Weaponizing fake news

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Dan Agbese

Former President Donald Trump did not invent fake news. He appropriated it, exploited it and weaponized it. He defined fake news in purely utilitarian Trumpian interests to separate enemies from friends in the news media.

Journalists and their media that disagreed with Trump or exposed his egregious lies became not just his enemies but fake journalists and the purveyors of fake news. He used the label and the insults as weapons in his often-futile attempts to impugn the integrity of responsible journalists and their equally responsible media who would not buy into his lies and alternative facts.

Trump is reputedly the greatest liar and dissembler that ever occupied the Oval Office. That he loves to accuse others of lying and faking the news must go down as a kind of special irony. New York City celebrated him as a great liar by erecting a 50-foot wall on which it detailed 50,000 of his greatest lies to the American people. When Twitter could stomach him no more, it yanked out his twitter page, the platform on which he stood to rant and rave and lie to the American people.

But Trump was merely continuing an old war, the war between facts and fiction. Lies, falsehood and their variations in words and deeds, have a long history in human history. In his book, Fayke Newes, Derek J. Taylor, argues that fake news is the current face of the war between the media and “the Mighty from Henry VIII to Donald Trump.” Its weaponization is the major problem with the primary role of the media in the 21st. century.

We are served daily with the indigestible diet of distortion, misinformation, disinformation, invented stories that have no basis in fact, coloured opinions dressed as intellectual culinary fare and lies that beggar belief. People weaponize lies to blackmail others.

The weaponization of lies and fake news has taken them to dizzying heights. Propaganda was once the problem that the media had to deal with to separate the chaff of lies and distortions from the facts people needed to make informed decisions in social management. Propaganda had its place. Ask, if you can, Hitler’s propagandist, Goebbels. His weaponized lies and turned them into propaganda. He used propaganda to a destructive effect in the service of Nazi Germany in World War II.

He wrote his name into the ignoble page in world history. I am sure that never bothered him. Goebbels it was who propagated the idea that while a naked lie would not be accepted in a civilised society, a lie repeatedly told with a bold face, I would imagine, would inevitably take on the character of facts and make the grade. An important lesson absorbed by Trump and other pikins of Goebbels. The conspiracy theory has shortened the process a repeated lie must go through to be accepted as a fact.

There are two parts to the weaponization of fake news. Both of them are dangerous and ill serve the information needs and the education of the citizenry. The first part is almost benign, innocent even. You would recognise it as the peddling of rumours with no ulterior motive, as in not intended to cause harm but merely to celebrate Amebo.

The second part is the more dangerous. Here the weaponization of fake news derives its fuel from conspiracy theories usually hatched in the fertile imagination of the conspiracy theorists. Ask the Americans. They are the past masters in conspiracy theories, some of which arrest the imagination of the sensible and turn them into the insane.

I refer you to the literature on the 2016 presidential election. If you have the stomach to wade through it, you will have a fair idea of the dangers of weaponized fake news and appreciate the dangers an excitable country such as ours faces in the enveloping clouds of fake news darkening the sky of fair and factual information dissemination.

The presidential election of February 25 has become an endless source of conspiracy theories in the weaponization of fake news. Let me cite just three instances to show you the power of conspiracy theories and their lethal power in fuelling fake news.

You read the story of the INEC Chairman, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, being secretly flown to Lagos to meet with Ahmed Bola Tinubu on the night of February 24, less than 24 hours to the Presidential and National Assembly elections the next day. I am sure you also read the story of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Ariwoola, who allegedly travelled in disguise to the UK for a meeting with Tinubu. Nor would you have missed the well-crafted piece allegedly put out by Atiku Abubakar formally giving up on his challenge to Tinubu’s declaration as President-elect and his retirement from politics.

There is a method and a purpose to the madness of conspiracy theorists. Their primary objective is to mislead, miseducate, misinform the people and denigrate the integrity, in the first two cases above, of an institution and prepare the people’s mind not to accept the outcome of the presidential election because it was fixed before it was conducted or accept the judgement of a Supreme Court on the challenges to Tinubu’s declaration because its head had been recruited to Tinubu’s cause and thus compromised the apex court.

What is truly remarkable about fake news is that the smart phone has broken down the walls that once protected editors from egregious assault by the untrained. With the smart phone, anyone can become his own reporter and editor. He can report what he chooses to report and is not held accountable for the news he manufactures at the watering joint as he does justice to his beer. Several platforms are available from which he can pick up a piece of information and twist it to suit his purposes.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and a host of other social media platforms are great modern inventions in the 21st century. We are all hooked to them daily from sunrise to sunset and beyond. But it helps to be wary of their capacity to aid fake news and spread conspiracy theories. Again, remember what the Americans did to their democracy in the presidential election of 2020. Conspiracy theories put a huge question mark on the world’s arguably leading democracy. If they too, always the example to follow by other nations can cheat and rig their elections, what else is new?

An important cottage industry has grown around conspiracy theories and the weaponization of fake news. Fake news is a strong social, political, racial, and tribal weapon. Like the beetle, it has become indestructible. Fake news, like rumours, has no identifiable source. In Nigeria, fake news and rumours are attributed to dem, as in, na so dem talk. No one ever knows who started a rumour; we only wake up to it when the fire lit by it burns individuals and communities. Fake news is, but not always, birthed by rumours.

Fake news pitches the mainstream media against the social media, the platform where fake news is birthed, nursed, and sent to out to the world to confuse the world. Fake news has captured our collective imagination. I have no empirical evidence for this, but my informed guess is that we have become hostages to fake news served hot daily on the social media platform. We gravitate to them in search of the sensational and the salacious. Our public officers are the primary targets of the salacious and the sensational. Words are put in their mouths. Some of them feel too choked up to deny strange the views put into their mouths.

If you were old enough in the 80s and 90s, you would say that we have seen it before. You would have little difficulty in recalling the blight that hit our news media and was deployed in a genuine or fake struggle ostensibly over the annulment of the June 12, 1993, presidential election. Pulp magazines sprang up in all our major towns and cities to join the war of fake news in pursuit of group agenda or interests. We called it the junk press but believe me, they did serve their ignoble purpose in a country where every citizen is prepared to believe the worst in every public officer.

The social media platforms are active platforms for fake news and the weaponization of fake news. It is becoming a no-contest between the social media and the mainstream media because the former appears to dwarf the mainstream media in serving the information needs of both the gullible and the not-so-gullible. Part of the danger in the weaponization of fake news is that it creates realities for individuals and permits them to live in their own strange universe and empowers them to act in accordance with the realities of that unreal universe. The greatest age of enlightenment in information management has transformed itself into the age of weaponized fake news.

The weaponization of fake news is the current greatest challenge facing our country casting about for a divinely sanctioned formula for rebuilding itself into a nation united by common purposes and dreams. Fake news is tearing at the fabric of our fitful efforts to make a nation out of this conglomeration of natives and tribes pulling in different directions.

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