Buhari’s death rumour and the rise of fake news
For the second time in a week, the Presidency has been forced to deny the rumoured death of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who is currently in London on a short break. In the first instance, he was said to have died from an “unknown disease” and later, he was said to have been advised to resign by his doctors after he attempted to commit suicide.
On the first look at the news website that ‘broke’ the news, the word fake comes to mind. On the one hand, the metro-uk.com that published the news that Buhari died was only registered on October 15, 2016 and will expire a year after. On the other hand, the clone Huffington Post website that claimed that Buhari attempted to kill himself was created on November 19, 2016 and like the former website, was registered for just one year.
Each of these websites was registered via proxy and hosted on Go Daddy. Conversely, the actual Metro UK website was created on August 1, 1996 and Huffington Post on March 10, 2005, with the names of the owners attached to them.
Invariably, both metro-uk.com and huffingtonpost-fm.com were set up less than a month from each other, ostensibly in a bid to publish unsubstantiated and fake reports. Was the main objective to set Nigeria alight?
The use of fake news to fight political foes is not new. But it got to a head during the last American presidential election. Teenage Macedonians set up basic websites and filled them with outright misleading or totally false reports to sway readers’ perception of the two leading candidates. According to an Associated Press report, most of the websites, as it is in the case of the sites publishing Buhari death rumours, were set up within 12 months before the November 8, 2016 American presidential election.
“These sites tend to follow one of two patterns: some masquerade as well-known outlets like The New York Times or Fox News, while others operate under made-in-America-sounding names like USA Daily News 24,” AP said. The first pattern was deemed the right choice by both metro-uk.com and huffington-fm.com, aping well known metro.uk.com and huffingtonpost.com.
While the young Macedonians claimed they set up fake news websites primarily to make money through Google AdSense, can those behind the publication of Buhari’s death rumours claim to have the same motive? Possibly! With more than 90 million internet users monthly, it is possible for creators of fake news websites to rake in thousands of dollars through AdSense if millions of Nigerians throng their sites to read, of course, fake news.
But Nigeria is not exactly a place where the hunger for money and lust for power can easily exist in mutual independence. Are we seeing the beginning of a trend that could become more prominent as we move closer to 2019 when another general election would be held?
While researchers Hunt Allcott of New York University and Matthew Gentzkow of Stanford, in a working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, concluded that the consumption of fake news by Americans had little impact on Donald Trump’s triumph over Hillary Clinton, they both noted that about eight per cent of the people interviewed for their research said they believed the fake news read.
Here’s the troubling part for Nigeria: with religious biases, ethnic bigotry and political intolerance mounting by the day, are we, as a people, ready to question the veracity of what we read or hear? Are we patient enough to seek the truth without falling victims to the creeping intensity of deep-seated distrust for people of other religion or ethnicity?
I suspect that, in a country where religious and ethnic crises had been ignited over the flimsiest of excuses, fake news can wreak more disasters than imagined! And where such thrives, there will never be a winner!
Bakare is the online editor at The Guardian. He tweets from @