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Traces of Misinformation in Nigeria’s Legacy Media Contents, Creeping Drivers, and Implication for Believability

Since the rising notoriety of the current ‘genre’ of malicious content peddled as “fake news” (mostly over social media) in 2016 during the United States’ presidential election, barely three years before Nigeria’s 2019 general elections, fake news has made damaging impacts on the Nigerian society socially, politically, and economically, (Pate & Ibrahim, 2019).

The cacophony of unsubstantiated stories forcing their way on the internet and other social media fora not only present the 21st-century news media with one of its greatest challenges, but also pose an existential threat to the entire media space which serves as a social arbiter in the society.

The mass media has been a credible source of information for the people over the years. Conventional media—radio; television, newspapers and magazines– established themselves as drivers of public opinion which is believed to provide people with information that opens their minds and enables them to make rational and informed choices about issues.

Media professionals serve as vanguards or guardians of public interest. In their quest to accomplish this arduous task, media experts developed ethics to guide and guard the operations of journalists and media content. This paper argues that over the years, the fundamental responsibility of the media to gather and disseminate reliable information is under attack—thanks to the influence of misinformation and availability of technological gadgets at people’s fingertips. The pace at which distorted information continues to spread over the fringes of the mainstream media and the internet raises questions over the depth, influence, and credibility of legacy media’s reports all over the world.

Misinformation has never been more complicated and challenging than in the second part of 2016 following the aftermath of the US Presidential Elections. “Deliberate” circulation of mis/disinformation posed a great deal of challenges to credibility and believability of the content of legacy media, notably on hot subjects around which opinion is formed and expressed. While studies have established the roles of mass media in a democracy, the irony here is how “social or new media” presented itself as a more viable tool for “effective propaganda” within digital spaces with multiplier effects on journalism and the role of journalists in a civil society, especially in the current digital information age.

Discourse tied around dis/misinformation converged on the idea that the source of “information pollution” is ‘fake news.’ The concept of ‘Fake news’ has an Egyptian origin traceable to the 13th century BC, when Rameses the Great, knowingly disseminated fake information about the “Battle of Kadesh, claiming a ‘false’ victory for the Egyptians.” The coinage: fake news was formed largely to be used against the “news industry” as a mechanism for discrediting reports that are critical of the actions or inactions of those in power (Wardle & Derakhsan, 2018). Hence, works of literature on the etymology of “fake news” recommended the use of misinformation and disinformation skills to checkmate the excess of the two-words phrase.

In Nigeria, the vehicle of distorted information unfortunately is not only the new media or social media; its traces are visible in the mainstream legacy media too.

Describing the depth of malicious information in Nigeria’s mainstream media which he describes as the “Nigerian rumor mill,” Journalist Sola Odunfa said “While the conventional, licensed media have to contend with laws and regulations and interests and finance, the Nigerian rumour mill is a wild industry which respects no conventions or authority or checks”, (Odunfa, 2009)

The journalist argues that the rumour mill in Nigeria’s mainstream media “…is so powerful that it has permeated the conventional media. “Many newspapers and magazines”, he argues, “publish products of the rumour mill as authentic news.” 

“The less dishonourable of them publish retractions in obscure corners several days later.”

Novelist, Adaobi Tricia in an article for the BBC traces how Nigeria’s ThisDay newspaper published a fictitious story that purportedly signifies how a popular founder of Winners’ Chapel, Bishop David Oyedepo was denied US Visa.

The ThisDay report as recollected by the novelist described “how David Oyedepo, founder of Winners’ Chapel, and one of Nigeria’s revered and influential religious leaders, allegedly threw a tantrum at the US consulate in Lagos after he was refused a visa.”

In 2016, a story went viral on social media platforms and forced its way into the online contents of mainstream media in Nigeria, claiming that the Federal Government has merged all Federal Polytechnics with Federal Universities in their immediate vicinity. By implication, heads of these polytechnics are to leave their offices. Because under the new arrangement, the formerly known polytechnics are now extensions of their mother universities. Vice-Chancellors of these universities are mandated, under the fake arrangement, to oversee the affairs of the new attachments added to them. The story went ahead to add that, no more offering of Higher National Diploma (HND), only National Diplomas are to be run by these extensions. Students upon completion of their ND programmes will be enrolling into 200 levels in the mother universities. And these turned out to be fake.

Similarly in 2019, a purported social media video showing the quasi wedding celebration of President Buhari and his Humanitarian Affairs Minister, Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouk, is another recent example. The video claimed that the wedding solemnization was planned to be held at the National Mosque Abuja on Friday.

The speed at which the fake presidential wedding spread in Nigeria’s social media sphere can only be compared with the speed of the light of thunder. It expectedly crept into the headlines of many legacy media in Nigeria, beginning with The Herald, a local print medium. Nairaland picked up the story to spur the circulation of a ducked invitation card stating time and venue of the “ghostly planned” wedding.

Moreover, among the traditional media outlets that peddle fake news and hate speech, broadcast media (radio and Tv) are worse at it “because of the media’s strategic position and influential status in the lives of ordinary Nigerians. Broadcasting/publishing fake news can confer legitimacy, credibility and provide unquantifiable reach to such fakery” (Pate, 2018 September 7, p. 10).

