Although the positive impact of social media as a window of expression goes beyond dispute, recent incidents of people jumping into the Lagos Lagoon and tales of misinformation to which the social media has been deployed have become worrisome GEORGE OKOJIE and CHIDI NWACHUKWU write
After the devastating news of a Molue, plunging into the Lagos lagoon killing over 84 people that went viral, causing disquiet in the state was discovered to be fake, many had thought that mischief makers would learn a new trade and stop using the Third Mainland Bridge to spread false information in the Lagos metropolis.
The fake tales of the poorly-maintained, rickety and smoky long 911 commercial buses popularly called molue plunging into the lagoon killing people became so consistent and worrisome that the state government was compelled to carry out reform in the transportation sector and banned the buses from crossing any of the link bridges be it Third Mainland Bridge, Carter Bridge and Eko Bridge to the Lagos Island.
The news whether true or false readily go viral because it is channeled through the social media which creates opportunities for people to be able to share pictures and videos to other people any time using networks like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, among others.
The trend continued when a medical doctor Allwell Orji committed suicide by jumping into Lagos lagoon on the Third Mainland Bridge on a fateful Sunday afternoon.
Before the world knew it the social media platforms were replete with photographs of the supposed doctor said to have committed suicide before a Port Harcourt-based nurse, Oji Allwell, raised the alarm that he was not the doctor who committed suicide by jumping into the Lagos lagoon from the Third Mainland Bridge.
The bewildered nurse was forced to speak out after many online news organisations used his picture along with the story of Allwell Orji, the Lagos-based doctor that actually committed suicide.
Oji’s photos along with the suicide report went viral then leading many of his friends to believe he had taken his life.
To prove that he was not the one involved, the nurse took the pain of uploading a video on his Facebook page to inform his friends and well-wishers that he was alive and well.
In an emotion laden voice he said, “Good afternoon my beloved friends and well-wishers. My name is Oji Allwell, I am a nurse. I am making this online video in regards to the news that has been trending online about me being a medical doctor who jumped into the lagoon.”
No lesson seemed to have been learnt from the above incident, given the recent case in which a woman with an unknown identity was said to have plunged into the lagoon on Third Mainland Bridge in Lagos.
As customary different versions of the tales hit the social media. The version of the tale that initially dominated the social media was that the deceased was a man, who parked his Ford Explorer car on top of the Third Mainland Bridge and plunged into the lagoon. Picture of the vehicle with plate number APP 190 CE went viral on the social media.
Another version of the account which surfaced thereafter claimed that the woman was a passenger in a taxi, driving inward Lagos Island, when she told the driver to stop. Thereafter, she reportedly alighted from the vehicle, crossed the road and plunged into the lagoon.
From this point a Facebook user posited that the woman named Toyin married to one Segun that worked in a new generation bank in the country jumped from the Third Mainland Bridge because her husband found out about an affair she was carrying out with a Nigerian-based man and when he did a DNA test on all three of his kids he found out none was his.
A recorded video of a man and the said lover who was portrayed to be on the hospital bed was portrayed with some police officers lurking around to make arrest were also circulated on different social media platform to give credence to the story.
But the irony of the whole story is that neither of the two women alleged to have committed suicide is dead. One of the two ladies reportedly resides in Texas, in the United States of America, and has refuted the claims through her social media handle, and the other lady who reportedly resides in the United Kingdom, and is happily living with her family over there.
To deflate the disinformation, the owner of a Ford Explorer SUV with registration number Lagos APP190CE seen on a viral video allegedly belonging to a woman who jumped into Lagos lagoon came forward to deny the video clip.
The woman told journalists that her husband who drove the car on the said day (Sunday) didn’t jump into the Lagoon, explaining that he parked the Ford car by the Bridge to offer help.
According to the woman, she and her husband are living well and happily and have no cause to consider suicide, adding that her husband has reported what transpired at the bridge to the appropriate government authorities.
Again as expected the woman, named Toyin whose photographs were trending online came up to refute the rumours by sharing recent photos of herself via her Instagram account.
She captioned the photo: “Am alive, and I will live long on earth.”
