The term, ‘fake news’, is essentially an oxymoron. News is an account of what happened. By its very definition, it is the truth, the absolute truth and nothing but the truth. However, in a post-truth world, even fake and news, two fundamentally contradictory terms can occupy the same textual space. Truth has become relative, facts now have alternatives, and news has become a weapon of war, probably the most dangerous threat to our democracy.
Recently, the BBC asked a panel of experts what they considered as the grand challenges of the 21st Century. Many of them identified “the breakdown of trusted sources of information” as one of the greatest problems faced by mankind in this century.
The constitution of Federal Republic of Nigeria assigns a role to the press by virtue of section 22 of the 1999 Constitution, which provides that:
[T]he press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall at all times be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.
The 1999 Constitution goes further in section 39 to uphold the rights of every citizen “to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” If we consider that majority of our constitutions have been crafted as part of the process of democratization, it would be safe therefore for us to conclude that the framers of our constitution recognized freedom of expression and freedom of the press as sine qua non in every democracy. Democracy thrives only when the people have free access to correct information about matters that affect them and are able to use this knowledge to make informed choices and take decisions about their lives.
Democracy is a system of government that is based on the consensus of the majority. Democracy guarantees that everyone would have their say, but the majority must have their way. The fundamental assumption behind this principle however, is that the choice that people make would be based on facts, or correct information. In other words, here facts are suppressed or distorted then the right of the people to freely choose would have been subverted.
It is in this context that the rising wave of fake news, and the discourse of “alternative facts” is a direct attack on the very soul of democracy both in theory and in practice. Amartya Sen argued that the freedom or right to act would be spuriously attributed to an individual who does not have the capability to so act. Section 39 provides for every Nigerian citizen, the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference. Yet, interference is exactly what fake news does. By jostling for space and competing for acceptability with genuine information, fake news robs citizens of that very constitutional right to hold opinions, receive and impart ideas and information.
The creation of alternative facts makes it difficult for people to know the truth. When people are not able to agree on what the truth is, they cannot forge a “common starting point” with which to engage in a conversation about issues that affect them, least of all able to hold their representatives accountable. Instinctive agreement over what actually happened frees the space for debate over what needs to be done and how. The quest to solve any problem must proceed from a shared understanding of what the problem is based on objective sets of facts. If the facts become contested, citizens’ engagement in the process of finding solutions to their common challenges becomes almost impossible.
The freedom to receive and share information is the soul of any democracy. This is why the social media is the greatest democratic force in human history. Facebook, twitter, instagram, whattsap, bbm etc. have empowered the people more than anyone would have imagined at the turn of the millennium. Information technology and the so-called new media have ensured that citizens no longer have a need to pay for information. The ubiquity and pervasiveness of new media technology makes it almost impossible not to be informed. If you own a mobile phone, smart or dumb, information will find you. And as people upload and download, tweet and retweet, share and broadcast on multiple platforms, ordinary citizens have become active agents in the information value chain, not only receiving but also creating and recreating meanings. No force in human history have had such a telling revolutionary effect on society and human relationships. Information and communication technology is the greatest weapon in the historic war to dismantle the culture of silence and advance the right to know, the freedom to receive and disseminate information as the ultimate power of the people.
With the social media, technology has become democracy’s life support system. Quite ironically however, through the same social media, technology has also become the means by which democracy can easily commit suicide. If information is power, and we agree with Lord Acton that absolute power corrupts absolutely, then we must conclude, like it is said in the tyre adverts, that “power without control is nothing”.
The rise of fake news signals democracy’s capacity for self-destruction. While information technology has made it easy for us to manipulate reality in ways that were hitherto considered impossible; social media have made it possible for us to disseminate this distorted reality and fabrications at such an unbelievable speed. A picture taken or fabricated in this room can make it across the country faster than I can make a phone call. The spread of hate and outright instigation to violence and social destabilization have never been made so easy. Selective disclosure and delicate lies are active tools of propaganda. But this is what fake news does.
I said earlier that no weapon in human history have had such a devastating impact on those who would want to oppress the people by denying them of their right to know. Perhaps, I should say also that the development of fake news and ‘alternative facts’ is the dictator’s answer to the democratisation of knowledge and information that have been made possible by the development in information technology. By turning democracy’s weapon against itself, those who would rather live above accountability have achieved what physical suppression could not have accomplished in a hundred years. The worst danger that fake news poses to democracy and social harmony is not in the manufacturing of alternative reality itself, but in creating a condition that makes it easy to doubt reality, no matter how plausible.
In the past, we dismiss as mere rumour, any information that cannot be confirmed by the evidence of a newspaper or media broadcast. Nowadays, you tell someone you have read something in a newspaper or heard it on radio, they still ask you, but how can you be so sure it is true. By undermining the sacredness of facts, fake news makes it easy to deny anything and everything and makes accountability almost impossible.
There is yet another side to all these. If fake news is a weapon of war, as some have strongly suggested, then it would not be alarmist to say our dear country, Nigeria is already under attack. As we grapple with the complicated politics of our multiple identities of race, religion and region, the destabilizing impacts of fake news make this challenge even more complicated than ever before. As we develop, share and promote contents that accentuates those fault lines it would be almost impossible to fashion a sense of national cohesion for our country. Without this, it would also be impossible to develop a consensus around those fundamental issues that would move us forward as a nation. The danger contained in information is not the information itself. Rather, it is what people do with the information they receive. All through history, all conflicts have started with words; what people say to themselves and what they say to others.
So far, we appear to be getting away with so much as we continue to flirt dangerously with disaster. However, our case is like that of a man falling from a 30 storey building. He just got past the 10th floor and told himself, ‘well, so far so good’, deluding himself that he was practicing sky diving, while in fact, he was set on a certain perdition, unless some miracle intervenes. We need to be more alive to the great danger that fake news and the spread of hate poses to our very survival as a country.
In principle, I believe that technology always have a way of clearing up its own mess. What I am not sure of however, is how much damage would have been wrecked before technology develops a self-correcting mechanism that would make it more difficult to communicate a particular kind of contents.
The long term solution however would bring us back to education. Plato said “you cannot be wise and be wicked”. There is a level that ignorance and lack of education are the real drivers of the risks posed by fake news of whatever variation. After all, like I said earlier, the danger is in the content. The more people that are genuinely educated, not only about their rights, but also about their responsibilities to others and to their society, the less number of people you will get who are willing to serve as vendors of fake news or purveyors of hate.
I believe this too is a passing phase in the history of mankind and of our country. The transformation that has happened to our society within the past 20 years, is the greatest evidence that the next 20 years may not be the same. Our ability to make it to another 20 years however, would depend on what actions we take today as political leaders, as journalists and as ordinary citizens. In our respective spheres of influence, we can make an individual decision not to write, promote or share any content that can only serve to inflame, incite or instigate to violence. Surely, this does not solve all of the problems; but we would have taken a position that enable us to stand tall as part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem.