Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Of Viruses and Acid Rain

waiting for rain I am one of the lucky Nigerians who don’t need to drive long distances to get to work. One effect of this is that I don’t spend much time listening to my car radio. However, one radio show I do get to hear and really enjoy listening to is the Daily Guide on Star 101 FM from 7.15 am and 7.30 am. I seriously love Moyo and Mofe Oyatogun’s take on the news. This isn’t because their reports are necessarily of scintillating intellectual content or breathtaking in vision. Instead, I like their news show because they bring texture to what is traditionally dry and monotonous. Their back and forth makes the news fun to listen to.

On two occasions however, they quite annoyed me. Late last year, December I believe it was, Mofe reported on a computer virus that was making the rounds. This virus was supposedly the most dangerous virus ever known. Microsoft and CNN were apparently both reporting it as the virus to end all viruses. For those familiar with such things, it was clearly a tried and tired hoax. And it was being reported as fact over a radio show that is listened to by thousands if not hundreds of thousands of uninformed listeners. This particular hoax has been recycled repeatedly since the last century. I wrote about it earlier in my blog post on hoaxes and talked about how to validate and verify those kinds of reports.

Act two. A couple of weeks ago, the Acid Rain hoax filled the airwaves. Apparently a text message had gone around Lagos that a rain of acid was coming and people should take cover. Again my second favourite (Dan Foster’s my first) radio personalities reported it as news. Let’s give them credit this time. They brought some skepticism to the story and followed up with a bit of journalistic fact-finding to “to see if these things were true”. Still, the results they came back with did much less that clear up the issue or expose it as the hoax it clearly was.

Both these incidents worry me because of several things. First, as I said wrong information was reported as news. The journalist apparently received the information about the virus in an email message. As a good citizen who wanted to make sure people she knew didn’t get their computers infected, she decided to let as many people as she knew know about it. For most of us that would have meant forwarding the email to as many people as we could and asking them to do the same (creating the flood of messages that was the hoaxer’s intent). My Daily Guide folks, being radio journalists, just happened to be in a position to share this hoax with all her teeming radio fans.

Most people in Nigeria don’t know computers. Beyond the basic uses they put their PCs to, they really know just enough to get into trouble. So those of us who speak to the public in any form or fashion (radio or blogs) need to be as sure as we can that we are not spreading misinformation. Because someone will believe us. The public sound of our voice gives us the fallacy of legitimacy. Consequently we have a greater duty to ensure veracity. I kind of hold myself responsible for not calling into the station or sending them an email debunking the first story. As a blogger and computer professional, I should have done what I could to get the word out over the same medium the hoax was spread.

The second incident is the more chilling one. This isn’t really a computer issue and the domain knowledge needed to debunk the hoax is different. Still secondary school encyclopedia reading was all the information I needed to be sure it was a hoax. The initial word went out over SMS before being picked up by the news media. Nigeria is a cell phone nation. The increase in our tele-density over the past decade has been off the charts. Many technology and developmental thinkers have recognised that the cell phone, for most of our population, is the equivalent of the computer and the internet. The great thing about cell-phones is that they are so cheap that most people independent of income or education can afford one. What makes them great also makes them a huge problem. If you want to reach most Nigerians as individuals you sent mass SMS. Those messages resonate more and somehow seem more authentic to many than a news broadcast. Possibly because text messages carry a sense of personal communications with them.

A similar, and worse incident, was the text about a large influx of northerners into Lagos with nefarious intent. I didn’t get that text either, but I did get the text debunking it. I must commend the security services and whoever they partnered with in getting the word out. Still, how do we know the first wasn’t true and the second wasn’t a lie to deceive us? You see the problem? We are now in age where mass communication can be done anonymously with near impunity that can have all sorts of impact on our populace.

Which is why I am concerned about what our radio and TV broadcasters present. They are in the unique position of being able to instantly spread the word to counteract false information or become the unwittingly agents of a wildfire of misinformation. They need to know and use the tools available to get the right information into people’s hands when someone else is doing their best, whether maliciously or misguidedly, to rain acidic information on us all.


Photo courtesy of Eremi at flickr.com