Dangers of the Growing Fake News Menace

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In the 21st century, misinformation, colloquially known as ‘Fake News’, has emerged as a global menace, impacting individuals, governments, and businesses alike with devastating effects. It is, therefore, more important than ever, to verify information consumed with respect to source, consistency, accuracy, and balance.

The effect of fake news can be so devastating that it can cause plummeting stock prices, destroy the reputation of a business, sway investors or cause stakeholder panic. It can make politicians lose elections, create inordinate political rivalries, and in worst cases, spark wars. Unfortunately, fake news is developing into an industry on its own as it has become a useful tool for propaganda, advocacy, and marketing.  Those with malicious intent often sponsor disinformation targeted at a rival or opponent. Some even do it just for fun or to become popular.

In Nigeria, fake news has become a serious threat affecting business, political and religious figures alike. The devastating effects of fake news are made more potent in Nigeria because of the general distrust of authority at various levels. Nigerians have been lied to so many times that they may find it difficult to separate facts from conjectures. Moreover, fake news is sometimes openly accepted by the Nigerian public as a form of parody on the country’s political class. One classic example is the rumoured marriage of President Muhammadu Buhari to his Minister of Humanitarian Affairs, Sadiya Umar Farouk in October 2019.

However, fake news can even be more dangerous. It can threaten the reputation and position of notable figures. One person who has suffered in this regard is Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who was rumoured to have resigned in February 2019. In September of same year, he was rumoured to be under investigation by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) for corruption in the National Social Investment Programmes (N-SIP) which he supervised. Eventually, the media platforms that published the story took it down with apologies, but the damage had been done. As stated earlier, Nigerians have a morbid distrust of their political elites and will likely believe any negative story about them.

Religious figures have also been impacted by fake news. Bishop David Oyedpo was reported to have been denied visa by the United States embassy. After both the embassy and the bishop denied the news report. The media house that published the story originally later retracted it with apologies. One more recent example is the recent rumour that The Elevation Church (TEC) and its pastor, Godman Akinlabi lost N500 million to a microlending company founded by a couple accused of fleeing with investors’ monies. The story originated from an Instagram user and then began to spread across the social media. An elaborate version of the story written by one Chukwudi Iwuchukwu also mentioned The Elevation Church without quoting any evidence.  The subsequent revelation that this Chukwudi Iwuchukwu owns a PR firm poses a lot of questions about his actions. Could he be a paid agent for those with personal interests in the story? As a Public Relations practitioner, is he writing purely out of concerns for people who may have lost their investments in a scheme that went awry or out of a personal agenda?

 Other notable figures continue to be targets of fake news. A notable example from the entertainment industry was the rumoured death of veteran actor, Olu Jacobs in July 2020. Even the Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO), Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been a victim of fake news in international circles. A few weeks ago, Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, in a press conference, described her alleged resignation from the WTO as a product of fake news.

In the United States, fake news has been known to impact elections and referenda. It has also influenced public opinions about politicians as well as information on COVID-19. As the American 2020 presidential election approached, the spate of misinformation increased. Some of the most ridiculous cases include the story that Pope Francis had endorsed former President Donald Trump, and the rumours that Wikileaks had uncovered evidence that former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was selling weapons to ISIS. Fake news has also accelerated the process of polarization in the United States, according to the Pew Research Centre. One of the most shocking and ridiculous consequences of this growing menace was an incident nicknamed ‘Pizzagate’, in which a man with a semi-automatic rifle walked into a regular Washington, DC pizza joint – Comet Ping Pong – and fired shots because he believed that the pizzeria contained a hidden child sex trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign.

According to Statista, when it comes to the spread of fake news, social media is the main culprit. Although social media has been the least trusted news source globally since 2016, a study revealed that that over 50 percent of responding internet users in 24 different countries use social networks to keep up to date. And because of the notion that government can easily crackdown on the mainstream media, the social media has become increasingly prominent in sharing and receiving information, especially for Generation Zs and Millenials.

Across the world, fake news has sparked violent agitations and led to avoidable tragedies. That is why it is pertinent for us to constantly sift through reports to sift out facts from fabrications and speculations.

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