Recently, Reverend Father George Ehusani aptly captured the harm being done in the public sphere in his very deep Sunday Homily, Lux Terra. The catholic priest said inter alia: “Smart phones in the hands of ignorant persons could be dangerous.” This is not an anti-social media manifesto. Neither is it an advocacy against free speech.
It is rather an admonition against the emerging culture of spreading lies, prejudice, distortions and hate using the new technology. Ehusani advised that before you “forward” to others a text or video that is laden with ethnic or religious prejudice you should pause to ponder on the social harm it could engender. Since any one equipped with a good handset could broadcast news in the social media with its unrestrained permissiveness, the danger that Ehusani points to should be obvious to all those having stakes in social harmony.
To be sure, coming to terms with the crude realities of what some thinkers have strangely dubbed the “post-truth age” is a global challenge. You don’t talk of truth when different sides in a dispute could create their own “alternative facts” to advance their respective arguments. Hate speech is justified as free speech. Prejudice against others on the basis of ethnicity or religion seems legitimised. The climate of hate becomes the new reality. In a way, Trumpism seems to be giving the inspiration to this universal trend. President Donald Trump accuses the mainstream media in the United States of publishing and broadcasting, “fake news,” yet he briefs his countrymen and women with his own “alternative facts” in his famous Twitter Account.
• With elections barely eight months away amidst huge security problems, the danger of post-truth politics cannot be over-emphasised in Nigeria. The problem is even compounded because it has a definitional dimension. According to the Oxford Dictionary, post-truth generally relates to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” As a result, “it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.”
• Some public intellectuals view this definition cynically. In their considered opinion, official campaigns against hate speech amounts to promotion of tyranny in a democracy. In fact, some have even argued that “fact-checking” and presentation of the truth might not serve as a sufficient antidote to the malaise of post-truth politics.
• So the pollution of the public sphere continues with reckless abandon. Unfortunately, unlike the pollution of the physical environment in which there is adequate awareness about the need for control, the control of the pollution circulated in the social media doesn’t yield itself to easy management. Whereas, physical pollution of the environment is subject to being “ dispersed, diluted, decomposed, recycled, or stored in some harmless form,” the pollution of the social space does not have such a mechanism because of the sheer volume of the fake news and hate speech acting as pollutants.
In fact, the need for control of the socio-political pollution is resolutely disputed in the age described by some thinkers as that of “communicative abundance.” Some experts have argued that to talk of control in this respect is to be against the revolution in communication.
Nevertheless, the rationalisation that “one man’s hate speech is another man’s free speech” just does not hold water in the circumstance.
Doubtless, the issues are not purely those of philosophical disputations. The luxury of finding a theoretical justification for the lies and distortions in the social media is not just there anymore.
The consequences of post-truth politics are expressed in blood and tears in the streets. Perceptive members of the public are fully conscious of the unfolding tragedy fuelled by the merchants of hate. Even foreign observers are also making the point that fake news would exacerbate the crisis at hand in Nigeria. When falsehood is circulated freely, bloody reactions could be the outcome.
Just a few examples could serve to illustrate the damage of the post-truth era. The other day as this reporter was on phone receiving an eyewitness report of the petrol tanker accident at the Otedola Bridge in Lagos, a WhatsApp message was delivered simultaneously. The message was that the same incident was “a terrorist attack.” You could imagine the panic of those who received the false message. In the same week that the accident happened, a video of a lady in hijab being allegedly trained recently by her husband also got circulated.
The lady was alleged to be a wife of one of the killers in Nigeria. Fact-checking later revealed that the video in question was recorded somewhere in Sudan long ago. A credible online newspaper reported that a group allegedly drew equivalence between the lives of human beings and those of cows. The newspaper later professionally retracted the story and even announced the sack of the reporter who wrote the fake news. Yet otherwise informed persons insist on citing the said story in discussions. Columnists continue to make the story as a peg as if they are oblivious of the fact that the source of the original story has disowned it. Such fake news is legion.
The trend may get worse as the electoral season approaches unless there are conscious efforts by “stakeholders” to stem the negative tide. It may be necessary to ask the intellectual gladiators on all the sides of the partisan divide to pause for a moment and ask themselves a simple question: what would be the social consequences of the role every partisan is playing today? Part of the tragedy of the moment is that not a few of our public intellectuals abysmally lack a long view of history. Their mentality to issues is squarely here and now. What happens thereafter is none of their business. They don’t even bother about impact of what happens today, much less how what they do or say today would be viewed in five years time.
Here we are talking of when the tenure of whoever is elected next year would expire. A few public intellectuals express opinions recklessly and arrogantly to defend their otherwise legitimate partisan interests as if they are writing the last chapter of Nigerian history. The optical illusion is amazing. Perhaps unknown to them, some of their activities might not even merit being historical footnotes. This is simply because regardless of who wins the election it would not be the end of this nation’s history.
In the pursuit of their partisan interests, some public intellectuals have simply elected to pollute the public sphere. Public intellectuals are supposed to illuminate the public sphere with analyses and informed comments because they are equipped to do so; as the season of all-is-fair-in-war commentary beckons commentators should be wary of darkening the public sphere.
The wounds already inflicted on the land could fester if post-truth politics continues to reign supreme.
If it is not easy to control the hate speech issuing from the handsets and laptops of the social media warriors, it should at least be possible to ensure the decency of the statements from party secretariats and campaign headquarters.
The Internet polluters act in a virtual world in which falsehood thrives. But party publicists are bound to operate in a physical world confronted with material issues bedevilling the political and socio-economic landscape.
The issues traverse the Sahel and the creeks of the nation. They include insecurity, poverty, joblessness, collapsed public health and educational institutions. Poverty, in particular, looms large menacingly on the national horizon. In such a socio-economic climate, politicians should not be content with raining abuses on one another. The issues should eclipse the post-truth politics. Politicians should be debating these issues manifesting themselves in the various departments of national life. Since the politicians are gearing up for 2019 the issues should now be put squarely in focus in their pronouncements. Yes, it could be conceded that elsewhere politicians employ some elements of theatre to lighten the rigour in the discussion of issues. But peddling falsehood is never a substitute for issues.
The point at issue is that it is the duty of the political party to articulate and defend the programmes being executed by the government that comes to power on the platform of the party. The party structure should be so equipped to perform this important task in the democratic process.
There are enough issues to occupy the attention of any party or politician interested in discussing them with the aim of finding solutions to problems confronting the people. As an antidote to post-truth politics, political parties should embrace politics of ideas.
In this respect, political parties and other forces interested in the shape of things to come in 2019 should take the caution of Father Ehusani seriously.
Politics of issues should be embraced by all.
Written by Kayode Komolafe