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The ‘forwarded as received’ warfare

The ‘forwarded as received’ warfare
May 20
05:22 2018
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This is not a drill. If you are keeping questionable images and videos on your phone, you may want to think twice. A Nigerian man has just been deported from the US after immigration officials randomly stopped him at the airport and searched his phone. They found gory images and hate messages that people normally send around by WhatsApp under the umbrella of “forwarded as received”. He explained that his phone is set to automatically download received files, and that he was not the sender of the offensive messages. They wouldn’t care. They returned him to Nigeria by the next flight. More Nigerians might have experienced something similar since President Donald Trump came to office.

The social media has become notorious for all kinds of modern-day shenanigans, most of which are out of control. Someone will see the picture of the dismembered body of an accident victim. He will become creative and develop a message like: “This guy was using a mobile phone when he had an accident. Please share with your friends.” Another will send the picture of a burns victim and claim that he was using a phone while charging it and the device exploded. Apparently, all they want to show you, under the pretext of public enlightenment campaign, are morbid pictures. Some people are just obsessed with horror. Before you know it, you will join them in their “forwarded as received” fraternity.

I once received the picture of a large expanse of land filled with dead cattle. It was in the heat of the herdsmen/farmers clashes. The message read: “The Attah of Igala cursed the Fulani cows terrorizing Igalaland with thunder and killed thousands. The herdsmen ran away.” I quickly did a Google image search and discovered the source: a drought in Sudan that killed livestock many years ago. Somebody only stumbled on the picture and became imaginative. And before you know it, you too will “forward as received” to a chat group with the footnote: “I have not verified it but…” But what? Why forward it? I get worried when such messages are sent by educated and enlightened people.

For me, I can live with those fake messages. Somehow, I can smell the lies instantly. Many easily give themselves away with their amateurism. But some could also be quite tricky, especially when you find an element of truth in them. You can get confused over the veracity of the whole post. If you genuinely seek authentication, I wouldn’t blame you. But if you are hypocritically spreading falsehood and hate under the pretext of seeking verification, you certainly need to deal with your conscience. In my reckoning, you fall in the same category with the mischief makers who sit down and concoct all sorts of broadcasts in order to confuse unsuspecting people with lies and distortions.

I love jokes and I do re-share witty messages. But I find it impossible to live with messages that are patently filled with hate. They actually scare me because of the possible repercussions on the society. I remember a Hausa hate song targeted at the Igbo at the height of the ultimatum asking them to leave the north last year. It was widely circulated by WhatsApp. When the message of the song was interpreted to me, I had never been that scared about the prospects of genocide in Nigeria in my lifetime. That is largely behind us now, but as long as you have hate planted in your heart, it is just waiting for the due season to germinate and flourish.

While we toy with hate messages on social media in Nigeria, it is not so in advanced countries. There is a level of attention to hate speech, defined as “an attack on a person or group on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender”. Fake news and personal insults do not qualify as hate speech, though, but security agencies have special units that monitor social media accounts and prosecute those who fall foul of the law. They value freedom of speech, of course, but this does not cover hate speech. Nobody has a right to propagate hate on the basis of race and religion. Every freedom has a limit; if not, there would be anarchy.

Unfortunately for us in Nigeria, we cannot really regulate hate speech. We will just hand a licence to the government to be arresting and molesting citizens at the slightest provocation. If you criticise a government official for poor performance, it will be classified as hate speech to shut you up and keep you away in police cell. Even without a law on hate speech, activists and bloggers are regularly harassed, arrested and humiliated under an omnibus cyber terrorism law. There are reports that the journalist who posted the “transmission” speech of the inspector-general of police is now in hiding after being hounded by the police. That is how rigged the Nigerian system is, with tyranny on the rise.

Yet, if the truth be told, the anarchy on social media is a clear and present danger. How to deal with it, within reasonable limits, is one of the biggest challenges facing us in this century. As the 2019 elections draw nearer, social media is going to be the biggest theatre of information warfare. What we saw in 2015 would be like a drop in the ocean compared to what is coming in 2019. Forget the newspapers and the TV/radio stations – the mobile device in your hand will be the No. 1 instrument of the warfare. All the disinformation and misinformation will be delivered to you live and direct at the speed of thought via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

There was a lot of furore recently when President Muhammadu Buhari travelled to the UK for medicals.  According to an old post, he had said in his speech at the Chatham House on February 26, 2015: “What is the difference between me and those who elected us to represent them, absolutely nothing. Why should Nigerian President not fly with other Nigerian public? Why do I need to embark on a foreign trip as a President with a huge crowd with public funds? Why do I need to go for a medical trip abroad if we cannot make our hospitals functional? Why do we need to send our children to school abroad if we cannot develop our universities to compete with the foreign ones?”

