By Our Editors
Experts say that when fake news is not completely fabricated, it typically distorts real world information by tweaking or contorting it, mixing it with true information, and highlighting its most sensational and emotional elements. It then scales rapidly on social media and spreads faster than the ability to verify or debunk it. Once it spreads, it is hard to put back in the bottle or clean up, even with a healthy dose of the truth.
This is true of the the #EndSARS protest that erupted on October 3, 2020, following a message that went viral on social media alleging that men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had gunned down a man somewhere in Delta state. The act prompted Nigerian youths to embark on mass protest across the country. As the video spread on social media, the hashtag, #ENDSARS, started to gather momentum as more young people demanded an end to the notorious police unit that had for years brutalized young Nigerians.
What started as a peaceful demonstration by thousands of youth degenerated into chaos after the protest was reportedly hijacked by hoodlums, creating fear and anxiety due to misinformation and fake news that surrounded subsequent actions. By this time, an energized youth movement took to the streets and vowed not to back down before substantial changes were made.
President Muhammadu Buhari in an effort to curb the crisis accepted all the demands of the protesters which include immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families.
The protesters also asked the government to set up an independent body to oversee investigation and prosecution of culprits of Police misconduct within 10 days, psychological evaluation, re-training of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be re-deployed and increase of Police salary.
The president immediately dissolved the F-SARS and put in place a new unit called Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT). But to the protesters, SWAT was still the old squad repackaged under another name.
While the whole world filed behind the protesters in demanding for fair treatment from the Nigerian government, the civil unrest provided an avenue for bad eggs to spread disinformation and manipulate public perception of events with a view to dividing the country.
The protests that began genuinely suddenly instilled feelings of fear, frustration and resentment largely due to the deception that circulated with it. Social media platforms has continued to be flooded with audio and video clips, both fake and factual, about the #EndSARS and also the growing anger over policies of government, maladministration, injustice and hunger in the land.
However, with different narrative online that some people took advantage of the social media to mislead others with fake news. The rising trend of fake news on social media pertaining to the protest has created ethnic tensions and fierce opposition constituted authorities.
For instance, a video recorded and posted by some hijackers of the protests showed soldiers shooting at those demonstrating while the soldiers also blocked an ambulance from moving in to attend to victims of gunshot. Some reports claimed that over 70 people were killed while many had been left with gunshot injuries after soldiers launched the deadly attack on Tuesday night to disperse the youth.
But the Nigerian army issued a statement denying opening fire and killing peaceful #EndSARS protesters at Lekki. The Army stated via its official Twitter handle that “no soldiers were at the scene”.
The continuous misinformation has impacted negatively on the protest, hence defeating the mission of the youths. The protest took an ethnic dimension, with purveyors of fake news attempting to set the North against the South, and the Fulanis against the other tribes.
There is no doubt that crisis of disinformation is bothering nations around the world. In Nigeria, false information, pranks, rumours, digitally-altered video and photos that purport to show actions or speech that did not happen have become a rising threat.
It is in view of this that this paper is calling on Nigerians to always verify their information before dishing them out to the public. We are strongly of the opinion that the government should not only fish out perpetrators of fake news but also ensure that they are made to face the full wrath of the law.
Also, political leaders, in our view, should wake up to the new politically conscious society. At least state governments are beginning to understand the importance of maintaining a strong bond with the youths. Following the birth of this new political consciousness, it may not be business as usual for those at the helm of affairs in government.