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Opinion: Is Fake News The New Normal? By Simon Kolawole

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Simon Kolawole

Heard the latest? The Central Bank of Nigeria has been selling the elusive dollar to some end users at 61 kobo/US$1, while the rest of us are busy buying the stuff at over N500/$1 in the parallel market. Goodness Gracious! It is time to fire Mr. Godwin Emefiele as the CBN governor. He should not only be sacked, he should be jailed. This is simply getting too much. Since President Muhammadu Buhari assumed office, Emefiele has not only conspired with himself to destroy the naira — singlehanded and cold-hearted — he has even gone to the extent of selling the almighty dollar to his cronies at 61 kobo! The information is right there on the CBN website! Emefiele must go!

Now, I don’t need to do any research to know that what you just read is an excellent piece of fake news. Terrific fake news. I will give just three reasons on the spot. One, the CBN does not sell forex directly to bank customers. Anyone with the faintest idea of how the financial system works knows this for a fact. When you request for forex from your bank, the bank bids at the central bank. If it sails through, your bank debits the naira equivalent from your account and transfers the forex to your designated beneficiary. These transactions, as recorded by the bank and approved by the CBN, are then published in the newspapers and on central bank’s website.
Two, since the CBN does not deal directly with bank customers, will a bank buy $1 at N305 from the CBN and then sell to customers at 61 kobo, thereby making a loss of N304.39 on every dollar? Is that the new attribute of Father Christmas? Even Father Christmas charges a gate fee! Let’s even say the CBN sells directly to end users. Why would it sell at 61 kobo to one customer and at N315 to another and have the audacity to publish the information on its website? Are they that dumb at the central bank? Something like: “Dear Nigerians, we sold $1 at 61 kobo to Chief Kudi and another $1 at N497 to Eze Ekeshi. If you doubt us, check our website. Thanks for your understanding.”
Three, when we started using the naira as national currency on January 1, 1973, it exchanged at 65 kobo/$1. From then, the best rate has been 61 kobo. In fact, only in one year did the naira average 61 kobo to the dollar — and that was as far back as 1981. Are we now saying 36 years after, the dollar would still be sold for 61 kobo? Even when our foreign reserves, including excess crude earnings, hit $65 billion, dollar did not exchange for 61 kobo. Even when crude old sold for $147 per barrel, dollar did not exchange for 61 kobo. Even the generous Hajj rate, Jerusalem rate and DSS rate are more than 61 kobo. On what economic or political basis would it now be 61 kobo?
I did not pay attention to the allegation until I read that Mr. Abubakar Malami, the attorney-general of the federation, had couriered a query to Emefiele based on a petition that a dollar was sold for 61 kobo. The CBN issued a statement dismissing the allegation, insisting that the transactions in question were not conducted in dollars but “in a third currency”. Let us say, for instance, that the bank transaction is in South African rand. Since $1 goes for R13, someone will just take a look at the rate and conclude that $1 was sold for N13. It becomes a scandal, goes viral on the social media and produces a query from the attorney-general. And Emefiele must go!
Nevertheless, I would conclude that there is always a basis for fake news, no matter how tenuous. There is a vacuum that fake news seeks to fill — or create. Since Buhari went on “medical leave”, the fake news industry has been very buoyant. He said he was going away for 10 working days. He, curiously, extended it. The wife, Aisha, went to UK, headed for Saudi Arabia for lesser hajj and then returned to Nigeria. This was a very good tonic for fake news: Buhari has been moved to Saudi Arabia for further treatment. After all, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua swapped Germany for Saudi Arabia in 2009 in his last days. In the final analysis, fake news feeds on something.
I did not buy the Saudi Arabia story in Buhari’s case because if indeed he is critically ill (or bedridden), his wife would not leave for Nigeria. To come and do what? Pack some clothing and toiletries? It doesn’t make sense. When Yar’Adua was terminally ill in 2009, his wife, Turai, was there from the beginning to the end, till her husband was flown back to Nigeria, under controversial circumstances, in February 2010. She never left his side. I don’t know how many women would leave the bedside of their dying husbands and return to Nigeria, no matter what. But in the world of make-believe, the deal is to make you believe everything.
There is a sense in which we can say the Yar’Adua experience influenced perception in the ongoing Buhari saga. Yar’Adau was critically ill in Saudi Arabia. It was reported that he was brain dead. He then granted the BBC an interview to prove that he was still awake. He even wished the Super Eagles success in the Africa Cup of Nations in Equatorial Guinea. But many believed his voice was cloned. It was believed that a “cabal” wanted to create the impression that Yar’Adua was healthy enough to be issuing orders from his sick bed. The attorney-general at the time, Mr Mike Aondoakaa, famously said the president could rule from anywhere.
As a result of this experience, Nigerians have become very sceptical of any bit of information from government. This scepticism provides the perfect setting for fake news. When Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and Chief Bisi Akande visited Buhari in London and the pictures were released, a fake news manufacturer grabbed his phone and started typing a “denial” by Tinubu, claiming Tinubu said he was in Ibadan and could not have visited the president. It soon went, as they say, viral. Some still insist Buhari did not speak with US President Donald Trump, that Buhari is unconscious and cannot talk to anybody. All pictures taken with Buhari so far have been declared as “photoshopped”.
Fake news — that art of concocting stories from your bedroom because you have a smart phone with cheap data — is becoming the biggest thing in town. No, it is not new. It was not invented in this generation of social media. We have been living with fake news most of our lives. The SAP riots of 1989, for instance, were sparked off by fake news. Some highly talented rumour mongers printed leaflets claiming that the military president, General Ibrahim Babangida, and his wife, Mariam, had the biggest wristwatch company in Switzerland, the best fashion house in Paris, etc. It was spuriously attributed to Ebony magazine. Riots broke out and several people lost their lives.
Can we do anything about fake news? It is a global phenomenon, as we saw in America last year during the presidential electioneering. Last year, an attempt by Nigerian lawmakers to hold fake news purveyors responsible through legislation was soundly rejected. There was an outcry, with some merit, that the law could be used for censorship. Yet we know that mischief makers who propagate fake news need to be held responsible at some point. But as I have argued before: ultimately, consumers of rumours and fake news will have to determine for themselves what is believable, what is speculative, what is fable and what is mischief designed to mislead the gullible.
My conclusion, though, is that fake news will continue to blossom. Information has never been this free in the history of mankind. It is free as a right — social media is a lawless society. It is virtually free in terms of cost — since your data subscription is for all purposes. Anybody who dreams of a world free of fake news needs to quickly wake up. Every mischief maker with a mobile phone and data subscription can set off a fake story anytime. There are thousands of eager sharers waiting to rebroadcast with the obligatory caveat, “shared as received”. Fake news is going to be very normal in the years ahead. Authentic news will become an endangered species. Quote me.
“Nevertheless, I would conclude that there is always a basis for fake news, no matter how tenuous. There is a vacuum that fake news seeks to fill — or create”
Simon Kolawole is the publisher of The Cable Online

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