rise to fake news. Creators and peddlers of such news are usually out to deceive readers, cause disaffection towards an “enemy” or completely destroy their reputation and undermine their ambitions. It happens also in business, when organisations de-market others (competitors) by ‘dissing’ their products or services or peddling malicious rumours of the unwholesomeness of their offerings. It could also be news or stories that give undue credits and unmerited acclaim to an individual or group to make them look better than they ordinarily are. Some fake news is meant for fun-by mischievous people or pranksters. Whatever be the objectives, fake news is bad, even evil.

Social media and Fake news.

With the advent of social media and citizen journalism, fake news has become a regular fare. More people with bad intentions now have access to platforms which can more rapidly distribute their fake news and stories with more devastating effect. Just nobody, who so desires, can now, in the comfort and relative safety of their bedrooms create fake news and upload on the internet via any of the social media platforms and then sit back and watch it gain traction and impact. It is, perhaps, most disturbing when individuals and organisations, including otherwise reputable news organisations, are involved in fake news either by helping to re-distribute them on their social media handles or publishing them, in the case of the latter.

Mainstream media and fake news

Perhaps, no one has accused the mainstream media of carrying fake news than President Donald Trump, who believes that the US media have been after him ever since he shocked the Republican Party establishment to win the nomination and actually went ahead to beat Hillary Clinton. He’s been going on and on about fake news and has therefore, brought to the fore a phenomenon that has been there with us forever; -which only became more prominent and more prevalent. In Nigeria, the mainstream media have also been caught in the web of fake news. As far back as the late 80s, when most of them chorused the fake news of Zik’s death, they have been doing it and are still doing it. Today, some of them imprudently base their reports on unverified stuff from unknown sources circulating on social media. Some more responsible ones (indeed!) have been known to retract such trash while the more unprofessional and obstinate ones have ignored their foolishness and actually moved on to the next fake news.

So what are the types of fake news?

Claire Wardle of First Draft News identifies seven types:

  1. satire or parody (“no intention to cause harm but has potential to fool”)
  2. false connection (“when headlines, visuals of captions don’t support the content”)
  3. misleading content (“misleading use of information to frame an issue or an individual”)
  4. false content (“when genuine content is shared with false contextual information”)
  5. imposter content (“when genuine sources are impersonated” with false, made-up sources)
  6. manipulated content (“when genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive”, as with a “doctored” photo)
  7. fabricated content (“new content is 100% false, designed to deceive and do harm”)

Fake news could come in the form of an article, photograph or a video. With modern technology, images in photos and videos can be (and have been) manipulated to achieve the desired nefarious intentions of their creators and peddlers.

How do you identify Fake News?

According to the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), this is how people can recognise fake news:

  1. Consider the source (to understand its mission and purpose)
  2. Read beyond the headline (to understand the whole story)
  3. Check the authors (to see if they are real and credible)
  4. Assess the supporting sources (to ensure they support the claims)
  5. Check the date of publication (to see if the story is relevant and up to date)
  6. Ask if it is a joke (to determine if it is meant to be satire)
  7. Review your own biases (to see if they are affecting your judgement)
  8. Ask experts (to get confirmation from independent people with knowledge).

Concerns about fake news

Fake news is bad news! It is destructive. It is dangerous. It is capable of causing disaffection and can lead to riots, fights and even wars. They can destroy individual reputations or organisations. Politicians and public servants are mostly soft targets of fake news. Leaders (political, business and religious) and other right-thinking individuals have criticised fake news and many have sought ways to curtail or eliminate it. During the last presidential election in the United States, fake news generated a lot of hoopla, especially from the perspective of the president, then Candidate Trump. The United Kingdom House of Commons conducted a parliamentary inquiry into the “growing phenomenon of fake news” early this year. In Germany, the government has moved to impose fines on social media platforms that promote fake news and hate speeches. In some jurisdictions, there are laws that criminalize fake news and hate speeches. Nigeria has Cybercrime (Prohibition, Prevention, etc) Act 2015, which generally deals with fake news and hate speeches. Of course, there are existing laws on defamation, libel and sedition, which can all be invoked with regards to fake news.

A personal experience.

Sometime in 2003 or so, when GSM was still new in the country, a story broke about how people are dying across the country upon receiving calls from a particular number. Major newspapers reported the news. Then, there were no blogs or social media platforms and so the news spread via the mainstream media and the Bush Telegraph (rumor). As Head of PR in one of the leading mobile telecommunications companies, Econet Wireless Nigeria, as we were then known, I had the task of dispelling the rumour and dismissing the Fake News. Even the then Executive Vice Chairman of the Nigerian Communications Commission, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, called out the news for what it was: FAKE. In a country, where superstition is still prevalent, it took a lot of repeated explanations to change the minds of the people and save the young industry from early frustrations. That was one hell of an unfounded and very debilitating rumour turned Fake News!

So, should the Nigerian Government clamp down on fake news?

Yes. And that is my opinion. If fake news is bad news with the potential to cause harm and disaffection, it should be discouraged. One of the challenges of developing countries, including Nigeria, is the lack of political will to test certain laws which exist in the books. Given the relative fragility of the polity, with all the hue and cry about restructuring-and the little matter of self-actualisation by IPOB-the government is justified in its attempt to check fake news. Government can actually adopt the German model of holding the social media networks vicariously liable for any infractions. In the US, Facebook and Google took the path of honour by self-regulating their platforms such that they could hunt down and expunge Fake News and Hate Speeches ASAP. I don’t see why that can’t happen in Nigeria.

Of course, there are fears, justifiable fears, about muzzling free speech, which opponents of the government’s plan wave as a banner. Certainly, both the government and the people are equally empowered by the law to seek redress in the face of infringements. So, the only caveat one might sound here is that government must not use illegal means to address the challenge of fake news.
Oparah, a communications practitioner, writes from Lagos.


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