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Fake news and threat to national security

by blcknyt1511
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Garry Kasparov, a Russian writer and political activist once said: “The point of modern propaganda is not only to misinform or push an agenda, it is to exhaust critical thinking and annihilate truth’’.

This position by Kasparov, a former World Chess champion, can best describe the fake news and misinformation that fuel the supposedly peaceful #EndSARS protest which snowballed into arson, wanton killing and dangerous threat to national security.

For more than two weeks, youths in Nigeria had thronged the streets in major cities protesting against police brutality and calling for an end to a unit of the Police Force, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), due to its notoriety.

The peaceful protest to demand the disbandment of SARS and other reforms in the police was, however, hijacked by hoodlums and other vile agents seeking to destabilise the country and create a state of anarchy.

The sordid end results were killings, maiming, looting of public and private property, wanton release of hardened criminals from incarceration and instigation of religious and ethnic crises.

Observers of the events have, however, noted that the violence that trailed the hitherto peaceful and well-intended protest was fueled by fake news and misinformation.

Tracing the history of #EndSARS, the movement was said to have dated back to 2017 when Nigerian youths who have been victims of brutality of the defunct notorious SARS, used the hashtag to share their experiences.

Three years after, specifically on October 4, a viral video on social media purporting men of SARS, shot dead a youth in Ughelli, Delta, snatched and sped off with his car, triggering pockets of protests across the country.

The video, which travelled like wildfire, indicated that the young man was killed in front of a hotel after SARS officials pushed him out of his vehicle and shot him.

This development culminated in declaration of a three-day protest by youths in Lagos and other parts of the country calling for SARS disbandment and general reform of the Police Force.

As the protest raged, there was a twist to the story that, contrary to the widely accepted claim that the victim was dead, the Minister of State for Labour, Mr Festus Keyamo, revealed that the young man was alive and he shared his picture in a hospital with head wounds.

The misinformation on the purported death of the victim notwithstanding, the #EndSARS protest garnered momentum and wide acceptance by not only the youth but every stratum of the society.

The supporters, including people in position of authority, believed in the fundamental rights of Nigerians to ventilate their grievances via peaceful protest as well as the need to end police brutality and reform the institution.

Little wonder, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo underscored the need for a reform of the police institution appealing to the protesters that “government has reviewed several of the issues and the president and I have had discussions on this, he is very concerned about it. He wants to see reforms.”

Similarly, motions were filed by members in the House of Representatives for a dissolution of SARS and the Speaker, Femi Gbajabiamila, said the House will enact new legislation to establish a system of accountability for the Nigerian police.

Some Nigerian musicians, prominent Nollywood actors and actresses as well as other artistes joined the protests, showing their support for the calls to #EndSARS.

The EndSARS also gained the support of Nigerians in the Diaspora as well as political and religious leaders celebrities across the globe calling for an end to police brutality.

Financial institutions like Flutterwave Inc and some other startups announced raising of public fund to cater for the medical bills of the injured during the protest and to channel towards taking care of the victims of police brutality.

Following the overwhelming support garnered by the #EndSARS and the genuineness of the issues raised by the peaceful protesters, the Federal Government did not hesitate to pointedly address the five demands made by the protesters.

It is a basic principle that for any successful protest to yield the desired results, it must end on a negotiation table.

With the broad-based approach of government in meeting the demands of the protesters, one would ordinarily think that the conveners of the protest would order their supporters to leave the streets.

The youths, however, could not reach a consensus on whom to send to represent them for a roundtable discussion with government largely due to lack of trust and suspicion of possible compromise.

The protests, which had already been hijacked by hoodlums, continued unabated across the country resulting in mayhem, arson and killings of innocent Nigerians.

However, the protests reached a crescendo when at about 6.45pm on Oct. 20, the social media was awash with the news that the peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll gate were allegedly shot at with live bullets by men of the Nigerian military.

Although the Lagos Governor had directed the extension of the curfew from 4pm to 9pm same day to enable residents get to their destination, the alleged shooting was said to have taken place before the curfew commenced.

The news of the alleged unprovoked shooting by the military at the Lekki Toll Gate was followed by several other unconfirmed provocative stories.

Several social media accounts with gripping images emerged on the alleged shooting while a certain traditional TV station even described the incident as “massacre’’ sending dangerous signal to youths across the country.

