The frequency of misinformation is expected to rise as the elections near, but it must not be allowed to stand.
A former minister, Femi Fani-Kayode, took to his Twitter account (@realFFK) on Tuesday to inform his over 754,000 followers what President Muhammadu Buhari had allegedly said about Nigerians at the Paris Peace Forum in France.
He posted, ""40 million Nigerians are mad and are suffering from mental illness" – President Muhammadu Buhari, Paris, Nov. 11th 2018.
"Buhari went to France and told the world that one quarter of the Nigerian people are mad? I am at a loss for words! May God deliver us from this man!"
Fani-Kayode lied (which is ironic because he has 'Servant of truth' in his Twitter bio, another lie).
The statement attributed to Buhari about mental illness in Nigeria was actually made by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health, Abdulaziz Abdullahi, who disclosed on Monday that an estimated 20%-30% of Nigeria's population is believed to suffer from mental disorders.
Abdullahi was actually lamenting about the inadequacy of the attention that mental disorders get in the country and advocated for better awareness.
So, not only did Fani-Kayode attach the statement to the wrong person, he completely misrepresented the true context of the subject.
If you give Fani-Kayode full credit for a man of his standing, it's easy to conclude that he knows for certain that President Buhari did not make that statement in Paris. I believe him to be a smarter man than that.
Why then would Fani-Kayode, a chieftain of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), have deliberately tweeted a falsehood against the president without a shred of evidence to back his claim? Easy answer – for political convenience.
Given President Buhari's penchant for making uncharitable remarks about Nigeria and Nigerians almost every time he touches down in foreign countries, Fani-Kayode's false attribution was quite easy for the untrained mind to believe.
From saying he'll favour certain regions that helped him become president over others, to saying his wife belonged in the kitchen, and more recently sort of calling Nigerian youths lazy people waiting on government handouts, it's a wonder the president's handlers still allow him near a microphone when he's abroad.
This is why it's easy for someone like Fani-Kayode to feed on this established history to attempt to spread an easy-to-debunk story like the one in his tweet. It's why the tweet has already been retweeted by over 1,800 people with most unwilling to even fact-check the information to be sure of its authenticity.
Just two days before the tweet in question, Fani-Kayode had also tweeted that the current President Buhari is not actually him, a conspiracy theory that was birthed by the separatist leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB), Nnamdi Kanu.
"The true identity of the man in the Villa that claims to be Buhari will only be made known after he is defeated and steps down from power. When that happens Nigerians will be shocked to the marrow. In 2015 I warned about his fake certificate. Today I warn about his fake identity," he posted on Sunday.
If you distort logic hard enough, Fani-Kayode's attempts to spread falsehoods may appear harmless, but it's a window into how problematic fake news will continue to be in Nigeria for the forseeable future.
The business of peddling fake news is sure to be a very profitable one as the 2019 general elections draw closer.
The most troubling concern is no matter how insane a false information is, there are going to be people who'll completely believe it without conducting checks for accuracy, and this is dangerous.
The social media space has made it even easier for people to deliberately or ignorantly pass around information that has been weaponised to achieve a set goal.
Why would Fani-Kayode deliberately falsely attribute that crass quote to Buhari? An easy guess would be that he was trying to sully his fragile image even more in the eyes of the Nigerian public, and it absolutely works to some extent. The problem begins when the consequences of false information goes past this.
In September 2018, the PDP took to its official Twitter account (@OfficialPDPNig) to raise an alarm over electoral violence allegedly committed during the Osun governorship election which its candidate lost.
Of all the four pictures of battered and murdered victims attached to the tweet, only one actually happened during the Osun election, as a quick Google Image Search proved. The party eventually deleted the tweet a couple of hours later after it got a barrage of reproach from what was a surprisingly disapproving crowd on Twitter.
This kind of misinformation could have had far worse consequences if the post had been allowed to fester for more than it did.
While it's easy to conclude that it's only the opposition party that's dabbling in the dark arts of misinformation, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is not left out.
Back in July 2018, the Lagos APC publicity secretary, Joe Igbokwe, posted a clearly doctored photo to claim that President Buhari had appointed an Igbo man as his Chief Security Officer.
Alongside the image, he posted, "Please meet ACP Obinna Chukwuka, the tear rubber Chief Security Officer to Mr President."
The post was an attempt to dismiss public discontent with the president's perceived biased appointments in favour of northerners. The information, as well as the image, was false as the president had not replaced his CSO, Bashir Abubakar, when Igbokwe clicked publish to expose his tens of thousands of followers to a bad Photoshop job.
He failed to take responsibility for the erroneous post, claiming that he merely copied it from a trusted source and didn't bother to verify.
When then-Minister of Finance, Kemi Adeosun, was accused of skipping the National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme and forging an exemption certificate to get government jobs, Igbokwe also posted a doctored image of her in NYSC uniform to rubbish the allegations.
More recently in September 2018, President Buhari's Special Adviser on Social Media, Lauretta Onochie, was publicly ridiculed for using a random stock image as proof of the construction work being done by Buhari's administration on the Nasarawa-Jos road. She later apologised for the tweet.
It's easy to see how spreading misinformation, over the past few months, has become a common strategy used by the political class to weaponise their agendas.
It's easy to see why any of the aforementioned culprits would either deliberately misinform the public or lazily fail to carry out the required due diligence before they click publish. If the misinformation works out well, it means there's an army of new converts who can scurry to your side because they think the other side must be as bad as painted. It's such a simple-minded scheme.
It is important to note that the success or failure of misinformation, deliberate or not, depends most prominently on the ability of the consumers to show good judgement.
The truth is that fake news is easy to figure out most of the time. However due to the laziness to properly scrutinise or the eagerness to latch onto something that reinforces your established position, you're likely to internalise false information and pass it along to the next unsuspecting person.
This is why it was easy for hundreds of people to fail to question Fani-Kayode's tweet on Buhari's purported speech in France – it reinforced their opinion of the president as a loose talker, especially when he's abroad, leading them to not probe further whether he actually made the statement in question.
A more conscious population is less likely to completely fall for misinformation, half-truths, rumours and insinuations that should have very limited lifespans. It really is not that hard.
With the general elections mere months away now, the frequency of fake news will most likely go up because the political class will do everything to gain advantage over one another.
Typically, the goal of this misinformation drive would be to influence the decisions of Nigerians who'll trudge to the polls again next year to make electoral choices that'll shape the nation for another four years.
When you make that choice with your thumb next year, be sure it's not because someone fooled you into it.