Fake news and its effects

Fake News PHOTO: rawpixel / Pixabay

During the run-up to the conflict that has held Eastern Ukraine for about a half-decade now, there was a disinformation campaign, presumably run by Russia, targeting the Ukrainian people. One of the stories in that campaign was that “Ukrainian people are heading towards anti-Semitism or radicalism or so on and so forth”. One pro-Kremlin claim was that Ukraine’s ethnic Russians were being oppressed and attacked; for example, a video on Russian television supposedly showed the Ukrainian military firing on civilians, when the men filmed were actually Russian militia. It was also alleged that NATO-equipped Polish mercenaries were being deployed to the Donbass region of Ukraine.

These fabrications were traced to Lieutenant Colonel Andrey Marochko, the representative of the so-called People’s Police of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, one of the parts of the Ukraine that is trying to break away. In one of his briefings, Marochko had announced that “Ukraine’s military was supplementing its 53rd mechanised brigade deployed around the village of Triokhizbenka in the eastern Ukrainian Luhansk region with 30 fighters armed with NATO grade weapons who arrived on the scene speaking Polish”. The Ukrainian military denied the news, stating that no foreigners in the war zone in eastern Ukraine as exclusively Ukrainian military are deployed there. No one in the region believed them, meaning essentially that the lie had been weaponised.

On another side of the world, a photo was presented in a book, Myanmar Politics and the Tatmadaw: Part I — using the official name of the army in the country — as showing Buddhists murdered by Rohingya Muslims. The news agency, Reuters, later found that the picture was actually taken in Bangladesh in 1971, and what it showed was Bangladeshi civilians who were killed by Pakistani troops.

And according to the book, one photo shows Rohingya entering Myanmar at the end of the British colonial period, which ended in 1948. But in fact, it is a distorted version of the Pulitzer Prize-winning image originally taken by Martha Rial for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1996 of refugees fleeing the Rwandan genocide. The effect of those photos though, was that they further dehumanised the Rohingya, making ordinary Bangladeshi less interested in their plight when the country’s military went after that set of people.

In India, many people have been killed because of hoax messages. The victims were lynched after they were falsely accused of child abduction based on fake messages circulated via the social media platform, WhatsApp.

But fake news is not just a social media age phenomenon. Back home in Nigeria, in August 1966, Radio Cotonou ran a story, alleging that northerners were being killed in the Eastern Region. BBC Hausa picked up the story and ran with it. This set off revenge killings targetted at Igbos in the North in September /October 1966. The backdrop of these killings was the heightened mistrust that enveloped the Igbo and their Northern compatriots following the 15 January 1966 coup, the “return match” that July, and the killings of many Igbo civilians in the North during that second coup. At this point in time, Nigeria is in an era of heightened mistrust, and the security situation is undeniably tense, which is why a recent incident is distressing.

On 20th June, the Vanguard newspaper published a story with the headline, “Miyetti Allah calls for establishment of Fulani vigilantes in South-East”, in which is the paper said that the Miyetti Allah Cattle Breeders Association of Nigeria (MACBAN), has called for establishment of Fulani Youth Vigilante body in communities of the south-east. Given a lot of incidiary statements that have come from MACBAN in the recent past, many of Igbo stock, including me, did not react well to this news.
However, after I talked about it on social media, a friend, Ndukwe Ogbodu, who happens to live in Enugu, and who as a policing expert, was at the event, sent me the actual communique that was given to the journalists who attended the event. To say that the Vanguard got it wrong is to put it nicely.
Given our history, the mutual mistrust which is escalating, in large part because of the acts of commission and omission of the government of the day, it is important for everyone in the media space to be very careful. Simply put, it is not the job of the reading public to report the news, so those who have that responsibility ought to be more circumspect in their reporting.

I hope that the Vanguard will retract that story, but more importantly, I hope that the government, which is also guilty of weaponising news, will lead a genuine de-escalation of the situation in the country, and an honest conversation on the way forward. My suggestions on a start for the conversation – the actions of President Buhari have not helped the fragile unity of the country, and many of his comments show that his sensitivity to the issues at hand is questionable at best. Someone in the Villa needs to bite the bullet and tell him the truth.

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