A rally in Abuja. Photo: Getty
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Live-tweeting an Islamist insurgency

With the eyes of the world on the Nigerian government, its main concern is to silence critical voices.

The kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria on 14 April by the Islamist group Boko Haram has provoked worldwide condemnation and sympathy. Protests erupted around Nigeria and outside the country’s embassies overseas. The US, UK, France, China and Israel have all offered practical support. The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls has been tweeted over a million times, even by Michelle Obama.

It’s easy to send a protest tweet in the west but in Nigeria the stakes are higher. A critical comment can lead to days of government questioning. On 5 May, two women leading protests in Abuja against the kidnap, Saratu Angus Ndirpaya and Naomi Mutah Nyadar, were arrested and accused of fabricating the abductions to discredit the government. Both have now been released.

It took over three weeks for the presidency to acknowledge the disappearance of the girls. President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration aggressively guards information on its “war on terror” by cracking down on citizen journalism and online activism. With a general election scheduled for February 2015, Jonathan is intolerant of any criticism of his government’s record on security and corruption.

“The current government is desperate to stay in power,” Japheth Omojuwa, a veteran activist and member of the Occupy Nigeria movement, told me. “Any voice, any individual, that looks like it’s not in support of them will be blackmailed, will be arrested. They will do anything they can to shut down these voices.”

Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram dates back over a decade but has intensified in the past two years. In March, Amnesty International estimated that 1,500 people had been killed this year alone. Nigerian newspapers report that at least another 500 have died since.

Official government reports claim the army has incurred few losses in its campaign against the Islamists. Amendments last year to a 2011 law have made it a criminal offence to incite terrorist violence online, and the security services have used the act to intimidate journalists and bloggers who publish alternative accounts of the military’s campaign. Independent journalists say they are being threatened with libel actions to prevent publication of stories damaging to the government.

On 30 March, Isiyaka Yusuf Onimisi, an engineer at an electricity substation on the edge of Abuja’s high-security Aso Rock compound, which contains the presidential villa and the federal Supreme Court, heard gunfire outside his window. Aso Rock is also where the State Security Service (SSS), Nigeria’s domestic intelligence agency, interrogates suspects. In the 1990s, enemies of the military dictatorship disappeared into the SSS headquarters – known locally as Yellow House – and never came out. Today, it is central to the government’s battle against Boko Haram.

That morning, a suspected militant overpowered his guard and freed his comrades; they then staged a jailbreak from Yellow House. The resulting gunfight lasted over four hours. The media were kept away but Onimisi was, as he tweeted, “in the middle of the show”. As the government tried to play down the incident, his tweets were being read avidly around Nigeria.

Three hours in to the gun battle, he stopped tweeting. When family members tried to call him, they found that his mobile phone was switched off. A source close to the family told me that when Onimisi’s brother rang his office, colleagues told him he had been taken away “on orders from above” by men who identified themselves as members of the Directorate of Military Intelligence.

When ten days later Onimisi still had not resurfaced, his Twitter followers raised the alarm. Activists, including Omojuwa and others from Occupy Nigeria, began demanding his release. Protests were organised in the cities of Ibadan, Ekiti, Benin, Lagos, Kaduna and Kano.

On 11 April Onimisi was quietly released. He returned to Twitter, briefly, on 17 and 18 April. He did not respond to my request for an interview, but thanked his supporters. “My freedom matters,” he tweeted, “whatever happen in there end in there.” (Meaning “whatever happened in there, stays in there”.) Then his account was closed.

Even now, with the eyes of the world on the Nigerian government, its main concern is to silence critical voices. Social media might not bring back the victims of Boko Haram’s crimes, but the continued courage of critics inside the country could help force a complacent government to confront its own weakness.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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Fake news sells because people want it to be true

The rise of bullshit, from George Orwell to Donald Trump.

When is a lie not a lie? Recently, the Daily Telegraph reported that university students had demanded that “philosophers such as Plato and Kant” be “removed from [the] syllabus because they are white”. Other outlets followed suit, wringing their hands over the censoriousness of today’s uninquiring young minds. The article generated an extraordinary amount of consternation click bait. Angry responses were written and hot takes were quick-fried and served up by outlets anxious  to join the dinner rush of  ad-friendly disapproval.