Did he actually say that? The presidential media team has issued a rebuttal. Indeed, after watching the entire video recording of Buhari’s speech as well as his responses to questions from the audience — lasting for one hour, four minutes and 15 seconds — the folks at TheCable concluded that Buhari did not make any such statement at the Chatham House. But Lanre Babatunde, a Facebook user based in Ogbomoso, Oyo state, posted the quote on his wall on February 22, 2015. He said Buhari made the promise at a meeting with the Nigerian community in London. His transcript went viral at the time. He was the single source of the story. Curiously, it was not denied by the APC media team then.

The “Chatham” quote is just a teaser. The deluge this time around will be far more than we have ever seen since we started voting in September 1923. It is time to tighten our seats and fold the tray tables as we fly into the turbulence. It is an irony that the APC, which used social media extremely well to demarket President Goodluck Jonathan and the PDP in 2015, is now at the other end of the sword. Funny enough, the “Chatham” quote was part of the package that helped market Buhari ahead of the presidential election. If the APC media team did not deny it then, it was perhaps because it served a good purpose. It painted Buhari as a leader with the common touch.

Why has social media become such a core component of electioneering? My first line of response is that social media is core to almost everything these days, and electioneering is just a beneficiary of the information superhighway. However, unlike the traditional media which is guided by certain laws and ethics, social media is basically a lawless society. As long as you have internet data, you are a law unto yourself. You can conjure anything and type anything, knowing that you are not likely to face the music. In the traditional media, erroneous reports are likely going to be retracted or corrected for professional and legal reasons. Not so in the social media where nobody owes anybody anything.

Inevitably, social media – with faster reach than the traditional media – will continue to grow in influence and I expect the Nigerian political class to take full advantage of this in the coming information warfare. Fake stories, fake quotes and fake photos will dominate the game and will be “forwarded as received” by willing accomplices. What I fear the most, however, is the hate message. But as we can see in the deportation of the Nigerian from the US, there may be unintended consequences. In this season, before you press the forward or re-share button, you have to calmly ask yourself: “What is my motive?” Unto your conscience, be true.

AND FOUR OTHER THINGS…

MUDDLED SHERIFF

Now you see me, now you don’t. Remember Senator Ali Modu Sheriff? He was in APC at formation stage in 2013 but soon defected to the PDP in what was thought would help deliver his base, Borno state, to President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015. APC described him then as “Boko Haram founder” and all hell was let loose when he was seen with Jonathan in Chad just before the 2015 elections. Well, Modu has returned to APC after a misadventure in PDP during which he started a fire that almost consumed the party. So far, APC has not rejected the “Boko Haram founder”. In fact, on Thursday, he sneaked in and out of Aso Rock, reportedly for a meeting with President Buhari. Politics.

WETIN YOU CARRY?

Mr. Ibrahim Idris, the inspector-general of police, transmitted some very interesting apprehension to Nigerians on Thursday. He said police officers must first surrender themselves to be searched before they can search you. Idris was responding to a question from a Twitter user. He said: “If an officer wants to search you in your house/car, he must first surrender himself for searching. This is the procedure. Ask politely.” Apparently, that is the law or rule that most of us don’t know. But for an IGP who cannot surrender himself to the national assembly to answer questions on the country’s security situation, I would advise Nigerians who value their lives not to try searching a police officer. Suicide.

WHITHER PIGB?

The Petroleum Industry Governance Bill (PIGB) was finally passed on March 28 after almost eight years of to-and-fro, and Senate President Bukola Saraki later told Reuters that it had been sent to President Buhari for assent. Alas, presidency has emphatically denied receiving it. If you recall, when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua sent the previously named Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB) to the national assembly in 2008, we were later informed by the lawmakers that various versions were in circulation and nobody was sure of the original one again! This country called Nigeria is just too much. If you can help me find another country like Nigeria on this planet, I owe you a sachet of pure water.  Wonders.

AND FINALLY…

In 1998, Mahathir Mohamad, then prime minister of Malaysia, controversially fired his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, and jailed him for corruption – because, it was rumoured, he didn’t want Ibrahim to succeed him. Mohamad retired in 2003. Ibrahim became the leading opposition figure when he was released from prison in 2004, but was controversially jailed again in 2015 by the new government. Mohamad has now come out of retirement, and has just been returned to power as prime minister — at the age of 92 – running against his old party. He has just secured the release of Ibrahim, 70, from jail and has promised to hand over to him within two years. No, I didn’t make up this story. Unbelievable.

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