Studies have corroborated how spreading misinformation in secular and multi-ethnic countries can fuel or even trigger violent confrontations, especially reprisal among ethnic groups or religions. The flow of misinformation on social media proves to be devastating on the social, economic and political structure of nations. Hence, today, the government shares its role of ensuring the wellbeing of its citizens.
Countries begin to adjust their security architectures in the wake of the flood of challenges of misinformation waged and are in turn waged on the security and wellbeing of citizens with multiplier effects. What this translates to is a paradigm shift in media propaganda largely consolidated on both legacy and new through misinformation and disinformation. Countries count on their information capabilities as they did in the past, to assess individual military might in terms of the number and quality of armaments. However, as global concern and attention shifted to the recognized threats of misinformation posed to internal security, less of the skills, competencies and techniques of uniform men at combating misinformation to safeguard national interest are known.
A rigorous analysis of the history of violence and conflicts in Nigeria in recent times shows that misinformation on social media fuels the embers of sectarian and ethnic conflict, oftentimes with big human and material casualties. For instance, eleven people were killed in Northcentral Plateau State in Ghashish after a supposed video and pictures of a mutilated baby and some dismembered bodies went viral allegedly being a crime perpetrated on Beroms. However, the pictures were recycled images of DR Congo’s conflict. They are six years old as at the time they were shared. In Ghana, on the other hand, misinformation was reported by an Afrobarometer survey in 2019 to be effective at promoting the violent reactions to campaigns opposition parties staged, thereby promoting a hostile environment.
Security personnel in Ghana due to poor appreciation of mechanisms to tackle misinformation grapple with an afterthought to contain fake security threat alarms which in most cases led to the loss of lives. In 2010, a fabricated text message flew into Ghanaians’ text message receiving devices alerting people of an impending earthquake forcing people to vacate their homes to safety zones. The pseudo alert came barely months after a similar earthquake hit Haiti. The 2014 Ebola hoax in Nigeria in which at least two people were reportedly killed is a classic example of how fake alarms caused devastation and spot cracks on the security construction of not only under-developed and developing countries but also of developed nations.
Spreading misinformation on social media portends danger in countries like Ghana and Nigeria because each time a faction felt threatened, it would nose a retaliation idea. Most often, these dangerous ideas, as we have seen, are usually spread through social media, thereby exacerbating the acrimony among people. The Plateau incident cited juxtaposes this claim. A Berom youth leader who granted an interview to reporters shortly after the emergence of the Gashish violence explained that on seeing the gory pictures circulated on social media, they felt irate and become desperate to kill any Muslim on sight.
Internet accessibility in Nigeria and Ghana is increasing, largely because of data affordability, penetration of mobile networks and the influx of technological products, which often increases searching for the latest information through socio-cultural groups and pages on Facebook and WhatsApp. Notably, most of these platforms are run by opinion leaders or social media influencers who are most sympathetic to a belief and/or ideology of some kinds of groups; hence, their bias is often at play whenever they share product content for their teaming followers. The information these platforms produce and share are often not only misinformation and disinformation, they also lead to the chaos and breakdown of law and order in the society.
This requires the deployment of security personnel to areas where violence erupted as a result of misinformation within towns and cities and remote villages. However, deploying personnel to remote areas further depletes the capacity of security operatives, especially in countries like Ghana and Nigeria whose number of policemen is nothing to write home about, at least for the fact that population explosion defines the two countries.
Having noticed and detected the frequency at which Nigerians distribute misinformation and its propensity to disrupt peace in Nigeria, the Nigerian Police Force set up a desk in Plateau State tasked to monitor trends of misinformation on social media capable of causing violence. This additional responsibility added to the policemen denies them time and energy that they would otherwise channel to make policing in Nigeria more effective and prudent. Similarly, the frequent flow of misinformation consumes “resources that are already overstretched” (Commonwealth Security Group, 2020).
‘Multiagency national security approach to tame the spread of misinformation is recommended for all nations in utter negligence of the fact that the capacity needed for a multi-agency collaboration against misinformation is not equal among nations of the world. It is evident that in Ghana and Nigeria, police are the sole security outfit making moves to tame the spread of misinformation plus other policing functions making their work too cumbersome and less efficient because misinformation contents that are supposed to have been pinned down from entering online public spheres in those countries are allowed until their negative effects on peace and security become glaring.
Available evidence suggests that the Nigeria Police’s ability to activate stringent measures on security alarms using open source intelligence to tame fake content online crystallize their ineptitude at pinpointing misinformation content.
This ultimately culminated in wasting the police resources working round the clock to ensure maximum protection to the lives and property of citizens. Tyopev Terna Matthias, a one time Police Public Relations Officer in Jos, told the BBC that once a man called the police in Plateau informing them that some men were on their way to attack his village, the police hurriedly sent trucks loaded with armoured police officers to the village. The team spent two days before it was able to distinguish that the purported report on which the decision was taken was pure misinformation.
In the mid of the current trend of misinformation on Nigerian social media spaces, a mere unit in one of the commands of the force cannot be effective to quench the flow of misinformation in Nigeria, considering the fact that about 24 million Nigerians are online and the number of the Nigerian police force is not up to that. Hence, security outfits act on false information that later turns out to be untrue.
Moreover, a demonstrable lack of capacity to track and filter misleading information by the two countries’ police is an additional nightmare.
Because of the population size of Nigeria for example, and the complexity of insecurity concerns, the nation’s military was found to be engaged in active search for misinformation as part of its security role in the nation though not enough too to checkmate the avalanche of misinformation contents on the nation’s social media spaces.
The argument of this short piece, however, is that misinformation continues to remain a breeding ground for violence and toxic narratives that fuel sectarian conflicts, with the potential to disrupt peace and sustained hatred in African countries. Unfortunately, available open-source pieces of evidence suggest the two countries’ police structures lack commensurate capacity and resources to tame online misinformation for the overall interest of peace and security.