The chairperson of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Mahmood Yakubu, should be pitied, not ridiculed. Months after INEC bungled a major national assignment, a task that tested the integrity, competence, and autonomy of Yakubu, the man has been shopping untiringly for excuses to evade responsibility for the disastrous general election. It is ludicrous for Yakubu to claim, as he did during a meeting with journalists in Abuja, that fake news on social media imperilled the elections. It is an absurd view similar in magnitude to assertions made decades ago following the advent of the telephone. I will return to Yakubu’s fallacy shortly.
The telephone in its early years was blamed for all kinds of problems in human society. These included organised crime, gambling, prostitution, financial fraud, drug peddling, and other sharp practices. Only a few people noted that the telephone, as a technological device, did not cause the problems. Human beings used the telephone to commit crimes. The telephone was innocent of the charges. It was this point that Sydney Aronson underlined in his classic paper on “The Sociology of the Telephone” published in 1971 in the International Journal of Comparative Sociology. Aronson made the sound argument that “The telephone as an instrument of communication is morally neutral, though the uses to which it is put are surely not.”
This historical background is necessary to enable us to unpack Yakubu’s bizarre claim that fake news on social media damaged the integrity of the election. Fake news and social media, twin global problems, have become the perfect platform for INEC to explain its failure to conduct free, fair, peaceful, and credible elections. Yakubu has refused to admit that the organisation he leads abdicated its obligations to the nation.
The performance of INEC in the 2019 general election was simply below average. In various polling booths and collation centres, election officials collaborated with crooked political party officials, security officers, election observers, and contestants to undermine election laws.
It should not come as a surprise that Yakubu and senior staff of INEC have turned around to blame fake news on social media rather than take the flak for their organisation’s disgraceful performance. Senior officials of government departments who fail to perform their job satisfactorily blame social media and fake news for undermining their efforts. In politically fragile societies in Africa and even in more developed Western countries, fake news has been depicted as responsible for disrupting the political process and for negatively influencing the outcomes of elections. Other commentators also claim that fake news on social media is used to twist official information, to manufacture and consecrate bad news that never happened, and to advance specific agendas of those who own and control social media.
Concern for fake news is growing and so too is public appetite for everything that is incredible, illusory, surreal, and odd. That is why fake news is having impact on various aspects of political, social, cultural, religious, and economic lives of people across cultures. As an evolving concept in our society, fake news is used frequently by politicians and high-profile public officials to demonise social media, including mainstream media reports they don’t like.
Rather than focus on the impact of fake news on the 2019 general election (after all, social media did not conduct elections in Nigeria), Yakubu and senior INEC officials should be advised to direct their lenses to examine how Nigerian journalists and media organisations framed the general election. Understanding how the media covered the elections is crucial because, despite the influence of social media, mainstream media in Nigeria and some other developing economies such as India continue to set the agenda of public discussion for other alternative and emerging media.
In a multiracial, multi-religious, and broken society such as Nigeria, the media can promote racial harmony or racial discord. The media can also provoke public anger against government. The media are powerful in every society because they are the primary channels through which citizens receive news and information about events in their immediate environment and elsewhere outside their country. While social media and citizen journalists might be the sources of breaking news, mainstream media still provide the much needed context and analytical insights necessary to understand breaking news.
As I argued in a previous essay, journalists who work in print, broadcast, and online media took sides in their coverage of the 2019 elections. Those journalists who supported and still support the ruling party and the Federal Government reported the elections in a way that showed the government in a positive light. They pushed for the government to be re-elected and they spread propaganda messages to support that distorted message. They wanted the ruling party, All Progressives Congress (APC), to enjoy a majority in the Senate and in the House of Representatives. However, editors and journalists who supported the opposition political parties reported elections differently. This resulted in the public being fed with sharply different news angles of the same events. Overall, editors and journalists framed news of the elections to suit their political ideologies and the policies of their media organisations.
Regardless of Yakubu’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the discredited elections, his far-fetched explanations for failing a major national assignment, his self-righteous claims about the role fake news on social media played during the elections, he ought to understand that the nation is not easily fooled.
These points we must hold firmly. INEC supervised flawed national elections that were not free, not credible, and not peaceful. Voters went to polling stations to cast their votes but were met surprisingly by unprecedented violence, sporadic gunshots, and thugs who wrestled ballot boxes from the grip of election officials. Despite the mayhem at polling stations, some people managed to cast their votes but their votes were shredded and replaced with thumb-printed ballot papers generated by criminal groups. These transgressions suggest INEC has lost public trust and any credibility to conduct free, reliable, and peaceful elections. There is nothing independent about INEC, an agency that compromised its autonomy long before the elections.
In other countries, senior public officials who abdicate their responsibilities resign their positions before being pushed. In our society, officials like Yakubu who messed up a major national assignment are serenaded, celebrated, garlanded, and promoted. That is the symbol of a country without clear leadership and direction, a country that is approaching the edge of disaster. And that is why Nigeria is regarded as a failed state without a future.
Yakubu said fake news on social media threatened the 2019 elections. His views must be countered vigorously. Fake news on social media did not compel INEC officials to manipulate election results. Fake news on social media did not threaten INEC officials with cataclysmic consequences if they did not announce valid election results. Fake news on social media did not prompt INEC officials to replace authentic results with cooked-up figures derived from illegally thump-printed ballot papers manufactured in the underworld. These indiscretions raise questions about the capacity of Yakubu and INEC to oversee future elections.