Many Nigerians were angry when the news of a fresh wave of xenophobic attacks against Nigerians and other foreign nationals living in South Africa broke on September 1, 2019. Although it was not the first time that such attacks, with the attendant toll, in terms of loss of valuable property and lives, would take place, Nigerians were particularly upset by the fact that the South African Government still could not do enough to put an end to the persistent orgy of violence.
As the attacks continued, news reports indicated that the rampaging mobs, who also sang a familiar tune blaming foreign nationals for their social and economic woes, were organised and obviously enjoyed the backing of the authorities. Simultaneously some videos and pictures emerged online, showing disturbing scenes of burning and looting, as well as physical assault on foreigners, in parts of Johannesburg and Jeppestown. The images and videos sparked off widespread reprisals in Nigeria and Zambia.
Angry Nigerian youths attacked South-African businesses in Ibadan and Lagos. They burnt MTN’s office in Ibadan and looted Shoprite’s malls in Lagos. In Zambia, South African-owned Pick, n Pay’ store in Lusaka was similarly attacked, while students of the University of Zambia embarked on a protest march to the South African High Commission in Lusaka, according to Sky News.
Later, it was discovered that some of the trending online pictures and videos linked to the September 1 xenophobic attacks were not related to the actual incidents that they appeared to portray.
A closer look at such videos and photos showed that they were the handiwork of purveyors of fake news, who were cashing in on the situation in South Africa to foment trouble. For instance, there was the viral video of a multi-storeyed building believed to have been set ablaze by the South African mobs, with foreigners purportedly jumping down to their deaths in attempts to escape being burnt alive.
The video, with the caption, ‘Situation right now in Jozi (Johannesburg), stay away from Bree street, Small streets guys’, was posted on Twitter at 8.12am on September 2 and it generated 2,319 retweets and 2,847 likes.
But a check revealed that the video, which had been on the Internet since May 24, 2019, was actually that of an “education centre” in Gujarat, India, which caught fire, with 20 people reportedly losing their lives.
Yet another video shared on Twitter at about 2.49pm showed scores of people, presumed to be Nigerians, lying face down and others with raised hands marching in a single file under the watchful eyes of South African policemen.
The video, which was also captioned, ‘Nigerians facing deportation in South Africa,’ generated 743 retweets and 1,113 likes.
Further checks revealed that the video had been on the Internet since May 2018 and the scene was that of an alleged mass arrest of suspected criminals in a hotel in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg, which had nothing to do with the September 1 incident.
Another image, which might have contributed in no small measure to fuelling the angry response of other Africans to the xenophobic attacks, showed a man, purported to be a Nigerian, being set ablaze by South Africans. The video generated 222,000 views on Twitter.
However, a check revealed that the video first surfaced online on January 15, 2019, and it illustrated a story, titled, ‘Fiery death: Mob sets alleged robber on fire in Joburg’ and published by Times Live.
According to the publication, the man in the video was eventually burnt to death and his accomplice hospitalised after they were assaulted by a mob, which had accused both of them of robbing a woman of her handbag in the Hillbrow area of Johannesburg.
Also, some mischievous persons circulated a clip of the June 25, 2014 bomb explosion that took place at the Emab Plaza in Abuja, with the caption, ‘South African Embassy in Nigeria just got bombed in retaliation for xenophobia.’
In his reaction, the Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, described these videos and images as the products of “fake news orchestrated by the desperate opposition to cause panic and chaos among the populace.”
Mohammed said that apart from inflaming passion, the fake videos and images were also complicating the efforts of the Federal Government to calm frayed nerves at home in the wake of the xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
“Fake news and disinformation represent a clear and present danger to every society,’’ Mohammed warned.
The Executive Director, Media Career Development Network, Mr Lekan Otufodunrin, said it was obvious that fake news played a part in the reprisal attacks launched on South African concerns in Nigerians.
Otufodunrin blamed the development on lack of media literacy by majority of social media users.
He said, “Circulation of fake materials definitely aggravated the situation because until the Federal Government actually came out to make that declaration many people were not aware that those materials were fake.
“It is unfortunate that we got to this point. One of the things I think is very important, and which I have been advocating, is that we need more of media literacy. The ordinary person, who has access to sharing and receiving information, should have media literacy to know how to distinguish between what is real and what is fake.
“Nowadays, some apps are used to check information, images and videos to be sure they are true, even to know whether a Twitter account, for example, is a parody. I think fake news did a lot of damage and it is a shame that after the whole outcry we couldn’t even point out one Nigerian that died despite the video claiming that Nigerians were jumping off a burning building; and I guess that was why the government was a bit very cautious in responding to the situation because there are diplomatic implications for responses that don’t tally with best practices.
“It is very bad and I hope that people have learnt from this not to believe everything they see in the social media. In situations like this, government should be quick to come out and disclaim them and others who know should denounce such too.”
The Director, International Press Centre, Mr Lanre Arogundade, said the fake videos and photographs could be equated with the reactions of those who angrily attacked South African interests in Nigeria.
Arogundade added that the development showed that to halt the dissemination of fake news, government and the conventional media need to be more proactive.
He said, “We have reached an age where the conventional media, which relies on the discipline of verification, unlike the quick social media, and the government itself must be much more proactive in monitoring and reacting to what circulates in the social media.
“With those kinds of videos, it shouldn’t have taken long for there to have been an official statement debunking them. The government and the conventional media need to pay more attention to what is happening in the social media during times of crisis. Within a very short time, people would have been informed that those videos were not true.
“As a journalist, during my training in crisis reporting, I always made the point that the first casualty in a moment of crisis is the truth. The search for truth is always a problem and that is why we need to pay attention to what goes on in the social media.”
A lawyer, Mr Somolon Okedara, also described fake news as a dangerous phenomenon capable destabilising the society.
He noted that though circulation of fake news was a criminal offence under the Cybercrime Act 2015, the law was ambiguous in some respect.
Okedara said, “In the last few years, the Nigerian media space has been invaded with fake news with far-reaching negative consequences on the society. Yes, the Cybercrime Act 2015 deals with fake or false news with the penalty of three years jail term or fine of N7, 000, 000 or both.
“That said, the particular provision of the Act in itself suffers a major legislative deficiency by being ambiguous, vague and overbroad, thereby ending up infringing on the citizens’ freedom of expression in a bid to indict fake or false news.
“As we speak, there are five suits in courts challenging the constitutionality of the Section 24 of the Cybercrime Act that legislate against fake news for being vague, overbroad and being capable of indicting free speech.”
The lawyer said that experience had shown that rather than legislation, the most potent weapons to combat fake news were fact-checking and counter-news.
He added, “Frankly, legislating against fake news cannot sufficiently address the scourge of fake news and this is not just peculiar to the Nigerian society. It is, indeed, a global reality. Therefore, as long as we keep looking in the direction of legislation, we will keep missing the real issue.
“Two antidotes have globally proved to be effective without creating further problems in the system. The first one is fact-checking while the second one is counter-news. The citizens should be encouraged to fact-check news at all times before they act upon them, while the institutions responsible for news are expected to be quick to counter any fake news the moment it finds its way into the mainstream media.
“Most of the damaging consequences of fake news that we have had in our society have resulted from either the slackness of institutions that are custodians of genuine news to counter the fake news or failure on the part of citizens to fact-check the news or both.”