Over the weekend, I participated in facilitating a workshop by Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) and its indefatigable executive director, Y. Z. Ya’u for young people on understanding and responding to fake news and hate speech, which have become some of the most serious problems of our time. In 2016, Oxford dictionaries picked ‘post-truth’ as the word of the year after Trump won the American elections, in spite of the fact that 70 per cent of what he said during the campaign was false or misleading and the voters knew this. In the post-truth world, objective facts have been shown to be less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to personal beliefs and emotions. If you are able to strike the right emotional pitch with people, they will disregard any fact that challenges their beliefs and, as the saying now goes, will seek out the “alternative facts” that comfort their beliefs.

A whole new science has been developed on how to use “alternative facts” to produce desired political outcomes and its practitioners have been very busy. Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics company, had over the years designed the weaponisation of political campaign information to “destroy” political enemies by portraying their political positions as evil and stirring strong negative emotions in the process. We now know that a Goodluck Jonathan campaign backer recruited them in 2015 to fabricate and spread negative stories about the then opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari. As the Observer newspaper revealed, they produced video content that was: “Dark. Scary. And very uncertain – Sharia for all” era was coming, they screamed. They emphasised the question: “What would Nigeria look like if Sharia were imposed by Buhari?” They provided the answer in a graphic, violent one minute, 19 seconds of archival news footage from Nigeria’s troubled past, set to a horror movie soundtrack with scenes of people being macheted to death. Their legs hacked off. Their skulls caved in. If Buhari wins, the video warned: All women would be forced to wear the veil. And, Sharia law would be introduced immediately Buhari comes into power.

Today, the social media are inundated with images of alleged “Fulani herdsmen” carrying sophisticated weapons, which they use in killing innocent farmers in the Middle Belt, while seizing their ancestral land. In a fascinating session on the Middle Belt facilitated by Dr. Yima Sen and Chom Bagu, they addressed the fact that the purveyors of these images have been told repeatedly that they are fake and most of them are not even from Nigeria but what do facts matter when people have over time been made to believe they are true. With every community conflict, the same fake pictures of mutilated bodies are circulated as evidence of the killings and people believe them, while it’s so easy to check when and in what countries those images first appeared. The strategy of weaponising political campaigns is to use the fact that conflicts are occurring and people are being killed to construct a narrative of one-sided killings and raising the barometer of hate by accompanying the narrative with pictures that enhance the level of hate. I know that some Nigerian newspapers which have been shown with evidence that the pictures they are showing are fake, yet they persist in continuing to use them because they know it achieves the objective of multiplying hatred against the political leader they want to send out of office. Our problems are many and serious, but they are being deliberately being made worse by agents of discord.

During the workshop, simple internet tools were used to show that many such images are fake and their origins could easily be traced. Participants were quite shocked at how they have been consistently misled over time. The lack of balance in media reporting was also discussed extensively because fake news is not just about truth versus lies but also about whether the entire truth is being told. When herders kill farmers and farmers kill herders and only one side of the story is reported by the media, then people feel justified in the judgment that’s it’s not a conflict but simply genocide. It was in this context that the workshop focused attention of how fake news is instrumentalised to increase conflict and the killings, rather than the desired goal of seeking peace and engaging in conflict resolution. As the 2019 election approaches, many players are simply interested in spilling more blood to facilitate their access to power.

The social media, Dapo Olorunyomi of PREMIUM TIMES told the workshop, has become the largest newsroom in Nigeria. Facebook alone has 25 million users in Nigeria, each acting as a journalist who makes and distributes media content. With no notion of the veracity or falsehood of content that they are spreading, they are able to impact greatly on the emotions of those that they communicate with. Facebook algorithms aggregate people who share the same views, emotions and fears and the same fake news and false images are circulated among people who have made up their minds on a particular narrative and are continuously being comforted that their ignorance is the truth and woe unto anyone who seeks to question the evidence they have “seen with their own eyes”.

The outcome of this process is the near collapse of trust and the massive circulation of conspiracy theories. Facts are recounted; the Jihad of 1804 tried to conquer what we now call the Middle Belt and failed. Surely, the only reason Buhari would have sought power was to complete the objective of his forefathers. Self-help then becomes self-fulfilling prophesy. To stop the Jihad, herders are killed and their cattle stolen. When they retaliate, it becomes evidence that the objective of the Jihad is being pursued with vigour. When Muslim farmers are killed in Zamfara State, there is a rational explanation: It is banditry and criminality. When Christian farmers are killed in Benue, its Jihad and religious war. No one wants to know if criminality and banditry have spread into Benue as well. As for the herders, no one remembers their history, that in the past five hundred years, they have never tried to settle on a specific piece of land.

Fake news does not exist in a vacuum, it thrives in a gullible environment where people have been trained to accept single emotive narratives. Of course, the lack of effective response to growing insecurity by government and its security agencies provides the empirical basis for conspiracy theories. If government is not stopping the killings, then it means they want the killings to continue and grow. They may even be the ones funding these. Few people are ready to consider the alternative explanation of the simple incompetence of President Buhari and his security team. The president knows fully well that the security team he has appointed are not performing and he has stubbornly retained them. He therefore has direct responsibility for the growing belief in the conspiracy theories. The government tells Nigerians on a daily basis that it will end the insecurity facing the country but we are not told how and when, so citizens are compelled to explore alternative sources of information and explanation.

The reality on the ground today is that the combination of fake news, hate speech and poor governance have deepened the polarisation of Nigeria along ethnic, religious and regional lines. The crisis of pastoralism has been re-written as a continuous communal and religious war. Reassurance from the government is necessary to dispel fears within certain communities that the Buhari “Deep State” is targeting them. Government policy must be clear that no livestock production models would be imposed on any community. Competent leadership must be sought to improve the security situation in the country. Above all, all of us Nigerians must seek to be less gullible. The spirit and the skills of the verification of what we hear and see must improve if we are to get out of the trap of mutual self-destruction. It will take time to rebuild trust but let’s begin by fact-checking what we are told so that the fear that the other has plans to destroy us can begin to recede. Let’s start resisting profiling the other as the incarnation of evil that we must destroy by pre-emptive moves. The task of combating fake news and hate speech is everybody’s responsibility.

A professor of Political Science and development consultant/expert, Jibrin Ibrahim is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Democracy and Development, and Chair of the Editorial Board of PREMIUM TIMES.