The Emerging Trend of Fake News and its Implication in Nigeria’s Democracy
Since the rising to notoriety of the present ‘genre’ of malicious content peddled as ‘fake news’ (mostly over social media) in 2016 during the United States’ presidential election, barely three years until Nigeria’s 2019 general elections, fake news has made dangerously damaging impacts on the Nigerian society socially, politically and economically. Notably, the escalating herder-farmer communal clashes in the northern parts of the country, ethno-religious crises in Taraba, Plateau and Benue states and the furiously burningfire of the thug-of-war between the ruling party (All Progressives Congress, APC) and the opposition, particularly the main opposition party (People’s Democratic Party, PDP) have all been attributed to fake news, untruth and political prop1aganda. This paper aims to provide further understanding about the evolving issues regarding fake news and its demonic impact on the Nigerian polity. To make that contribution toward building the literature, extant literature and verifiable online news content on fake news and its attributes were critically reviewed. This paper concludes that fake news and its associated notion of post-truth may continue to pose threat to the Nigerian polity unless strong measures are taken. For the effects of fake news and post-truth phenomena to be suppressed substantially, a tripartite participation involving these key stakeholders –the government, legislators and the public should be modelled and implemented to the letter.
BACKGROUND TO THE STUDY
Nigeria is a country in tension characterised by security threats in different parts of the country. These threats are manifested in forms of multiple conflicts, systemic and widespread corruption, debilitating poverty, weak institutions, threats of secession as well as perceived marginalisation, anger, hatred and economic challenges in a time when preference for untrue information is rising – i.e., post-truth era (Harsin, 2018; Pate, 2018 September 7). These issues are offensively, progressively and relentlessly destroying relationships, heightening animosities across communities and threatening democratic survival in the country (Pate, 2018 September 7). Arguably, all of that are facilitated by the revolution in information and communication technologies (ICT) that have democratised and simplified access and dissemination of information across space and time (Ibrahim & Adamu, 2016; Pate & Idris, 2017).
Cited in Premium Times Nigeria, Professor Umaru Pate, the Dean, School of Postgraduate Studies, Bayero University, Kano (BUK) explained that like many other countries, Nigeria, too, is battling with the rise in populism politics, youth radicalisation, extremism, terrorism, drug and human trafficking, ethnic nationalism, hate and dangerous speech, fake news and the rewriting of the country‟s history, among others. Indeed, these are critical times for the media and the country. The political climate in the country has changed rapidly in recent years, signaling innovative developments and strange challenges in the country‟s democratic system. By and large, the current political culture in the country is inextricably linked to the growing development of information and communication technologies (ICT) (Audu, 2018 September 9; Pate, 2018 September 7). Cited in Vanguard, Professor Danjuma Gambo, the Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Maiduguri who is also the Director, Public Relations of the university agrees with Professor Pate that fake news can mislead the public and cause tension in an already tense political climate with communal and reprisal attacks here and there in addition to the Boko Haram conflict. He stressed that if the media would cultivate the culture of verifying information and fact checking (if necessary) before going to press, the spread of fake news can be contained (Marama, 2017 August 10).
This has severally affected the delivery and form of political communication and the communication of political ideas in our democratic system, as well as shifted and undermined the accountability for those messages. For instance, what was labelled „yellow journalism‟ and „character assassination/slander‟ have metamorphosed into what is today known as
„fake news‟ and „fraudulent news‟; these are terms that sound „big‟ and portend devastating effects in the society. These terms are fuelled and spread by the power of modern technology (Wasserman & Madrid-Morales, 2018; Agbese, 2017 December 31). In the words of Egan (2018, December 11, online), “online, lies and truth look the same. This has been a boon for professional liars, (who) use these platforms to market falsehood; as vehicles for personal fame, or, as a way to spread propaganda”. These have raised concerns that Nigerians are constantly and increasingly accessing inaccurate and/or misleading content without verification (gatekeeping) or verifiable attribution (Agbese, 2017; Hankey, Marrison, & Naik, 2018).
Fundamentally, the breed of „yellow journalism‟, „fabricated or manipulated stories‟ „fraudulent content‟ and „character assassination‟ and „fake news‟ are largely new technology-dependent (e.g., social media platforms and the internet) rather than traditional technologies such as radio, TV, newspaper or magazine (Okoro, Abara, Umagba, Ajonye, & Isa, 2018; Wasserman & Madrid-Morales, 2018 November 21). Thus, while we grapple with what modern technology has enabled us to do, “we also face a new wave of change, which we have only started to understand the ramifications of” (Hankey et al., 2018, p. 6). For example, the concerns around recent, or newer technologies such as „artificial intelligence‟ and „machine learning‟ show that any regulatory response to stem fake news peddled via new technologies, whether by state actors or technology developers, need to be as “dynamic as the technological mischief it seeks to contain” (Hankey et al., 2018, p. 6).
The critical question is: how can politics aid regulations to spur the development and sustainability of our democratic system while preserving its legitimacy to embrace internet-based and social media platforms in the context of promoting the integrity and values of the democratic process in a multicultural Nigeria? This paper focuses on the trend of fake news and the emerging post-truth political era and their potential impacts on the Nigerian polity. Recommendations for mitigating the negative effects of fake news and post-truth political circumstances in the society are offered at the concluding sections.