There were also trending images of some men allegedly removing the CCTV at the toll gate which bloggers translated to mean a deliberate move to cover up “a premeditated massacre’’ of the peaceful protesters.

It was also alleged that the light at the toll gate was deliberately put off to provide cover for the alleged attack by the military

A former Governor of Lagos and APC National Leader, Bola Tinubu, in a trending video, was alleged to be the owner of the Lekki toll gate and that he ordered the military deployment because of the millions of Naira he had lost two weeks into occupation of the money-spinning business.

Social media report also claimed that dozens of protesters were murdered in cold blood at the Lekki toll gate shooting with images of their blood dripping on the national flag.

While denials trailed earlier reports trending in the social media, the damage had already been done.

The unsubstantiated reports of deaths, gripping videos and images that trended on the social media on the alleged shooting by the military had triggered unprecedented destruction as well as looting of public and private buildings and property across Lagos by the angry youths and hoodlums.

Angry demonstrators set fire to the BRT bus stations with hundreds of new buses at Oyingbo, Ojodu and Berger while the National Ports Authority building at Marina was also set ablaze.

The palace of the Oba of Lagos, the traditional leader of the city, was also desecrated and burnt down, and his sceptre of authority carted away by hoodlums.

The Lekki toll plaza, police stations, VIO and FRSC offices with branded vehicles, Local Councils secretariats, recreation centres, banks and the house of Governor Sanwo-Olu’s mother were also burnt.

The Nation Newspaper and a television station, TVC, were also looted and set ablaze by hoodlums.

To aggravate the situation while the wanton destruction of property persisted across the country, there were online reports with doctored videos purporting that Tinubu had escaped to France and his son kidnapped.

This turned out to be fake when Tinubu paid a visit to the governor and debunked the social media report.

“I didn’t go nowhere; I’m a Lagosian and I still hold the title of Asiwaju of Lagos and I am still a Jagaban.

“Fake news is all over the place. They say Seyi my son was kidnapped and was chased but look at him. I didn’t pay a penny to bring him here,” he said.

Instructively, only on Friday, many private and public offices in the Federal Capital Territory were forced to close early because of the rumour that young Muslim faithful would attack the city after the Jumat prayer over the #EndSARS protest.

Bent on creating religious crisis after the Friday plan failed, the sponsors of the fake news launched another attack with a report on a private national television that the National Ecumenical Centre had been set on fire.

The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), however, refuted the reports that the monument, one of the largest Christian centres in Abuja, was not on fire

With all these developments, there is no doubt that fake news poses a dangerous threat to national security and social media platforms are the preferred medium for propagating subversive ideas.

Like the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed said at a lecture recently, the advent of the internet as well as the introduction of smartphones has democratised access to and dissemination of information in a very profound way.

“Anybody with a smart phone and data can access the Internet and disseminate whatever he or she feels like from his or her comfort zones,’’ he said.

Unfortunately, some traditional media which are supposed to live above board and checkmate the excesses of the new media, have also compromised for one reason or the other by allowing their medium to be used for evil.

To tackle the menace, the Minister is of the opinion that there is an urgent need for a national policy on the use of the social media, to curb excesses and misuse.

According to him, “The need to act fast is made more urgent by the fact that the extremism being promoted by anti-state groups remains one of the biggest challenges to Nigeria’s national security.

“Let me quickly state that the veritable tools of choice for extremists to propagate their dangerous and subversive ideas include unrestrained propaganda, fake news and hate speech.

“These are very potent tools in the hands of extremists, whether they are secessionists, ultra-nationalists, religious extremists or even insurgents.

“Of course, social media is the platform of choice for these malcontents.”

The minister said the country could learn from best practices around the world including China.

He said China, with about 1.4 billion people, “does not allow an unbridled use of social media platforms like Facebook, Google or Whatsapp’’.

The minister also said that many countries have also enacted laws or leveraged on regulations to ensure a responsible use of the social media.

Other concerned Nigerians have also suggested that the investigative panel set up by Gov. Sanwo-Olu should leave no stone unturned in identifying the proponents and sponsors of any fake content that fuels the crisis for trial and sanctions.

Punishing offenders linked to the tragedy of the last two weeks would help check a recurrence.

Ijikanmi is of the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)