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The Menace of Misinformation and Disinformation

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by Simon Kolawole

Out of the blue, I was inducted into the dreaded hall of fame for victims of disinformation last week. An article I did not write and had not even read was attributed to me. A dozen infographic cards with quotes from the article went viral, particularly on WhatsApp. The attractive infographics had my face, name and designation. In the imagination of the guys behind the mischief, I was supposed to have taken Mr Peter Obi, presidential candidate of the Labour Party (LP), to the cleaners. I was supposed to have said Obi “democratised poverty” in Anambra state while he was governor. I was also purported to have said there was no single signature project to remember him by as his legacy.

When my attention was drawn to the nonsense on Tuesday, I did not take it seriously. After all, it is only in THISDAY and TheCable that I write my opinion articles and it is very easy to verify, thanks to Google. But I was horribly mistaken. Soon enough, several people started forwarding the infographic cards to me via WhatsApp. Some displayed them on their status. I immediately posted a disclaimer on Twitter. Yet, almost every hour for the next four days, people kept forwarding the infographics to me. My default response was to share my Twitter rebuttal. The little conclusion I came to is that while fake news travels at the speed of light, rebuttals go at snail speed. It is what it is.

My joy, though, was that many people who forwarded the fabrications to me added a note: “This cannot be you.” A senior friend told me that when someone forwarded the cards to him, he called the person immediately and said he was ready to bet his bottom dollar that “Simon did not write this”. I felt gratified. In truth, anybody who knows me well, at least through my writings, will not be easily sold a lie that I am denigrating a presidential candidate. As someone whose driving philosophy in life is that nobody is completely good or utterly bad, I will never pick on one candidate and run him down while sparing the others as if they are perfect. That would be the height of hypocrisy.

To be sure, my views have been adapted for political utility for as long as I can recall. That is not strange. Ahead of the 2007 presidential election, when President Olusegun Obasanjo and his vice-president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, were bitterly at each other’s throat, I wrote an article, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, It Is All Politics’ (THISDAY, April 15, 2007), in which I lamented: “While Obasanjo and Atiku are battling it out, Nigerians are groaning in darkness and under the noose of armed robbery, assassination and extreme violence. Businesses have been crippled by the lack of electricity and the heavy cost of fuelling [operations] with diesel and petrol. This does not bother Obasanjo and Atiku.”

I went on to hit out at both camps for the energies they were wasting on politicking, asking: “How many all-night meetings have been held by presidential advisers to address the problem of road accidents in Nigeria? Yet, they would meet all night to fashion out the next strategy to launch against Atiku. How many nights have been spent by Atiku’s team to look at the main reasons why banks don’t give loans to small businesses? Yet they spend nights preparing press releases and casting headlines for newspaper editors, twisting facts and figures, distributing photocopies of fake cheques, and diverting people’s attention from the original [allegations of corruption against] Atiku.”

To my horror, Obasanjo’s media managers excised the aspect on Atiku and ran full-page adverts in major newspapers, creating the impression that I was criticising Atiku and supporting Obasanjo. I was embarrassed. I suffered a similar misfortune in 2015. Obasanjo was working overnight to unseat President Goodluck Jonathan and enthrone Candidate Muhammadu Buhari. I was irritated by the lionisation of Obasanjo. In an unflattering article, ‘Obasanjo as Nigeria’s Moral Compass’ (THISDAY, January 18, 2015), I wrote: “Obasanjo, amazingly, has become a god or saint to many Nigerians. Many politicians, journalists, activists who used to criticise him are now celebrating him…”

PDP supporters were happy with me. APC fans said I should have focussed on Obasanjo’s message and ignored the messenger, that I was more or less campaigning for Jonathan. However, when Buhari was seeking re-election in 2019, the game had changed. Obasanjo had become anti-Buhari. The APC media spinners who had criticised me in 2015 cunningly resurrected my article and placed it as an advert in newspapers, creating the impression that it was fresh and making it look like I was criticising Obasanjo for opposing Buhari’s re-election. Remarkably, some PDP supporters, who did not know when I wrote the article, started abusing me, alleging that I was campaigning for Buhari.

Based on these instances, I cannot therefore claim to be surprised that my opinions are twisted for political utility. However, the Peter Obi case is completely different because that is not my article. As I later found out, it was written by a Kolawole Johnson and published by TheCable. You can pardon those who think everything that appears in TheCable is written by Simon Kolawole — perhaps, that is the limit of their understanding of how a newspaper works. I am tired of explaining to people that being the publisher does not make me the reporter or the editor. But how do you pardon those who take “Kolawole Johnson” as “Simon Kolawole” and put someone else’s words in my mouth?

I feel violated. I have wasted so much time and energy since Tuesday doing rebuttals. Sadly, there is nothing else I can do: the cowards are faceless. But I have a good idea of who they are. These may be the same hirelings who have been abusing me on Twitter anytime TheCable or I write something that does not flatter their party. I am now their favourite columnist as they try to justify the millions they collect monthly to go berserk on social media. I always ignore their Twitter tantrums. As I often tell my friends, when I decided to become a journalist, there was no social media. I never set out to measure my progress in life by the number of Twitter followers, retweets, likes and comments.

