Trust But Verify In The Infodemic Wars


In addition to coronavirus, there is concern over the economic epidemic with the collapse of the oil market. However,  another war, insidious and harmful, is around the deployment of information as a weapon, writes CHIDO NWAKANMA.

During the week, the ramifications of the fake news war unfolded before me. A friend forwarded information that churned my insides. I shared, only to have egg on my face. Note that my friend trained in the best traditions of journalism. He practised for many years on both the media and client sides of the table. In other words, he is abreast of the issues around ethics and canons of practice.

I was a victim. Luckily, the canons of the profession provide remedies for errors. You publish an erratum and do so quickly. So, I wrote, “The news release about Governor Hope Uzodinma renaming Imo State University signed allegedly by his Chief Press Secretary is fake. Oguwike Nwachukwu did not issue any such statement. I withdraw it. I have apologised to Mr. Nwachukwu. We all should be careful nowadays. A trusted media person was my source. He must also feel very bad to be used.”

The initial story posed as a news release from the Chief Press Secretary to Governor Hope Uzodinma of Imo State. The statement claimed that the governor announced to visiting officials of the Imo State University that Uzodinma would rename it after the recently deceased Chief of Staff to Mr President Mallam Abba Kyari. It was inflammable in the context of Nigeria’s power relations and geopolitics.

It would have ended there if my friend shared my concern. He was not sorry. On the contrary, he led me to an understanding of the new war that has weaponised information.

We are in the season of plagues in Nigeria. In addition to coronavirus, there is concern over the economic epidemic with the collapse of the oil market. Another war, insidious and harmful, is around the deployment of information as a weapon.

My conversation with my friend, DIO for short, exposed some of the motivations, objectives and interests around the weaponisation of information resulting in fake news. Fake news is not an innocent act or error in most cases. It is deliberate, planned and purposive.

To my lamentation about falling victim and sharing fake news, DIO retorted, “Yes, I shared it too, but wondering if some fake news isn’t needful or kite flying.” Was he merely playing the devil’s advocate or was this part of the divide in the politics of his home Imo State? Draw your conclusion from our dialogue.

Chido: We should not be part of fake news for any reason, charitable or otherwise.

DIO: I would not deliberately share fake news, but I would not shy away from commentaries they throw up.

Chido: You are saying otherwise. You are not sorry for sharing this fakery. You do not care that it made me look unprofessional.

DOI: It is nothing personal. All of us are victims. But any such information, fake or genuine, is an invitation to discourse and we should not shy away from that.

In between, Oguwike Nwachukwu issues a rebuttal in which he directly accuses political opponents of his principal with responsibility for the fake news.

DOI: Here we go, from one extreme to another, from fake news (wrong) to accusatory attribution (again, wrong). But just in case the original (fake) news may have sounded a note of warning should the thought be contemplated. Perhaps fake news might have its uses as public opinion gauging plot.

Chido: There are more strategic ways of playing the game of public opinion. Fake news is a contravention of the Cybercrimes Act 2015.

DOI: Subterfuge is safe when it serves the public good. When governments hack computers, spread viruses, release disinformation, they haven’t forgotten the fine prints of rational laws.

There are many takeaways from this dialogue. Some people are willing to be vectors if not originators of fake news. The wrong information is a weapon of choice for some persons, deployed to achieve various objectives. Information technology is the building block of the economy in the Information or Digital Age. The economy, in turn, affects all other conditions of man, thus the development of digital tools for different areas of man’s existence, from the social to the medical and spheres in-between. There is suddenly a surfeit of information.

The World Health Organisation is the latest to warn about the misuse of information, calling it infodemic. An infodemic is “An excessive amount of information concerning a problem such that the solution is made more difficult.”

Gladiators of the infodemic are fully armed. They are willing to destroy the pillars of media, such as source credibility. While I wrote this column Tuesday, they leaned on the reliability of Engr. Mrs Joanna Olu Maduka, a pioneer female chartered engineer, to spread fake news about the Infectious Diseases Hospital and the number of coronavirus deaths in Lagos. Luckily Mrs. Maduka issued a disclaimer in about four hours.

Anyone can be a victim. It is essential, however, not to remain a victim. Rebut all such negativisms, quickly and professionally. For consumers of information, trust but verify. A crisis communication expert of the International Association of Business Communicators declared at a conference in 2013 that in this digital age, companies must respond to negative news about them within eight hours. Audiences accept the information as accurate if there is no rebuttal in eight hours because of the speed of information in this age.

What are your thoughts and takeaways on the weaponisation of information in this age, dear reader?

•             Chido Nwakanma is the Chief Executive Of Officer Of Blueflower Limited, a strategic communications firm.

•             Editor’s Note: This piece is another in The Public Sphere series by the same author.

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