Disinformation champions transcend circulating entirely fake information to misrepresent genuine content out of context and meanings it communicates by use of masthead of global and national reputed media outlets to masquerade misinformation content to deceive the audience that the media whose logo is used actually produced the content in question. For instance, in 2017, BBC discovered that someone had produced a video with its photoshopped logo. The video trended, capturing beliefs of BBC’s online audience prior to Kenya’s presidential election.

Misinformation Creeping Drivers

Misinformation drivers vary based on region and context, but this article examines only three that are glaringly applicable in the context of Nigeria.

Political Drivers: from the kinds of literature analysed thus far, it is evident that drivers for the production and broadcasting of misinformation on the internet and legacy media are most likely politically motivated. When President Buhari was likened to Janjaweed or Boko Haram sympathizer in the build-up to the 2015 presidential election, it connotatively implies how politics could drive misinformation.

Pandemic Drivers: However, another driver that features prominently from analysed literature is the unrestrained flow of avalanche of misinformation messages designed around pandemic such as COVID and Ebola. This finding corroborates the circumstances surrounding the rebirth of fake news around the 2016 US presidential election and the neglected the war tune attached to misinformation as Rameses the Great demonstrated its effectiveness as a tool for warfare propaganda; frequent recurrence of misinformation and disinformation around COVID-19 pandemic. Salt-birth hype in Nigeria during the peak of the Ebola virus epidemic captures this point succinctly.

Policy Drivers: proponents of a policy orchestrated production and dissemination of misinformation around the idea begging for the government to formulate a policy on. This is apparently done to woo support in favour of the policy and set an agenda on it for both policymakers and the generality of the populace. The spread of misinformation around the quasi directive of the Federal Government of Nigeria abolishing the award of Higher National Diploma, HND, by Nigerian polytechnics in 2016 is a classic example that buttresses this point.

Implication on Believability

Today, peoples’ belief in legacy media’s content falls into a serious ‘crisis’ day by day as the command legacy media held for being the sole disseminators of ‘facts’ is under siege by the Trojan Horses of misinformation at a time when the ‘watchdog’ function of the media is more pressing than ever before. Information circulated through interpersonal mediation channels tends to command more of people’s trust and confidence than opinionated media content because contacts hold a great deal of belief in people they consider as ‘authority,’ (Schapals, 2017).  This suggests the age-long credibility and believability of legacy media is increasingly being partitioned between authorities and fact-based media outlets owing to the culmination of the effects of misinformation on news media and journalism.

The implication of misinformation on media credibility was examined using textual analysis of “drivers of the spread of misinformation” in which three major papers and the works of  Mirela, S et al (2020); Schapals, A (2018) were analysed. Examples of fake news that forced their ways into credible new media contents in Nigeria coupled with the tenacity of the experiences and established evidence in the foregoing posit serious ramification on media believability.

Traces of Misinformation Exposes Professionals’ Weakness

Several instances in Nigeria’s media landscape show that media professionals in the country are weak at detecting and possibly guarding scourge of misinformation flow in the country’s legacy and social media spaces from creeping into their contents. This continues to raise serious concerns over the quality, dexterity, and efficiency of the ‘gates’ in those establishments deciding what goes under the ink or over the lens or microphone as the case may be.

The paucity of utmost lack of skills and techniques to filter misinformation out of legacy media contents by Nigerian media professionals played out in many instances in recent times as cited earlier.

Therefore, it is in the interest of journalists and editors to realise that their duty as information mediators that set agenda for the public is under grave threat. This submission implies that journalists need not only understand the flow of dis/misinformation in the public sphere – both online and offline – but also develop skills and techniques to first, be able to detect polluted information made public through the use of computer technology and second, to guard their journalistic contents against the incursion of fake news, in order to retain the confidence and trust of the people patronizing legacy media services.

To digest the flow of misinformation, Wardle and Derakhshan (2018, p.43) argue that media professionals need to individually analyse “elements of information disorder’ especially agents of misinformation to be able to project the rate at which each of the elements spread and begin to “address them” squarely to save their face in public eyes.

Media professionals need to properly get the nexus of dis/misinformation flow by understanding first, who these agents are as well as their motives for fabricating messages to seduce people to believe what is not genuine and make them cast doubt on content of legacy media that they depended on for information for generations before the birth of chief conveyors of misinformation over the internet – the social or new media.         

Secondly, the kinds of messages agents of misinformation published ought to be well understood at the level of the reporter to serve as a base to project the rates at which they travel and the likely effects on the minds of the people.  However, scientific discussion on the nature and kind of misinformation messages distributed as public-centred on fabricated text news sites through visual misinformation content receives a trajectory of circulation and it is extremely difficult to identify and debunk.

Conclusion

The traces of dis/misinformation in Nigeria’s legacy media point to the idea that journalists in those outlets have inadequate capacity, skills and competence to detect and filter distorted information. Several instances suggest the infiltration of “fake news” into mainstream media contents with debilitating effects on their integrity and credibility as information mediators. These practices have varying negative impact on believability of the legacy media owing perhaps to what many scholars describe as “mental laziness and attitude” of most media practitioners in the country.

This paper argues that, to turn around this ugly situation, it is in the interest of individual and collective media organizations and professionals in the system to acquire skills that will enable them detect and filter misleading contents—if they must maintain the core of journalism and remain relevant in the system.

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