Fake news, real violence: The relationship between fake news and identity-based violence, a case of Nigeria

By James O’Dell


On the 23rdof June 2018, separate pictures of a mutilated man and child began circulating on Facebook. Shared along with calls to avenge the deaths that had occurred in the Gashish district of Plateau State, Nigeria, supposedly at the hands of Fulani Muslims. A day later 11 men were pulled from their cars and murdered on the street of Jos, the state’s capital, all accused of being Fulani.

In this case, neither of the photos was from their stated context. The photo of the baby was months old and the man pictured died in Congo-Brazzaville in 2012, about 1,000 miles away. The authenticity of the photos was unimportant however, all that mattered was the mobilisation of existing ethno-religious tensions. The impact of this was clear, with the BBC team investigating this case quoting one Berom youth leader“As soon as we saw those images, we wanted to just strangle any Fulani man standing next to us”.

This case is one of identity-based violence. Here building blocks of our identities, our nationalities, ethnicities, races, religions, classes and genders, the groups we socialise into and identify with, are seen as threatened. In this case, identities were seen as threatened by the perceived Fulani attack against two Berom individuals. This exemplifies how, in cases of identity-based violence, when people perceive their identity group to be threated or attacked, they are much more susceptible and/or willing to be incited into actual incidences of violence along the lines of these identities.

It is important to note however, that violence has been incited via the use of identity based differences throughout time. This has most often been done via centrally organised mass mobilisation and information campaigns, exploiting the technologies of the day. For instance Pope Urban II launched the crusader movement with a speech in 1095 that exploited racial and religious distinctions, four years later Jerusalem was captured by Christians who slaughtered every inhabitant of the city. More recent examples range from the ‘hate media’ during the Rwandan genocide, to the Sun and the Daily Mail ‘fuelling prejudice’ and incidents of racial violence in the UK.

The violence on the 24thof June, in North Central Nigeria, however represents a shift from this elite based incitement because of the pluralism it produces. Individuals are now able, through Facebook and other platforms to make unchallenged claims and circulate them themselves. All they require is an initial audience capable of spreading and repeating these incendiary claims, potentially making them viral within hours of their publication. The violence in Jos is far from the only example of this. In Sri Lanka, the government blocked Facebook and other platforms across the country entirely, in response to the rampant hate speech it says contributed to the anti-Muslim riots in Kandy that left three dead in March this year. U.N human rights experts investigating the possible genocide in Myanmar have also stated that Facebook played a ‘determining role’ in spreading hate and fuelling the crisisthat has forced some 700,000 Rohingya into becoming refugees in neighbouring Bangladesh.

Elite groups, such as government, owners of news outlets and the military obviously still maintain the ability to incite violence, either through traditional methods preciously referenced or via encouraging or initiating the dissemination of fake news themselves. The Rohingya example doubles up as a clear example of this as hundreds of Myanmar military personnel also disseminated fake news through fake or personal Facebook accountsleading up to and during the crisis. Demonstrating how Facebook provides both access to individuals to incite violence, and another avenue for elites to spread their existing access to their populations and exploit this.

The violence incited against the Rohingya however, was principally the result of an orchestrated military propaganda campaign. Fake news was clearly central to this, but it was carefully constructed and planned in the same manner that many instances of identity-based violence were before the advent of social media. The distinction between this and the example of Jos and Kandy, is that the pluralism offered by social media, this ability for individuals to make and spread unchallenged incendiary claims, produces violence that is more unpredictable and instantaneous.

In turn, governments cannot regulate or even fact-check these sources of information in the manner in which they can for print, radio or TV based media. This is due to the speed at which fake news can snowball and go ‘viral’ directly onto people’s personal social media accounts and the amount of people that can participate this. Subsequently, security services are constantly left on the back foot. Indeed the BBC team investigating the violence on the 24thJune in Jos, revealed how police in Plateau State, where the violence happened, have a team of ten officers monitoring Facebook for false informationin an attempt to anticipate and counter violence before it emerges (as a point of comparison Facebook only has four fact checkers for the whole of Nigeria).

This new dimension to identity-based violence that is fuelled by fake news is exemplified by the violence in Jos. The amount of access and speed of access that social media provides people produces violence that is more spontaneous and more dynamic, making the societies experiencing this more volatile and at risk of escalating identity-based violence. Governments, be they democratic or autocratic, by and large have a vested interest in maintaining peace, and the presence of social media sites such as Facebook significantly undermines their ability to ensure this. Whilst the benefits of social media for social awareness and popular uprisings were widely publicised and praised during the early days of the Arab Spring, the so called ‘Twitter revolution’, the ugly side of this new phenomenon is now becoming clear.

The risk now is that with the expansion of social media continuing apace, the rise of fake news causing real violence will continue unabated alongside it. Freedom of speech is one of the key components of progressive democracy, and social media can and does make a significant positive impact upon this. However, unless both governments and providers, like Facebook, get a handle upon fake news on these platforms, uncontrolled and unpredictable instances of identity-based violence will only lead to more death.


By James O’Dell

National Institute for African Studies