28 May 2020
The coronavirus lockdown in Nigeria has let the genie out of the bottle, writer Richard Ali says. The ensuing rise in ethnic populism in the digital space has to be confronted by journalists and artists alike.
Forced to provide large-scale social services for the first time, our government has clearly failed us in this pandemic. The coronavirus lockdown has changed Nigeria in ways that are only now becoming clear:
Lockdowns are hard enough already in countries where social safety nets or unemployment benefits take care of their people. But Nigerians have to worry every day what they will eat that night. This increase in socio-economic inequality has led to the the breakdown of trust in the government, and has directly resulted in the related rise in ethnic populism — especially in the digital space.
The trend of mistrust in government is further fuelled by the widespread feeling of being under the contact control of powers beyond one’s own control — which is something no one likes. There’s paranoia everywhere; people act the way they do in dictatorships, wondering who will be next to fall victim to the whims of the powerful.
Meanwhile, it’s all the wrong people who occupy and dominate the digital space in the absence of real political leadership, while many others still continue to feel left out. People going online during the lockdown doesn’t cure Nigeria’s real, fundamental societal problems. In fact, new problems emerge. There will be far-reaching consequences if these are not addressed creatively.
Paranoia and conspiracy theories
There has been a shift in terms of the places where people get their news from. The biggest news outlet in Nigeria now is arguably WhatsApp. It is used by 85% of people who own smartphones, and one in every two Nigerians has a mobile phone. But there is no oversight when it comes to the information spread on such platforms.
Unsurprisingly, there has been massive spreading of fake news as part of this shift, overemphasising the Chinese origins of COVID-19, and making absurd claims such as COVID-19 being a ploy to introduce a vaccines designed to sterilize women in a bid to control Africa’s population.
Beyond such blatant Sinophobia, there have been wild conspiracy theories about Microsoft founder Bill Gates, for example. Gates has done much to tackle the threat of pandemics around the globe, but amid the pandemic, he is unfortunately being painted as the “Antichrist” by Christians and Muslims alike.
No one reads newspapers here anymore.
Print sales, which have dwindling for years, have taken a final nosedive, and established newspaper houses — much like other businesses — are forced to implement salary cuts in the current climate. Those that survive the crisis will be those news organizations who built their success on the online model.
But these companies do not always have a sufficient understanding of ethics. The tendency in Nigeria is increasingly more towards clickbait, with little emphasis on factuality. Everyone wants to break the news; it seems that everything can be sacrificed to get content that goes viral. This is a real problem.
Digital populism batters ideal of a united Nigeria
Even more worrisome is the issue of the stability of our country. Nigeria is a federation of 36 states and at least 250 ethnic groups — so the problem here is not nationalism but ethnic populism.
Every group claims to be marginalized and oppressed, and has sought to dehumanize competing groups on social media. The attempted Biafran secession (1967—1970), which saw the deaths of millions, now has found a new life online hidden in calls for “restructuring.”
Religious leaders confidently and ignorantly dabble into scientific questions, misleading their flock and risking their lives. People take in news that are really barely disguised advertisement or qualify as propaganda, and amid the current uncertainty coalesce into closed groups which reinforce each other and amplify bias and stereotype.
Why is this? The people who believe fake news usually do not know any better. Those who know better are often the ones creating the fake news. Each day, the ideal of a united Nigeria is being battered in the fight for news headlines.
Nigeria has entered a dictatorship of disinformation
In today’s Nigeria, everyone thinks they can be a journalist — without any training. Disinformation is published regularly by people who hide under sacred press freedoms. It is no longer the publishers that are responsible for fact checking and establishing the veracity of stories — it is now the consumer of news.
How can this be when people go to a news source because they want to know more, to know the truth? Search engines, algorithms and social media networks have created such a dystopian space that Nigeria has entered a new dictatorship of disinformation.
Censorship is not the answer. Instead, journalism needs to work with influencers in areas such as culture, for example playwrights and filmmakers, to bring its important ethics back into the mainstream, such as balanced reporting and fact checking as well as the correct use of sources.
There is an opportunity in this to reorient the citizen towards hearing the other side and not trusting news shared on platforms like WhatsApp so blindly. Only by this synergy of efforts can we confront sophisticated disinformation campaigns. But in Nigeria, this will not be easy.
A version of this article was first published by DW, the Germany public service broadcaster.