By Tayo Ogunbiyi
Reprieve seems not yet in sight as the Coronavirus pandemic lingers on globe. As at the time of writing this piece, more than 1,603,719 cases of the virus has been recorded globally while 95,722 people have lost their lives to the pandemic.
With over 468,566 infected persons and a total of 16,691 deaths, the United States of America is currently the epicentre of the deadly virus. It is closely followed by Spain and Italy with 153, 222 infected persons, 15,447 deaths and 143,626 infected persons and 18,279 deaths respectively.
Its socio-economic impact on nations of the world is quite astounding. Many businesses have been shut down, with experts projecting disastrous economic outlook for many nations in the coming months. Thousands of flights have been cancelled while countless money-spinning entertainment and sporting events have been postponed indefinitely, and in some cases cancelled out rightly. Some nations have been on lockdown for weeks. Yet, respite seems out of sight.
In Nigeria, we did not originally bother about the highly infectious disease until a certain Italian imported it to Lagos on February 24th via Milan.
Since then, the country has recorded 288 confirmed cases of the pandemic and seven fatalities.
Currently, and understandably so, Lagos ranks higher in the infection ladder with a total of 158 cases, followed by the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, and Osun with 54 and 20 cases respectively. Currently, the pandemic has spread across 16 states in the country as well the as the FCT
Being the commercial nerve centre of the country as well as the first port of call of most visitors to the country, the COVID-19 situation of Lagos is quite fathomable. Same goes for the FCT which is the nation’s federal capital as well as the seat of power.
By and large, the rapidity of the virus’ spread across the country is quite worrisome. However, in as much as it is indisputable that the Coronavirus is deadly, there seems to be the ascendancy of another kind of pandemic, which if not properly checked, could result into greater harm in the society. This fresh plague, contending for relevance with coronavirus, is fake news.
Although, cases of fake news have been on the rise for quite some time in our clime, the sheer recklessness of its occurrence, especially since the coronavirus outbreak, is quite alarming. In the early days of the index case in the country, the social media was awash with several phony reports.
Out of the lot, one that particularly stand out was that of a driver who allegedly drove the Italian index case from Lagos to Ogun State. It was reported that upon hearing that the man he drove in his car had contacted the virus, he purportedly vowed to spread the virus across the country except he was paid the sum of N500 million by the Federal Government.
Sound ridiculous? Well, for the originators it is not. Sadly, for the unsuspecting as well as manipulative social media ‘activists’ who rapidly help spread the fake news, it is absolutely a course that is in order.
Another COVID-19 phony tale that readily comes to mind is the one that ‘authoritatively’ confirms that President Muhammadu Buhari and his Chief of Staff, Aba Kyari, have been flown to the United Kingdom for coronavirus treatment. This time around, the initiator of the bogus narrative did a voice recording that gives graphics detail of how a ‘bedridden’ President Buhari and his ‘unconscious’ aide were hurriedly flown out of the country. It was so dramatic that it would certainly convince any undiscerning mind.
Not yet done, the fake tale bearers also came up with another spurious claim that members of the Presidential Task Force, PTF, on COVID-19 are paid N1,000,000 million each per sitting, excluding feeding and travelling allowances. As usual, it was an ‘exclusive’ report.
Still with same menacing gusto, these harbingers of counterfeit news also commandingly confirmed that the Lagos State government has relaxed ongoing lockdown of the State as announced by the President. They even copiously quoted Mr. Governor to corroborate the claim.
The most worrying aspect of the whole craze is the speed with which such news travels in the social media. It does so with the speed of light.
Without a doubt, the social media accelerates conversations in a more interactive way that makes communication more effective and worthwhile. Information dissemination is now faster and easier while genuine business transactions can be promoted through the medium for a vast global market.
But then, that is where it all stops. The social media has, unfortunately, become an avenue for the display of unconcealed acts of boundless social madness. In the social media, there is little or no regard for the truth.
A few years back, fake news was not a familiar term, but globally it is now seen as one of the greatest threats to democracy, security, free debate and unity.
Fake news is as wicked as terrorism. It divides the people. It poisons the mind of an unsuspecting public. It promotes falsehood and celebrates deception.
Unfortunately, fake news spreads like wildfire on social media; getting quicker and longer-lasting attention than the truth. For instance, a deep dive into Twitter shows that fake news was re-tweeted more often than true news was, and carried further.
On many occasions, the genuineness of information posted on social media is suspicious. While the conventional media processes and scrutinizes news gathering and dissemination and, thus, exercises control in addition to operating a feedback mechanism which gives room for refutation when practitioners erred, the social media affords faceless individuals the space to send conniving and spurious information.
Sadly, promoters of fake news usually get away with it, since there is no compelling process or law to insist on confutation.
Through this trend, many people have been ‘authoritatively’ confirmed dead while many have equally been labelled ‘looters’, ‘thieves’, ‘fraudsters’ etc. At the end of the day, the victims of such misleading information are faced with the task of responding to issues that never really existed.
Thus, as valuable as the social media is, its abuse can be menacing. The use of a tool largely depends on the users. For instance, a doctor operates with a knife while a murderer could also kill with a knife. For users of the social media, especially the youth, the watchword, therefore, is caution.
Well-meaning individuals, NGOs, faith-based organizations, related government agencies, educational institutions, and all other concern stakeholders are enjoined to take active interest in taking up advocacy crusades aimed at curbing the excesses of the social media.
Though, it might not be feasible to impose barriers on the cyberspace, the fact that, unlike the traditional media, the social media have no gatekeeper should be of great worry to all concerned persons.
Ogunbiyi is of the Ministry of Information & Strategy, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos