Thursday, September 12, 2019 1:12 pm
By Babafemi Ojudu
I woke up 4.00 am to visit the bathroom on the Tuesday of that “xenophobia week.” I picked up my phone to accompany me on this journey of relief. Staring me in the face and jarring my soul badly was the video of a young man set ablaze. He rolled on the floor trying to quench the flame. As he tried, the flame got fiercer, leading to his limbs getting contorted.
The written words under the video said he was a Nigerian set on fire in Johannesburg by young xenophobes. I got up from the toilet seat and could hardly breathe. What is this ? How could the country of Madiba do this to a Nigerian? I had my doubts but who knows. Not even the false story some days before that the Nigeria embassy in South Africa had been set on fire could relieve me of my anxiety. I sat by the Nigerian Consul General at a function that night and we both laughed at that grand falsehood!
I went back to bed. Sleep would no longer come. As a reporter, I started investigating. I went on the sites of local newspapers. I made calls to Nigerian as well as South African friends. All I kept getting was that the video had nothing to do with the burning and looting in Johannesburg.
Joseph, a young Nigerian friend assured me it was a video of an incident that took place two years earlier. A thief went to a market and stole, he was caught and set on fire.
A day before I started receiving the videos, I had boasted during the cause of my address to The Conversation Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, that the Nigerians I know will not retaliate the burning and looting of shops carried out with relish by South Africans. “ Oh we are much civilized than that . Nigerians won’t do it”, I said.
Just before evening that day, the widely circulated fake stories and videos had ignited the anger in Nigerians and wet the appetite of looters. Hysteria has gone stratospheric. My assurances and boast of knowing my country men has come to nought.
All through the day, I got assaulted by gory videos mined across the world and said to be happening now and Nigerians were said to be the victims in the video clips.
A tall building on fire in a certain country in Asia and people jumping down were represented as Nigerians being thrown out of the window by South Africans. Burnt bodies littering a space was circulated and represented as Nigerians. Happening now the circulator of the videos said.
With Nigeria being number two among countries spending long times on social media ,the implications is bound to be horrendous.
The internet community is an intriguing community. It is a community inhabited by all sorts of beings. As the Yoruba will say o gbo’le, o gbo’le. All sorts inhabit this ubiquitous space. You are called and invited to be part of the community. If you are, like me , a public official, you dare not decline. If you do how do you know when you are declared dead when you are still alive? How do you know you are located in a place when you are under the duvet sleeping next to your wife? How do you know when it is said there are shootings in your neighborhood when the only sound of gun you have heard is that from the Nollywood film playing on your TV?
In February, I was involved in helicopter crash with the Vice President, days after, I saw representation of that crash in more than six different helicopters crashes, some in the desert, some in the Sahel, and some on a building in a residential area of a city.
So this singular crash in Kabba metamorphosed and got represented by several across the world! The truth was lost in falsehood peddled by social media rats.
Sometime ago a boss of mine was sitting behind his desk in Abuja, and a torrent of postings and comments went on on his supposed Valentine Day dalliance in Dubai.
Fiction is written and posted with relish, videos are made up and circulated and professors and people of knowledge are basing their theories and prognoses on it. Every effort to educate them on the falsehood of such stories are resisted.
Whenever there is a communal clash or crisis happening now reporters reach to Rwanda, Sudan, the war in Libya, in Cameroon , wherever they can pick visuals and say IT IS HAPPENING NOW.
Some months ago, I sat with a retired General at a program in Lagos. He whipped out his phone and showed me a story. The story (coming from the fecund imagination of a citizen and further embellished as it travels) claimed Prof Jega, the former INEC Chairman said at a lecture in Abuja that he regretted declaring Buhari president in 2015. I told the retired General that this is not possible and it must be a fake story. “ Senator look this is on WhatsApp “, he said. “Eighty percent of what comes up on WhatsApp are false,” I told him. My insistence that he was fed with lies soured a company that would otherwise have been enriching that night.
I once had a big quarrel with members of a WhatsApp group I belong to. This group is constituted by acedemics and professionals . For a whole day, I observed them relishing a story of Vice President Yemi Osinbajo being held hostage in The Villa after threatening to resign, following a refusal to allow him participate in a security meeting.
I work with this man, I was in Lagos on the said date he was supposed to have been held hostage , I protested. They refused to believe me. They would rather believe the unknown author of such a fiction. They said there must be something we were hiding.
“How could a Vice President be under arrest and you will not find the story on CNN or in the major papers?” I asked. They still failed to be persuaded even when I posted stories, pictures and videos of events attended same day by same person.
Two weeks later, the same story appeared on the same platform. Word for word, it says it is happening now. The Vice President has been arrested. The forwarding festival began all over again.
“ The point of modern propaganda is not only to misinform or push an agenda,” the Russian chess grandmaster, Gary Kasparov once said, “It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth”.
A lady on Facebook was unrelenting in pouring invectives on me just because I tried to give an accurate account of the events in South Africa and relieve her of the lies she was fed with. Such is the risk of telling the truth in the age of falsehood.
You must have heard of a supposed meeting held in Saudi Arabia to which a Nigerian voice said he was privy to a decision taken between President Buhari and the Crown Prince Of Saudi Arabia to Islamize Nigeria. Both the foolish as well as the supposedly wise believed and circulated the rubbish.
And then the big one of a Jubril from Sudan inhabiting Aso Villa , usurping power and claiming to be Buhari “who has long been dead abroad where he went for medical treatment”. What will they or can they not concoct?
One of the worst fictitious short stories I read was the one about a woman who said she came in from America and traveling between Ibadan and Akure with her husband and daughter but kidnapped by Fulani herdsmen. They were taken to the forest and on getting there one of the herders wanted to sodomize her husband and she had to offer herself. I have never seen a piece that widely circulated and believed by those educated and uneducated alike.
A popular female preacher in Abuja used a whole Sunday service to dramatized the story to her church. You will think she was an actor in Nollywood and not a Woman of God. The video immediately became a hit and went viral. Yes the woman who came from America has come out to tell her story.
I could not believe that a people could be that held hostage by falsehoods.
I will not be surprised if in three years time the same story accompanied by the video is exhumed and brought out as HAPPENING NOW.
Such is the nature of the internet that you hardly could discern what is true from what is false.
It will take a lot of ingenuity by psychologists, psychiatrists and sociologists to unravel what will make an adult concoct falsehoods and circulate it and millions of people will be ready to consume such trash.
Hillary Clinton, the former US Foreign Secretary and wife of Bill Clinton , former President of America once said: “ In the nineteenth century, nations fought two kinds of wars: on land and at sea. In the twentieth century, that expanded to the skies. In the twenty- first century, wars will increasingly be fought in cyberspace.”
But for caution on the part of both governments of Nigeria and South Africa a war could have broken out between the two countries
While I agree with Mrs Clinton of the emergence of cyber space war, it is my fear that if something is not done soon about the social media falsehoods, a real war on land, on sea and in the air may soon be ignited by fake news items and their accompanying fake videos.
It is then we will know it is HAPPENING NOW.
-Senator Babafemi Ojudu is a Special Adviser on Political Matters at the Presidency