By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
President Buhari’s health is now the biggest source of clickbait (i.e., intentionally misleading or outright false headlines designed to make the reader click them in order to make money for the site owner) and social media mendacity on Nigerian cyberspace.
It started from the first day Buhari returned to London for his unfinished “medical vacation.” Rumors quickly emerged that he didn’t actually go to London; that he was holed up in the President Villa—or in an “Abuja hospital”— in a vegetative state.
Someone I respect called and asked me to help him confirm if the president “really made it to London.” He said he had been “reliably” informed that the president was still in Abuja, and that news of his flight to London was carefully designed to conceal this fact.
“So where do your sources say he is now?” I asked.
“An Abuja hospital,” he said.
“That makes absolutely no sense. Why would he avoid excellent medical care in London and stay in Abuja while handing over power to his vice president? Did your sources also say he is suicidal because only a suicidal person would do that?” I pushed.
“They said he is probably already dead,” he said.
“But we all just saw videographic evidence of him getting on the plane. Even the sickest conspiracy theorist has to admit that the president is at least in London now. If he died in London upon landing there, his family would announce it to the world—if they are faithful to the requirements of Islam.”
My interlocutor mumbled something in response and changed the subject of our conversation. Apparently, he got his news from shady, fringy, clickbaity websites that traffic in fake news for money and mischief. A few days later, the sites from which this sick, transparently false conspiracy theory emerged got even more daring in their cowardly mendacity. Quoting a certain Eric Joyce, whom the BBC in a March 21, 2014 story described as a “disgraced MP,” the fake news websites said Buhari has died in London.
To lend credence to their falsehoods, the sites spoof popular global news websites. For instance, one site has the URL tv-bbc.com (to make careless or uncritical readers think they are reading bbc.om) and the other has the URL fox-news24.com (to deceive people into thinking that they are reading the popular conservative American foxnews.com news site).
These fake news sites are filled with republished articles from international news sources to make it seem like they are really international news sites located in the UK or the US that only occasionally report important breaking news stories from Nigeria. This elaborate news fraud has conned many credulous Nigerian news consumers.
The intentional falsehoods that these fly-by-night news sites peddle about Buhari’s health—and death— have also spawned a counter cottage industry of intentional social media falsehoods by Buhari supporters. Old photos of a once healthy, vibrant Buhari are now being passed off as recent photos. And many suckers not only believe them but also help to share and popularize them. There is, for instance, a photo of President Buhari shaking hands with former President Shehu Shagari. Pro-Buhari scammers say the photo was taken a few days ago when Shagari visited the president in London. The photo was actually taken at least a year ago in Nigeria.
Another photo that pro-Buhari propagandists have caused to be shared widely on social media is a 2015 photo of the president attending a “banquet hosted by Queen Elizabeth II for Heads of State and Government participating in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting” in the Republic of Malta, according to the Daily Post of November 29, 2015, which has the image on its site. He is seen sitting among three other Commonwealth heads of state, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The picture is being passed off as a recent picture of Buhari in London after his supposed convalescence. But all it takes to impeach the credibility of these photos is to do a simple reverse image search on TinEye. First save the picture on your device, then go to www.tineye.com, upload the picture there, and the site will locate wherever the picture appears on the web.
Perhaps the most preposterous propaganda of the pro-Buhari liars is the comical fiction that an Al Jazeera medical team has certified Buhari OK after finding that he had been poisoned. “President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria has been authoritatively confirmed to be OK by one of the medical team members on Aljazeera. He’s said to be the first African to survive such a poison and the eleventh in the world,” reads a social media message that is being shared excitedly by Buhari supporters.
It doesn’t require any intelligence to know that this is a tawdry, unimaginative fabrication. Al Jazeera is a media organization, not a medical institution. Although it may have medical doctors as medical correspondents, it does not have a medical team that diagnoses diseases and treats patients. Even if it does, it’s a violation of medical ethics to disclose patients’ medical records to the public. Plus, if indeed “medical team members on Aljazeera” found that Buhari had been poisoned and cured, the story should first be broadcast on Al Jazeera and published on its site. The last I checked, there was no such story on Al Jazeera.
What conduces to the falsehoods on both sides of the divide is the unhelpful secrecy around the president’s health. Communication scholars have known for ages that insufficient communication fertilizes rumors, half-truths, and outright lies. Human beings cannot NOT communicate. If official channels of communication fail to live up to the communicative expectations of people, they will inevitably create or find alternative avenues to give expression to their communicative needs. It never fails.
That means, unfortunately, that for as long as secretiveness continues to shroud the president’s health, falsehoods, propaganda, and outright lies will continue to thrive on the fringes.