Officials of the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency (LASEMA) who should know the true situation of things seemed not be too sure about the incident.
The General Manager, Adesina Tiamiyu, said the attention of the agency was drawn to a video clip on social media in respect of a woman who supposedly packed an SUV Ford Explorer and jumped into the Lagoon at the Third Mainland Bridge on Sunday 10 July, 2018.
He said, ‘’For the avoidance of doubt, the agency’s officials are in touch with the owner of the SUV whose registration is being circulated, who only stopped by to offer assistance. The agency strongly advise that the incident is a developing issue which is presently being investigated as search and rescue are still ongoing in the waterways to ascertain the veracity of the incident.
‘’The agency however advise Lagosians to discard the information being circulated, as the agency and its stakeholders are making frantic efforts to get to the root of the matter. Anybody with any reliable information on any missing person to call the emergency toll free line, 112/767 or contact the nearest police station.’’
The Lagos State Police Command Public Relations Officer, Chile Oti, said the command also received information about the incident.
He said, “When the information reached the Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Imohimi Edgal, he directed rescue team comprising policemen from the Marine Police, the Rapid Response Squad (RRS) and those from the three divisions around the area: Adeniji Adele, Oworoshoki and Adekunle divisions to swing into action.
‘’The Police rescue team are still at work as I speak, in collaboration with agencies like the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency, LASEMA, Lagos State Traffic Management Authority, LASTMA the Lagos State Ambulance Service and the Federal Road Safety Corp personnel . So far, they have not succeeded in recovering the body. Any development on it will be communicated to the public.”
If up till this moment (six days after) nothing concrete has come out of the incident many observers are saying that the country may be under siege of disinformation and fake news.
Two weeks ago, the social media was agog with news of the Federal Government’s decision to scrap the Higher National Diploma (HND) programme from Nigerian polytechnics. Many Nigerians swallowed the news hook, line and sinker, including journalists who depend on the social media for news. When a certain journalist from a very popular daily Nigerian newspaper went investigating the news, she was shocked to discover that the news did not emanate from the stables of the Federal Government. She was told to disregard the news and was even blamed for replying on the social media for information instead of sourcing for news from reliable sources.
Another incident that readily comes to mind was what happened in 2014 during the Ebola scourge of the curative ability of table salt to prevent the disease. Millions of people were misled into ingesting unhealthy doses of table salt including bathing with it, to prevent the Ebola pestilence. It was later discovered that scores of persons died as a result of such erroneous information.
Also, in 2006 when Nollywood actress, Anita Hogan, had her nude photos posted on the social media platform, she sank into abject depression and almost committed suicide because she felt that there was nothing else to live for. Her husband almost dissolved their marriage because he couldn’t cope with the huge embarrassment that came with the incident. Although she did not personally post her unclad photos on social media, the whole weight of the trouble fell on her.
It happened that she had given her faulty laptop computer to a repairer to fix for her without first extracting all the raunchy photos and videos she had on it. The repairer, after fixing the laptop computer, extracted some of the photos and videos before handing back the computer to her. He then went on to post them on the social media. She found out about the development from friends and family who called to intimate her with the news. She was dazed, distraught and depressed from the shock of the incident.
For months, she stayed away from public gatherings and even quit acting for a very long time because of the shame and stigma that trailed her bitter experience.
Many more public figures have had their images tarnished and reputation marred in disrepute through the social media platform. The list of persons who have suffered the character assassination that is driven by social media is inexhaustible.
The government has also been enjoined to be proactive and be steps ahead of mischief makers cooking up stories to heat up the polity by ensuring there is regular patrol of the Third Mainland Bridge and other black spots by security agencies.
The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, had before now said the country was under siege of disinformation and fake news, lamenting that the practice could bring the country on her knees if not checked.
According to the minister, the dangerous trend of disinformation and fake news championed by social media and which the traditional media are, “unfortunately feeding on, could tear the fabric of society, if not checked. There was a time when the spoken and the written words were not challenged or questioned, but today it is not so.
“About 50 per cent of what we read in the social media is not true but unfortunately even when it is not credible, it goes viral and people believe the fake stories.