Ironically, it was after the fabrications went viral that I went to read the original article, “On Peter Obi, we must verify”. It was published on August 10, 2022. The article could still have been reused for propaganda purposes without my name being attached to it. But the muppets probably wanted more bang for their buck. I won’t be surprised if they even used my name to make quick cash by claiming I was commissioned to write the article. I suffer this all the time but I don’t lose any sleep over it because my conscience is clear. More so, I am not the first victim of fabrications and I will not be the last. This presidential campaign will usher in more desperate and despicable propagandists.

Many analysts and commentators have expressed worries over the various threats to the peaceful conduct of the 2023 elections, with particular attention being paid to the insurgency in the north-east, the banditry in the north-west and the militancy in the south-east. However, the role of misinformation and disinformation must be given equal prominence in all calculations. Generically tagged “fake news”, the interplay of misinformation and disinformation has done extensive damage to our society and created destructive and deadly narratives. The signals are ominous. WhatsApp is now clearly the centre of action, perhaps because it is private and direct, and broadcasts are easier.

Regular consumers of media contents would probably not distinguish between misinformation and disinformation. Without being too technical, I would define “misinformation” as false information being passed as true but without a motive, while “disinformation” is the calculated fabrication or manipulation of information to achieve a purpose. Misinformation could be a mistake. Disinformation is deliberate. Both could produce similar consequences, but the former is open to remorse while the latter is not. As we journey towards the next elections, both will shape the push by all sides to win. There will be irreparable wounds inflicted on the society in the process.

I already have come across disturbing misinformation and disinformation since we got into the mood for 2023. Quotes are imagined, created and attributed to prominent people either to disparage one candidate or promote the other. Recently, someone circulated an old picture of underage voters in Kenya and passed it as what happened in Nigeria during the 2022 continuous voter registration. This picture had been fact-checked as far back as 2019. People would make videos that say nothing but run commentaries that put an acidic spin. To whip up religious sentiments, a lady recently did a video saying Christians were not allowed to register at Lugbe, FCT. It was false when we checked.

To combat this malaise, we at TheCable are committed to fact-checking information on the 2023 elections — no matter whose ox is gored. Ironically, Obi’s unruly supporters have been having a go at us for doing our job, but their rants are irrelevant. The real problem is that it takes less effort to believe misinformation than to process the truth. In a University of Western Australia study led by psychologists Stephan Lewandowsky and Ullrich Ecker, they argue that rejecting a piece of information as false requires more “cognitive effort” than simply accepting that it is true. That is why despite my disclaimer, the false infographics are still trending. Still, we will never give up or give in.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

ABACHA AND LOOT

The US is set to return another $23 million loot recovered from the Abacha family to Nigeria. This is part of the global settlement agreement reached with the family of the late head of state by the Goodluck Jonathan administration in 2013. Abacha is believed to have stashed away over $5 billion and over $2 billion has been restituted since 1998. There is still a substantial amount sitting somewhere in Paris, France. I am happy that the Buhari administration is now spending the recoveries on specific projects after the over $300 million returned by Switzerland was said to have been distributed to poor Nigerians. Imagine the infrastructure $300 million could have built. Sense.

WIKE AND ATIKU

The cat-and-mouse game between Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and Chief Nyesom Wike, governor of Rivers state, continued during the week when both camps met in London for further peace talks. Wike, whom Atiku defeated in the PDP primary, has been hobnobbing with Atiku’s opponents recently. Wike’s supporters believe that Atiku did not handle the fall-outs of the primary well, and that his northern supporters, such as Alhaji Sule Lamido and Dr Babangida Aliyu, have been talking arrogantly as if Atiku had already been elected president of Nigeria. The weeks ahead promise to be interesting for Atiku and PDP. Decisive.

OBASANJO AND OBI

Ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo has been a major backer of the presidential bid of Mr Peter Obi, the candidate of the Labour Party (LP). He met with Governor Nyesom Wike and his PDP colleagues in London on Thursday to seek their support. There seems to be some consistency to Obasanjo’s positions over national political balance over the years. This is my reading but I could be wrong: Obasanjo backed Goodluck Jonathan in 2011 for power shift to the south, supported Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 because he said Jonathan promised to do only one term, and wants power back in the south — and specifically the south-east, which is yet to produce an elected president. Method.

LAW AND DISORDER

When it comes to apportioning blame for the sorry state of Nigeria, we are very quick at pointing to everybody else apart from ourselves. The conduct of lawyers at the annual general conference of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) in Lagos is a case in point. Lawyers went on the rampage over the sharing of conference “bags” (read between the lines and you will understand what went down). They destroyed registration booths and looted conference materials. Area boys would be jealous. This is the same country where some broadcast stations “fighting” bad governance do not pay their statutory dues and activists resort to legal blackmail to justify a clear breach of the law. Dissonance.

Credit: TheCable

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