In June 2018, images of the bloody corpse of a baby, the skull and cracked bodies of a man in mass graves quickly spread through Facebook feeds in Nigeria, the most populous nation in Africa.
Facebook users circulating these images accused Fulani Muslims in Plateau state, an area of tremendous ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity, of perpetrating atrocities against the Christians of Berom. In what the authorities described as an act of retribution for the guards, several young men from Berom took Fulani men out of their cars and killed them. At least 10 people died.
A misinformation crisis is scaring nations around the world, sowing discord in established democracies such as the United States, Germany and Britain and shaking fragile ones like India, Taiwan and Nigeria. With just a laptop and a login, it is so easy to create inflammatory material, spread it quickly and generate strong, even violent reactions, that some experts fear that the foundations of society are threatened.
Last year, a BBC investigation He exposed the bloodshed in the state of Plateau, linking it to the viral disinformation spread by Facebook.
False information, deceptions, urban rumors and "deep falsifications" [digitally altered videos and photos that claim to show actions or speeches that, in fact, did not occur] are a growing threat worldwide, but are especially dangerous for emerging economies like Nigeria, where internet use is increasing much faster than education levels. In the last seven years, the number of internet users in Nigeria has tripled to 100 million.
Adamkolo Mohammed Ibrahim, an academic at the University of Maiduguri who studies fake news, says that bots and propagandists who use social networks and spread false news threaten to make senseless of democratic rights, including freedom of expression. He fears that Nigeria is on the verge of "post-truth", a time when falsehoods, moderate and extreme, permeate society with such intensity that the truth ceases to make sense.
With more than 200 ethnic groups and 500 languages, Nigeria, a former British colony, is one of the largest multicultural societies in the world. Since his independence from Britain in 1960, he has also dealt with separatist movements, sectarian and ethnic discords and struggles for natural resources, including minerals and oil.
It wasn't until the late 1990s, academics say, that Nigeria became a true multi-party democracy, with competitive, free and fair elections. Now, even those fragile advances are being threatened by false news.
Last year, for example, President Muhammadu Buhari, who suffered several health problems, was forced to deny rumors that he had died and had been replaced in ceremonies by a Sudanese clone.
It is no more crazy, no doubt, than the far-right claim that Hillary Clinton was behind a child sex ring housed in a Washington pizzeria. But an embryonic democracy like Nigeria may need layers of protection to keep people safe from community violence.
"Our democracy is only 20 years old," said Ibrahim. "There is a fear that if fake news is allowed to continue as they are, they could reach a point where democracy is threatened and the military can intervene."
Because Ibrahim does not want this to happen, he supports some kind of government action.
A federal senator, Mohammed Sani Musa, recently introduced a bill that would criminalize those who create "fake news," with penalties that include fines and imprisonment for individuals, and financial penalties for businesses.
"There is too much wrong information in our social networks," Musa said.
"Is that the kind of world we should live in?"
Although the bill is still in its infancy, the opposition has been fierce, largely because citizens fear it will only cover censorship.
An online petition denounced the so-called social media bill as a measure to curb critical online discourse against politicians.
Toyin O. Falola, professor of African studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said the proposed ban on "false news" was primarily a reaction to "comments directed at political leaders who report a high level of transgressions and misdeeds." . Buhari, 77, had been very reserved about the state of his health. He also said that the government had been incompetent to handle serious problems, such as increased tensions between Muslim pastors and Christian farmers.
"There is nothing special about" false news "in Nigeria," Falola said in an interview. "It has become a global phenomenon in a post-truth era."
Musa, the senator behind the bill, said "it is not an attempt to stifle freedom of expression, it is an opportunity to address the growing threats that disturb the peace."
But legislation, like other proposals around the world to curb false news, does not offer a very reliable definition of the problem.
Muthoki Mumo, an expert in Africa from the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, a New York-based group advocating press freedom, said lawmakers in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania proposed bans on "fake news," as "part of an attempt to deal with an audience that expresses itself more freely and frequently online. "
The problem is that authoritarian governments around the world have used "false news" as a pretext to curb legitimate discourse. Threats against journalists are increasing, and journalists around the world are being jailed more and more for accusations, often false and false, of spreading false news.
Agba Jalingo, the editor of CrossRiverWatch, was arrested by Nigerian authorities in August after the news website reported alleged corruption involving the public bank and the governor of the State of Cross River. The authorities claimed that the media reports were false, traitors and an attempt to disturb the peace.
The use of existing laws by officials to persecute journalists is worrying for defenders such as Mumo, who fears that this new legislation will give the government greater authority to define the truth and silence critics.
"If you have a government that is willing to implement these laws broadly against critics, you will not have a positive outcome, no matter how well intentioned," he said. "We have seen that truth is defined in a way that favors authority. That is a problem."
Musa argues that the definition of truth can be resolved in court and that its proposed ban would not harm non-partisan journalists.
But the actual result is still far from true.
In October, a court allowed the prosecution to present an anonymous witness, which made it difficult for Jalingo's lawyer to defend his client in a fair and free trial.
And, for those who cannot afford to file charges in court, the alternative is to plead guilty and pay the fine. And in an increasingly difficult time for the media, the fine may seem high.
The market to sell falsehoods exploded in Nigeria after the 2016 presidential election in the United States, said Ibrahim, the academic. And, with greater Internet access and a thriving social media scene, the rumors spread like wildfire in the West African country.
For Ibrahim, Nigeria "is in crisis", and the repression of "false news" is key. If a central agency can prevent false and viral publications from creating violence and confusion, the country has the opportunity to obtain more peace, he said. And although the alleged non-partisan fact-finding organizations begin to appear throughout the country, their ability to address the root of "false news" can never have the same weight as that of a government.
No one is above the law, said Ibrahim. “Even if the president defines what the truth is, the legislature can verify it. You can never change the truth. Even if you suppress it, it will arise. "
Falola disagrees, arguing that the government should not have the power to define what is false. "The federal government itself is not transparent, thus creating the space for several people to create stories to fill a void," he said. Better governance, he said, is the answer.