SWITZERLAND, FEBRUARY 06 – In the 21st century world of internet and intense media competition, the greatest fear is no more that of inadequate information, but of wrong information. The volume of information emanating from the media these days and the rate at which news break out have made the public vulnerable to misinformation.
More than ever, fake news has become a hot topic, dominating serious conversations in the public sphere across the world; from the United States to Nigeria, affecting individuals, businesses and nation states alike.
In Nigeria, this menace is growing roots and its manifestation is causing unnecessary tension in a country that is already tensed with ethnic, religious and political issues. There have been several targets in recent times including Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, First Lady Aisha Buhari, Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, and Corporate organizations like Seplat and Aiteo.
Fake news was again brought to the fore last week and this time, Bishop David Oyedepo; a renowned preacher and founder of the Winners Chapel Church was the target. While most of the fake news have been emanating from the social media and gossip blogs, most of them run by non-professionals, the culprit in this case is a highly respected media entity in Nigeria.
On Friday, January 31, Thisday, one of Nigeria’s largest newspapers published a story, reporting that the United States embassy had denied Oyedepo visa because the Bishop did not qualify for a visa renewal after its assessment.
This news came amidst debates generated by the inclusion of Nigeria on the US visa restriction list and instantly became the hottest topic of discussion on social media. Unknown to many Nigerians, the story was not true.
Later in the day, the American embassy in Nigeria debunked the story. The embassy wrote:
“False news alert! Alert! Be advised, the reports making the rounds about a visa being denied to Nigerian Bishop Oyedepo are false. If you have seen this manufactured item in the media, help defeat this misinformation by communicating to everyone that it is completely false.”
Oyedepo’s church, the Winners Chapel corroborated the position of the US embassy, debunking rumours that the popular clergyman was denied visa.
According to the Chairman, Editorial and Media Board of Winners Chapel, Prof. Sheriff Folarin, the Bishop was at no time denied an entry visa into the US.
“We wish to put it on record and categorically submit that this piece of information is not true. At no time was the Bishop denied a visa, nor did he create a scene at the US consulate in Lagos, as purported by some mainstream and online newspapers,” Folarin wrote.
Thisday later acknowledged that its report was wrong and apologized. On Monday, the newspaper announced that it has suspended its two deputy editors who had worked on the story.
While the public may have put the matter to rest for now, this damage-control from Thisday may not completely reverse the significant loss of credibility this misdemeanour portends for the newspaper.
There are several questions begging for answers in this case. Where did the information about the embassy denying the bishop visa come from? Why did the reporter not verify the authenticity of the information? Why did the editor, as a gatekeeper, not validate the story first before rushing to publish?
We only hope that this serves as a big lesson to media agencies. In the rush to break a story, you may end up breaking your reputation and credibility. Stories and their sources must be verified for authenticity and balance, that is how the media can stay fair and balanced.
Nevertheless, it is not altogether a loss for Thisday as the newspaper pulled significant traffic to its online platform via the sensational story that dominated the public sphere for a few days. This craze for patronage and followership among media organizations is believed to be fuelling the rush for sensational stories.
“Forget the damage to its credibility, Thisday also pulled traffic with the Oyedepo story. Everyone likes bad stories and we usually rush to the media platform that carries it first,” an online news reader told Today’s Echo.
In today’s world, many find the seduction of a bizarre, negative story irresistible without even corroborating its authenticity. Bad news gets more attention, and even better if it is fresh and unusual.
Yet a bad news story can have devastating consequences. It can cause plummeting stock prices, destroy the reputation of an individual or business, tear families apart, sway investors or cause stakeholder panic. In extreme cases, it can lead to an unnecessary war.