Truth has perished; it is banished from the lips’ (Jer 7:28).
Why do fake news headlines spread so quickly across the media landscape? One key factor fanning the flames is, of course, political agendas. Fake news affects far more than politics, but it has recently characterized that sphere of Nigerian society to a frightening degree. There have always been those desperate to promote themselves and their sectarian agendas, and propaganda is a vital tool in doing so. Yet it does feel that there is something very different about the current political landscape, at least recently.
Fake news is of course, also driven by greed. A great deal of it is dreamed up. Having discovered that they could attract vast traffic to bogus websites by publishing sensationalist stories, sensationalist bloggers, media personalities and bloggers are quick to exploit the public anxieties. They conspire and manipulate, becoming masters at click-bait headlines. As Christians in this country, we have many a time, fallen victim to the scourge of libellous and fake reports of our persons and our faith.
The latest victim of these false and misleading narratives is none other than the able Minister of Communication, Dr. Isa Ali Pantami. The Daily Independent, a news outlet with a history of questionable publications, has claimed that before he was appointed a minister by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019, Pantami was a known Islamic preacher who held dangerous views against the American government. Several other platforms, among them NewswireNGR have also doubled down on their stories by establishing a nexus between Pantami’s alleged ties with terrorists and an old video of the minister debating Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf.
Besides being completely spurious, as neither the US government nor any government entity has made any such claim against the Minister, it is also a deep disservice to a man who more than any of his brethren among Northern Clerics, stood firm against the ideology of Boko Haram from its earliest days. Indeed, the video in question, showed the minister engaged in intense debate with the Boko haram founder, countering all his claims and arguing vehemently against his ideology
As Christians, we should be passionate about truth because we follow the One who is the Truth (John 14:6). However, it is inconvenient and uncomfortable to do so; it makes us unpopular and requires courage. Yet we must not flinch from it. That means not only holding to truth intellectually, but living it out day by day. And the truth of this matter is that there is at this time, no shred of evidence that Nigeria’s Communications Minister Isa Pantami is on any local or international terror watchlist.
‘The Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy’ (Prov 12:22).
It is tempting to share something which fits comfortably with our views, whether or not we are sure of its truthfulness. However, we must never become like those Paul warns against, who ‘gather around them… teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Tim 4:3). Instead, we must resist our confirmation bias, questioning the assertions that come streaming our way. We must not assume that ‘social proof’ proves anything. We must commit to discovering the truth, which includes doing our best to be sure of the sources of the information which comes our way.
Our commitment to truth must take us beyond simply reporting and sharing things that are true. We must be prepared to challenge false assertions and spin, to present alternative viewpoints, and to share fresh perspectives. If the church is to have a prophetic role within society, we must dare to speak precisely the truth, and not partake in matters that would cause disquiet and rancour within our country (Jer 7:27–28; John 16:7–11). Let us pray for the courage to do so.
The larger implication of what the Daily Independent reported as genuine is grave. One only needs to pay attention to social media to see the level of divisions that a false story has created. It’s even more unfortunate that despite the rebuttals, some of those characters dispensing the falsehood have persisted. That very position proves that the interest is more about a personal or sectional bid to discredit the Minister than it is about national interest.
The most disturbing trend was when these fake news merchants began to share the video of the Minister’s interview with the founding leader of Boko Haram to demonstrate that the two were friends and allies. It didn’t take long before it was pointed out that the video, which was in Hausa, was actually a debate where Dr. Pantami countered the Boko Haram ideology. That episode made him an enemy of the terrorist group. Despite these facts staring them in the face, none of them budged. How do bolster the unity of this country with such a class of propagandists at work?
Mr Olufunmilayo is an academic and public affairs commentator based in Ibadan, Oyo state