Online Media, a Useful Platform Often Abused

By Sodiq Alabi

One of the most talked about advantages of the Internet in Nigeria is the way it has democratized access to information and information management. Largely, this has been a positive development as more Nigerians now get to tell their stories to a global audience, share their perspectives on issues, and challenge official or mainstream versions of events in a bid to bring out the truth.

However, the democratization of information has its downsides, and as the February 2015 general elections draw nearer, the magnitude of the havoc people can use online platforms to wreak with disquieting ease and unimaginable speed is heightened. In the last one month, dozens of new online news portals have sprung up all over the Nigerian cyberspace .This, ordinarily, should be a cheering news as it gives readers more options and ensures that hitherto untold stories are told and have the opportunity of being heard. But these are not ordinary times in Nigeria and most of these news portals have proven to be nothing but platforms for misinformation and promotion of confusion as the story below shows.

On January 21, General Muhammadu Buhari, presidential candidate of All Progressives Congress, asked his alma mater to release his reissued secondary school statement of results to the public in a bid to prove that he really possessed the constitutionally required qualification to contest. Not more than few hours after the release, various online media were already challenging the authenticity of the statement of results, coming up with numerous arguments that were, to put it mildly, half-baked and unfounded. Obviously, these online media did not take their time to do any serious investigation as all the arguments they put forward have been successfully debunked.

One of such arguments asserted that Hausa Language was not an examination subject in 1961 Cambridge WASC as Buhari's result claims. They even went further to claim that no Nigerian school was teaching Hausa as at 1961 and that it was until 1971 or so that Hausa was taught in schools. These are all manufactured lies. This article http://org.uib.no/smi/sa/15/15Philips.pdf chronicles how Hausa became a subject taught in Nigeria during the early decades of the colonial rule.

Toyin Falola, in his book, Culture and Customs, notes on page 60 that Hausa became part of the school curriculum in the early part of the 20th century, at least before 1930. In the book, Educational Systems of Africa (1966) by Martena Sasnett et al, a list of subjects taught and set for examination in Nigeria during the 1950s and 1960s clearly includes Hausa. In fact, anyone with the slightest interest in Nigerian history would tell you that there was no time in the 20th Century that Hausa was not taught. But this did not stop the misinformation campaign of Buhari's detractors from taking over the Nigerian cyberspace.

To debunk this claim once and for all, I sent an email to Cambridge Assessment Archive Service and within few hours I got the response I had expected:

From: sodiq alabi [mailto:[email protected]]
Sent: 22 January 2015 13:31
To: Archives Team
Subject: 1961 WASC

Hello,

I will like to confirm if your examination body offered Hausa Language in the 1961 West African School Certificate examination it organised.

Thank you.

Dear Sodiq Alabi

According to the Regulations for 1961, African Language papers, including those for Hausa were set for the West African School Certificate.

Jacky Emerson
Archive Service Delivery Officer
Cambridge Assessment Archives Service

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I was delighted by the promptness of the response. Plus, I now had an incontrovertible proof to shoot down the claim. I immediately made a Facebook post about my findings and attached a screen grab of my email exchange with Cambridge. The post and the screen grab have been correctly used by a couple of online media including Sahara Reporters and Naij.com. I received commendations from across the country and I was ready to move on to other stuff. Job done, well done. Not so fast!

What happened next shocked me and probably anyone who (naively?) believes in some decency even in political fights. My screen grab, within hours of its release on Facebook, had been doctored and the word 'not' inserted into Cambridge's response. So, the response now reads: According to the Regulations for 1961, African Language papers, including those for Hausa were not set for the West African School Certificate.
What a load of damage one word can do. This doctored version was shared all over the Internet through the many news portals we now have. Pointblank News, among many other news portals with considerable followership, even used this fake picture in a grossly misleading news report that has now been taken down when I threatened them with a law suit.

My email inbox was brimming with enquiries from people who wanted to know which version of the image making its way around was real. I replied all the emails I got and tried as much as I can to set the record straight. But how many people could I reach to correct the wrong impression created by the forgery? Thankfully, the Cambridge Assessment Archive Service also released a statement that was carried by major news outlets. This, sadly, was not enough to stop ThisDay newspaper from publishing the much discredited version on its website on January 25, 2015.

I am by no means the first victim of the reign of forgery, misinformation, and outright impersonation that now pollutes our cyber space in the name of journalism or blogging. The Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka has been a victim of several acts of online impersonation, the most embarrassing of which was probably his purported endorsement of the candidacy of President Goodluck Jonathan in quite a poorly written statement. The world renowned author had to use a public event to denounce the statement. Other notable victims include Chief Olusegun Obasanjo and Alhaji Shehu Shagari.

It would be unfair to blame the Internet for this menace, misinformation certainly predates the Internet and has probably been around since journalism was invented. However, we cannot also deny that the useful instrument of the Internet, which has blissfully democratised access to information, has also made misinformation easier, more powerful and difficult to tame. As much as we do not want the government to control the Internet especially Online Media, we as users of its tools must find a means of neutralising the impact of the abuse of the platform. We must do so now before it is too late.

Alabi tweets @SodiqAlabi1.

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