It’s a story that could have been designed to press every outrage button of the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade. It has students trying to ban things, an apparent lack of respect for independent thought and reverse racism. It seemed too good to be true.

And it was. In reality, what happened was far less interesting: the student union of the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas) at the University of London had proposed that “the majority of philosophers on our courses” be from Asia and Africa, and that the Western greats be approached from a “critical standpoint”. Some might consider this a reasonable request, given that critical analysis is a component of most philosophy courses, and Soas has a long tradition of promoting the study of the global South. Yet a story about students declaring Kant irrelevant allows the Telegraph to despair for the youth of today and permits advertisers to profit from that despair.

People didn’t start pumping out this stuff because they decided to abandon journalistic ethics. They did so because such principles are hugely expensive and a hard sell. Even those of us who create and consume news can forget that the news is a commodity – a commodity with a business model behind it, subsidised by advertising. Rigorous, investigative, nuanced content, the sort that pays attention to objective facts and fosters serious public debate, is expensive to create. Talk, however, is cheap.

Fake news sells because fake news is what people want to be true. Fake news generates clicks because people click on things that they want to believe. Clicks lead to ad revenue, and ad revenue is currently all that is sustaining a media industry in crisis. Journalism is casting about for new funding models as if for handholds on a sheer cliff. This explains a great deal about the position in which we find ourselves as citizens in this toxic public sphere.

What has this got to do with Donald Trump? A great deal. This sticky, addictive spread of fake news has fostered a climate of furious, fact-free reaction.

Press outlets give millions of dollars of free coverage to Trump without him having to send out a single press release. The reality TV star is the small-fingered god of good copy. The stories write themselves. Now, the stories are about the threat to the future of journalism from the man who has just entered the Oval Office.

Trump’s first press conference in six months, held at Trump Tower in New York on 11 January, was – by any measure – extraordinary. He did not merely refuse to answer questions about unverified allegations that he had been “cultivated” by Russia. He lost his temper spectacularly with the assembled press, declaring: “You’re fake news! And you’re fake news!”

Trump did not mean that the journalists were lying. His attitude to the press is straight from the Kremlin’s playbook: rather than refute individual accusations, he attempts to discredit the notion of truth in journalism. The free press is a check on power, and Trump likes his power unchecked.

Writing in the Guardian in 2015, Peter Pomarantsev noted of Putin’s propaganda strategy that “these efforts constitute a kind of linguistic sabotage of the infrastructure of reason: if the very possibility of rational argument is submerged in a fog of uncertainty, there are no grounds for debate – and the public can be expected to decide that there is no point in trying to decide the winner, or even bothering to listen.”

If people lose trust in the media’s capacity to report facts, they begin to rely on what “feels” true, and the influence rests with whomever can capitalise on those feelings. Donald Trump and his team know this. Trump doesn’t tell it like it is. Instead, he tells it like it feels, and that’s far more effective.

Fake news – or “bullshit”, as the American philosopher Harry G Frankfurt termed it in a 2005 essay – has never been weaponised to this extent, but it is nothing new. George Orwell anticipated the trend in the 1930s, looking back on the Spanish Civil War. “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world,” he wrote. “Lies will pass into history . . . In Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie . . . In the past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that ‘facts’ existed and were more or less discoverable.”

This is the real danger of fake news, and it is compounded by a lingering assumption of good faith on the part of those who believe in journalistic principle. After all, it’s impossible to prove that a person intended to deceive, and that they didn’t believe at the time that what they said was true. Trump may believe in whatever “facts” he has decided are convenient that day. When he insists that he never mocked a disabled reporter, whatever video evidence may exist to the contrary, he may believe it. Is it, then, a lie?

Of course it’s a lie. People who have no respect for the concept of truth are still capable of lies. However, they are also capable of bullshit – bullshit being a register that rubbishes the entire notion of objective reality by deeming it irrelevant. The only possible response is to insist, and keep insisting, that the truth still means something.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era