By Tunde Oladunjoye
The emergence of the never-anticipated, never-prepared-for Coronavirus pandemic took the world by bewildering storm. Nobody could affirm the source and neither could the treatment be proffered. The pandemic brought pandemonium to the social, political, economic, cultural and religious lives of the entire nations of the world.
No one ever envisaged that the Kaabah in Mecca and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina could be closed to worshipers. No one could have ever contemplated that the Church of England could have postponed service indefinitely, or that the Pope will hold the Easter Mass in an empty church, with the service streamed online!
While the social media came in handy in spreading the sad news of the coronavirus, its associated dangers across the world, and necessary steps to be taken to avoid the virus and curb the dangerous spread; so also came the sad effects and negative usage of the social media.
Fake news were bandied, fake cures advertised, and unverified claims and predictions became the order of the day. Of course, different claims were made as to the origin of the disease, including the controversial attribution to 5G. One could remember how bathing with salt was widely circulated as cure for the equally dreaded Ebola, before it turned out to be ridiculously false.
In this ‘coro-confusion’ even the high, mighty and knowledgeable were caught napping and found to be helping to express, expand and share ignorance and misinformation. While a popular Pastor with about one million followers on his verified twitter account had to stylishly “explain” his previously harsh condemnation of 5G, a renowned international finance figure, who is also Nigeria’s former Minister of Finance and Coordinating Minister for the Economy under President Goodluck Jonathan, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, embarrassed herself and her one million, one hundred thousand followers on her verified twitter handle when she made a false claim on issues of social distancing and food-aid distribution during coronavirus pandemic.
She presented a purported example from Rwanda and attached a photo to back it up:
“Responsible food distribution with social distancing to assist lower income households in the #COVID19 era! A great example from #Rwanda where community workers also distribute food and other necessities door-to-door @PaulKagame”.
The photo turned out to be wrong and the reference to Rwanda was also false. The photo and event she mentioned happened in The Gambia in 2019 during the Muslims’ fasting month of Ramadan. The woman of substance displayed courage as she found a way to apologize after her attention was drawn:
“Thanks to those who have drawn my attention to the food distribution picture I tweeted earlier today. A friend sent it to me that it’s from Rwanda. Whether Gambia or Rwanda, the point I want us to focus on is that it is a safe way of handling food distribution.”
That retraction got 973 retweets and 5,287 likes. That is the power of the
Back home in Nigeria, some desperate opposition politicians chose the period of the ravaging coronavirus to play bad politics; as their opinions and posts largely depended on which side of the divides they were.
In Ogun State , the State Government had to severally and repeatedly inform the general public that its stimulus packages were not distributed on CDA/CDC basis. All those packages being shown on social media in Ogun Central Senatorial District were not those shared by the officials of the state government. It got to a point that the state government had to do and share a video recording of the contents of its package before the noise died down.
It was very strategic for the Dapo Abiodun-led Administration not to have started the stimulus distribution simultaneously in the three senatorial districts of the State. So, when the distribution moved to Ogun East, there was no issue of fake videos of contents. And the government seemed to have heaved a sigh of relief.
But wait for it, a more sinister video crept out of Ijebu Ode and immediately went viral. The video made a child’s play of the fake ones shared earlier during the distribution of stimulus
packages in Ogun Central. The face of the young lady in the video was hidden and she presented rice and beans in two separate plastic basins purportedly distributed by the Ogun State Government. Not only that, she rained curses on the Governor and the Chairman of the Ijebu Ode Local Government Transition Committee. She said the food items purportedly given by the government would cause “Covid-25”! Interestingly, she was the only one with those types of food items.
Any discerning person, not blinded by political subterfuge, will know from the first glance that no sane government will distribute such low quality food items. The security men went to work, and immediately arrested the young lady who claimed in a confessional video that she was “merely playing”. She was seen in another video appealing to be sober and begging for mercy along with an elderly woman and a quarter-head (Oloritun). The Oloritun in his appeal, unwittingly, revealed that they in their quarters were not members of Governor Abiodun’s party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), though he claimed they voted for the governor at the last governorship election. A claim that could not be verified. The Oloritun then, solicitously said they were now ready to join APC! At least, if that would save the mischievous lady from prosecution.
Another man was also arrested and charged to court in Osun State for allegation of falsely posting that the Osun State Government imported coronavirus positive people into Osun in order to get more funding from the Federal Government.
The man with a Facebook name of Akinloye Zirhid, was found out to be Akinloye Saheed, and he could not provide evidence for his wild claim. The magistrate court has not only remanded him in custody, the state government has said it is very interested in the case.
Unlike the print media with gate keepers, all you need to be a ‘social media journalist’ is just a phone with internet connection. Even if you have no data, you can use the “free mode” offered by some of the service providers to freely spread false information and instill fear in the mind of the people while ridiculing political opponents in the court of public opinion.
These are the sets of quacks ‘journalists’ and ‘analysts’ publishing fake news and arming proponents of social media regulations with supporting examples. Some of them even go ahead to publish blogs or so-called online media for blackmailing and extortionist purposes. And when they realise evidently, that their rag-tag publications have scanty or no readership , they still resort to posting their unethical and mischievous publications on popular sites.
The consolation now, however, is that law enforcement agents are going after these harbingers of falsehood. It is no longer “publish and be damned”, it is “publish fake news and go to jail”.
It is true that there is freedom of the press and expression. It is equally true that it is where your rights end that the rights of other people and governments begin. Social Media publishing requires responsibility.