“My greatest problem and worry is with the traditional media, which are latching on the same fake news and disinformation. I am worried because it affects the credibility of the media itself and once the media is no longer believed by the people.”
The online publishers too are not pleased with the dissemination of fake information through online media. The president of Online Publishers Association of Nigeria (OPAN), Prince Austyn Ogannah, described the practice as unethical and unacceptable, saying that it threatens the peace and stability of the society.
Ogannah maintained that the penchant of some practitioners to unethically dish out fake and malicious news just to draw traffic was eroding the credibility of the new media.
He described the new media as the future of journalism in view of its potential to reach more readers and stimulate development, saying if the new media must realise its potential of influencing decisions and promoting development, the issue of fake news must be addressed.
“The issue of dissemination of fake news in the new media is creating a lot of credibility issue and we are deeply concerned. Though there are so many online publishers doing the right thing, the democratisation of the new media space has thrown up those who are not adhering to the ethics.
‘’We need to deal with the issue. We need to entrench credibility in our practice. OPAN will continue to pursue efforts to address the issue.”
Painting a gloomy picture Ogannah said it would be difficult to police or regulate the new media because of its open and liberal nature.
He assured Nigerians that OPAN would engage all its members on the need to shun fake news and operate by the ethics.
Segun Adebayo, a civil servant said, “I work in Alausa and come from Victoria Island everyday. The Third Mainland Bridge is always deserted. That is why you notice people are always on top speed when they get to this point. What I think the government can do to stop this issue of false rumour and information, people coming to jump into the lagoon is to beef up security on the Third Mainland Bridge. Install CCTV on the bridge, so that when such incidents happen you don’t rely on hearsay to get the real fact. In this particular case of a woman plunging into the lagoon and the controversy it generated is very unfortunate.’’
Another Lagos resident, Anthony Afam, who is a motorist said, “Government should permanently station patrol team on the Third Mainland Bridge. A lot of evils happen here. So many people come here to do all sorts of things. The street light on the bridge must be on all the time. People commit suicide regularly here; but all you see are their dead bodies. No noise about it. Not this one they are talking about. Anyone that has made up his or her mind to die will jump into the lagoon before anyone knows. So if there is a monitoring team they will help to checkmate all these things.’’
For Gabriel Iyoha, a legal practitioner, it has become a worrisome trend in the country to notice the social media constantly violating the rights of people, spreading false information through their publications.
He said, “Although the freedom of expression and the press is contained in the Nigerian constitution. Publishers must carry out their duties within the confines of the law by respecting the rights of other Nigerians.’’
“A publication must be free of offensive and criminal matters when viewed from a legal perspective. These offensive matters include defamation, contempt, disclosure of official secretes, violation of copy, indecency, plagiarism, innuendos, privacy etc. Any publication that contains such matters will be regarded as illegal and could give rise to civil and criminal action.”
He further stated that though, “Section 39 (1) of the constitution stated that, ‘Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1) of this section, Every person shall be entitled to own, establish and operate any medium for the dissemination of information, ideas and opinion…’ the publisher in any platform must censor what is available to the public, by ensuring that it does not injure somebody’s reputation. They could be sued to the court.’’
Also recommending ways through which the abuse and misuse of the social media can be curbed, Mr. Chikezie Omeje, an investigative journalist, active social media user and founder of Inclusive Press Media, suggested that it would prove remedial to track down purveyors of false information, and ensure that they are duly penalized to serve as a deterrent to intending defaulters.
He opined that the social media could never be regulated, but that those who spread false information on through it, could be nabbed and punished in a public a manner as possible.
And to adequately stem the tide of the spread of false information, Mr. Tony Iredia, former Director General of the Nigerian Television Authority, NTA, advised government ministries, departments, agencies and parastatals during one of his remarkable speeches in 2015, to be on top of their game and ensure to release information to the public early enough so that rumour peddler would not have the opportunity to cash in on any lapses of government to spread false news.
He also urged handlers of government information to be prompt in responding to false news whenever they emanate, as any delay in countering false information may prove very detrimental and unimaginably fatal.
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