People & Money

Fake News and Tragedies: The Duty to Real Victims

The Owo massacre of June 5, 2022, has brought out again the issue of false information around major incidents. Without waiting for the authorities, so many stories and narratives have been offered by different people on the massacre.

On social media especially, it seems everyone was in competition to outdo themselves in the stories they weave. There have been those who claim to have first-hand information that the tragedy was a drug war gone bad. Others have claimed, without evidence, that the incident was linked with cultist activities in the area. A recently wedded couple was reported to have been killed in the incident only for the couple to come out and debunk the claim.

For anyone looking for information on the massacre, the various claims and counterclaims can be overwhelming. Even the federal government has added to the fire by claiming the massacre was an act of terrorism by the Islamic State of West Africa (ISWAP).

This phenomenon is not limited to Owo. When tragedy happens, false information usually follows. This is as old as humanity. Some people exaggerate, while others play down the severity of the incident. Authorities in Nigeria are notorious for the latter, a development that has harmed their reliability over time. Many Nigerians usually consider any number of casualties released by the authorities as an undercounting, preferring instead other figures released by nongovernment bodies like the media. Some take advantage of this to push their own exaggerated figures and narratives.

Also Read: Lekki Massacre: What manner of country?

Another strand of this phenomenon is the emergence of fake victims. The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, for example, have produced many fake victims including Alicia Esteve Head. Ms Head, who was in Barcelona at the time of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, got away with her lies for six years. Before she was busted, she had gained fame and respect for being one of the most vocal and visible victims of the 2001 attacks.

Some false information about a tragedy can be malicious, and some might not be. Some false information is intentionally planted by those who intend to discredit the tragic event. They would later use the presence of the fake news they planted as evidence that nothing bad has happened. Also, by throwing around some narratives and stories about a single incident, it is possible to confuse the audience and distract them from the real issues. Instead of focusing on the tragedy, many media and analytical resources are dedicated to debunking “fake news”.

This was the case with the military and police attacks on protesters in Lekki on October 21, 2020. Despite the preponderance of evidence that peaceful protesters were attacked unprovoked by people who are tasked with protecting them, there are still those who insist nothing terrible happened night. Their alibi is the false information and fake photos that were shared as being from the incident. It is most likely these fake materials were distributed intentionally by people who were bent on discrediting any indicting report on the incident.

In some instances, conflicting information on an incident might not even be a case of false information but might arise as a result of what the famed Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie once characterized as “we remember differently.”Survivors and eyewitnesses can genuinely differ in what they report. This is why we need credible organisations- police, media, investigative panels- to help us get to the bottom of any tragedy.

To avoid falling into the traps of propagandists, we must also be circumspect about the kind of information, especially photos and videos, we share on any upsetting incident. We should try to be absolutely sure of the authenticity of any information before forwarding them. This we can do by using Google and consulting credible sources of information.

Also Read: Nigerian Police: Why Improving Public Trust Has Proven Difficult

In addition, it is important to know that the presence of false information does not in any way mean the tragedy did not happen. Fake news should not distract us from the tragedy and the victims. Whether it is in Lekki or Owo, we must focus on what is undeniable- that people were killed in cold blood. Regardless of any distraction over conflicting information, we must remain focused on the lives lost or injured. We must remain focused on holding the government accountable for their failure. When we do not, we do not only do an injustice to the victims of terrorist attacks and other tragedies but we also make the whole society, thus ourselves, victims.

Sodiq Alabi

Sodiq Alabi is a communications practitioner and analyst who has experience in leading and supporting communication processes. He has expertise in organising media events, preparing reports, creating content, and managing websites and social media platforms.

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