Guest Columnist

Lai Mohammed and fake news, By Lasisi Olagunju

Lasisi Olagunju

Nazis called it ‘Lügenpresse;’ here, it is ‘fake news’ or ‘hate speech’ or both. It can be used by anybody to deal with anybody – and it is in use. Adolf Hitler wielded it as a double-edged sword to destroy his ‘enemies’ – the free press. Both sides of our own political aisle haul it – and deny it. With untruth soaking official and private spaces like the triumphant floods of Lagos, shall we not start calling it folk news since information fakery is now the fad, a craze? You remember that when the Federal Government charged Omoyele Sowore with treason, Professor Wole Soyinka said when he first heard it, he thought it was yet another “grotesque product of fake news.” He had earlier warned that the Third World War might be caused by fake news – and a Nigerian would author that lethal lie.

Information Minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, told newsmen in Abuja on Tuesday that “many Nigerians” had reached out to the Federal Government demanding that it looked into “how to sanitise the social media space.” How many are the ‘many’ who approached our government to act against the social media? Who are they? Can we hope that the claim in itself wasn’t fake news? The minister said “the social media space” had gone “totally out of control.” I agree. He vowed that the government he serves would add this enemy to its list of casualties. How?

He explains: “No responsible government will sit by and allow fake news and hate speech to dominate its media space because of the capacity of this menace to exploit our national fault lines to set us against each other and trigger a national conflagration. That is why we will continue to evolve ways to tackle fake news and hate speech until we banish both.”

And he was right. But where will he start? From the government and its fake news mill or with the miserable other side? Beyond deploying crude state power, how much control does his government have over “its (social) media space?”

It is good that our government is determined to fight fake news and its creators. We need that war now! But government lies too – competes with liars – in ways that take ‘vicious’ and ‘insulting’ as adjectives. It, in fact, does it as a matter of duty, injecting lies repeatedly into the nation’s blood stream. We have a government that announced a cashless policy but quietly slammed fines (charges) on persons dumb enough to trust it and go that way. We have a government that won’t stop telling us it has defeated Boko Haram but would go to Russia to buy fighter jets to fight the same Boko Haram. So, how do we (and why should we) trust this monster that is roaring to equity with soiled hands?

Robert Reich, a former US Secretary of Labor and currently a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley, asked a key question in The Guardian (US) on Sunday (yesterday): “Who is responsible for protecting democracy from big, dangerous lies?” He asked and added a probable but imprecise solution: “If a president and his enablers are peddling vicious and dangerous lies, we need reliable intermediaries that help us see them.” He sees there what we see here: a government whose lies “have grown more vicious and dangerous,” a government that “conjures up conspiracies, spews hate and says established facts are lies and lies are truths.”

Lying as an official policy did not start with Buhari’s regime. Our governments, since independence, have always been the ultimate dissimulator. When was the last time anyone believed official casualty figures of tragedies – and of our war against terror? We run our country on two levels of truth. My generation grew up to meet a nation that gives and sanctions two versions of any public occurrence: the official angle and the ‘other’ angle. The public is left forever bewildered, groping for where the truth lies. Someone said a lie doesn’t necessarily mean not telling the truth – when you hide the truth, you are a peddler of fake news. It is a big task to confront “big, dangerous lies” because they are almost always babies of government. You listen to our government sometimes and feel like asking them if news is no longer fact-based, factually-accurate and truthfully-presented reports of recent events or of previously unknown information. You feel like asking them what to call official reports that fail the test of factuality, and which is also deficient in structural credibility. So, as government rolls out the tanks against small men with small and big lies, who helps us confront the lions of government which scent deadly lies and feed everyone with sweetened faeces?

There is a film titled: ‘All Governments Lie…’ True, they all do. The difference is in how people manage their lying regimes. The Washington Post said three weeks ago that by his 1,000th day in office, President Donald Trump had told 13,435 lies. That gives them how many lies per day? We have them too but we don’t count their lies here -because we must not. Doing that is as dangerous as stepping on a viper’s tale. We simply listen to the lies, clap for the gifted liars and wait for the next and the next. Now, the regime wants to assist us to fight lies and hate speech.

When a third world government vows to deal with fake news, the logical thing to infer is that it has fighting its opponents in mind. Its definition of fake news may be right and may be very different from the universal. We wait to see who the first Nigerian culprits will be. What is certain, however, is that this government will use police of all colours and uniforms to deal with anyone whose definition of terms differs from its own. But between deploying bouncers at gates and erecting smart doors, which one works better? The global gnomes called Facebook and Twitter are genies out of their creators’ bottles. They are poisonous snakes in the wild, untamable; not even their minders are safe. Whatever defies mediation cannot truthfully be called media. I have friends who dread Facebook like death. That Asian country called China does too. And Mark Zuckerberg would lament three weeks ago that despite his efforts to take his freedom technology to China, “they never let us in.” Is China right or wrong to slam its door against Facebook and others of same blood? Yet we see how these platforms sweat to shoot down or shut out bad customers and bad contents. And in doing that, they are fighting their own war too. Twitter last week announced a ban on political adverts because it believed “political message reach should be earned, not bought.” But Facebook said it won’t ban political adverts – with all the lies and half truths – because it is about free speech and empowering the powerless: “Banning political ads favors incumbents and whoever the media covers.” Both sides know that carefully packaged lies are the tyres that wheel political adverts yet they won’t agree on how to end untruths on their platforms without injuring democracy.

I agree with Alhaji Lai Mohammed that the social media has “gone totally out of hand.” I once saw online a completely fake column purportedly written by me. A lawyer who said he was a fan of my column, in total innocence, saw it and shared it on Facebook. I read it and yelled. The embarrassed lawyer got in touch with me privately and quickly pulled it down. I still wonder what the motive of the author(s) of that concoction was. I may never know. I wonder still how many persons around the world have been in trouble over online stuffs they knew nothing about. So, I am with government in its war against fake news – but we must agree first on the determination of what fake news is. It must not be every news report that is against the interest of government and its operatives.

The war against fake news must be fought on all mountains and down all valleys – and must be won. The first step is for the physician to heal himself before coming out to deliver this health talk about the evil twins of fake news and hate speech. You cannot be hawking insecticides and yet claim you cannot hurt flies. The government must stop baking big, poisonous loaves of fake news daily if it will end small, medium and big lies online. It importantly needs education and knowledge, not rude and crude policing and prison cells, to fight this war if it really desires a win. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and all others are not weak, feeble, rebellious AIT that can be closed down with stained, whimsical press releases. They are global behemoths that need informed engagements if we truly desire deliverance.

Instead of issuing threats, our government can learn from the British government which, three months ago, announced plans to call a summit of social media companies to “discuss what more they can do to fight online misinformation.” It had, earlier, in April this year hinted of a slew of new rules under which social media tech companies could be fined or blocked if they did not protect users from harmful content. Nigeria, with 123,486,615 people online (as of 30 June, 2019) can use its huge data to make social media companies work for everybody while maintaining the delicate balance between “protecting society and supporting innovation and free speech.”

Significantly, government must stop ruling with lies; fighting darkness with darkness won’t give light. It must know that lie begets lies. It must win the confidence of all for there to be a common ground on which we fight. Today, the sharp divisions between us won’t let us believe anything or agree on anything. Even colours as basic as white and black evoke debates and inflame passions. There are persons – in their millions- who would join this fake news war with their party membership card dictating the direction of their weapons. We have persons who would argue that “it is not a lie if no one (around them) is hurt.” Yet there are others – cynics, who would wonder why anyone would bother at all about truth in today’s world of profitable lies.

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