"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Understanding How the Salt-and-Water Ebola Cure Hoax Spread in Nigeria

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

As a communication and new media scholar, I’m intrigued by how a silly, infantile Internet joke about a salt-and-warm-water home remedy for Ebola not only spread with unprecedentedly wild rapidity across the length and breadth of Nigeria but almost literally gulled the entire nation.

The prank was started on August 7, 2014 by a female undergraduate of the Federal University of Technology, Akure, identified simply as Adesewa. In an apology she posted on August 8, 2014 on a Nigerian online discussion forum called Nairaland.com, she said amid the mass hysteria that attended the outbreak of Ebola in Nigeria she and her friends decided to hatch a hoax about a cure for Ebola and watch how many people would fall for it within their circle of friends in the Blackberry Messenger community.

Her confession is worth reproducing in its entirety:  “Yesterday I was with [a] friend in her hostel, we were talking about this Ebola outbreak, when one of my friends, Funke (she introduced me to Nairaland) brought the idea of us playing a prank on our friends. The first suggestion was to tell people that aloe [vera] could cure Ebola, but we thought it would sound too ridiculous so we forgot about it.

“Later that [evening] an idea came to me (I now regret that I did it). I decided to send a BBM [Blackberry Messenger] broadcast message to my friends, telling them that the Ministry of Health has asked everyone to bathe with salt and warm water and drink some of it. I sent the message 7:08pm yesterday

“Later this midnight I started getting calls and messages that I should drink salt water and bath with it.

“All efforts to tell people that I was the one who started the joke failed. Only my friends who I mentioned earlier believed me. Even my mum [called] me this morning; I did not know what to tell her.

“I am using this medium to beg you all to warn and tell everyone, before they drink salt and damage their health.

“Please don’t be hash [sic] on me. I know this has gone out of hand. I never knew it will be this serious. Some have even added to the original message I sent.”

This was an undoubtedly irresponsible joke that exploited people’s panic and helplessness about a strange and deadly disease. In moments of disabling anxiety and panic, people’s credulity is often easily malleable. News reports say that in Jos, the Plateau State capital, two people died and 20 others were hospitalized as a consequence of excessive salt intake. That’s heartbreaking. But in today’s article I am not as concerned with the ethical impropriety of this cruel joke as I am with the mechanism of its wildly rapid spread.

In the wake of the wide and deep percolation of this prank in almost every crevice of the Nigerian society through social media networks and words of mouth, several students and teachers of mass communication in Nigeria commented that the success of the joke proves that the hypodermic needle theory—an old, discredited communication theory that assumed that the mass media were more or less like social syringes that were capable of injecting intended messages into helpless, unresisting audiences with immediate and dramatic effects—was well and alive. That’s wrong. And here is why.

The hypodermic needle theory assumed that the influence of mass media messages on receivers resulted from a direct, unmediated access to the messages. But this wasn’t what happened in Nigeria. The millions of Nigerians who bathed in and drank warm salt water didn’t read Adesawa’s initial message directly. If they did, they might have dismissed it outright given that, by herself, she has no credibility; she is a mere 20-something-year-old undergraduate who isn’t even a medical student.

Her prank was effective because it (unintentionally) got into the hands of several gullible, unsophisticated opinion leaders who nonetheless enjoy social capital among vast networks of people. There is an old communication theory that explains how this works. The theory, called the two-step flow theory of communication or the multi-step flow theory of communication, says that media influence on receivers isn’t always direct; that media messages often first flow to opinion leaders who in turn use their conversational currency to influence people who look up to them for information and guidance.

The theory had been criticized in the past for lacking empirical corroboration, but the form and nature of “virality” on the Internet is causing communication scholars to rehabilitate it. (Viral messages are internet messages, videos, memes, images, etc. that have the capacity to induce another (unrelated) person to voluntarily share them and thereby lead to their rapid and mass distribution across spatial and temporal bounds).

New media scholars have discovered that one of the strategies to achieve “virality” for messages is to popularize them through “tastemakers,” that is, people who influence digital trends, who have huge, engaged Twitter followers, Facebook friends, Google Plus followers, BBM and WhatsApp friends, etc.. That was precisely how Kony 2012, the most viral video in history, achieved virality. It was almost singlehandedly popularized by digital trendsetters. 

The power of digital influencers (who have been found to be more effective than the traditional mass media in spreading “viral” messages) is often helped by what new media scholars like to call a digital mob mentality, which is itself aided by the incredible ease of sharing that social media outlets enable.

But the Nigerian salt-and-warm-water Ebola cure hoax belongs in a different variety of virality because the initiators of the hoax didn’t intend for it to go beyond their limited circle of friends. Nevertheless, it captured the attention of the entire country. 

This calls for extreme caution in the kinds of jokes people share on social media, especially in contexts where the jokes can lead to death and reckless endangerment—such as this one.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Q and A on Titles, Genericization, and Sundry Grammar Usage Rules

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Want to know what “Prof. Dr.,” used by Western European and some Asian academics, mean, or why it is wrong to call Nigerian traditional rulers “His Royal Highness”? How about the rules about interchanging “Oh” with “Zero” in calling out telephone numbers? For these and many other grammar usage questions, read the Q and A that follows:

I often see the title “Prof. Dr.” before the names of university teachers in European countries. What does it mean? It sounds rather strange to me.

It’s a practice that is exclusive to some Western European and Asian countries. It’s called stacking of multiple academic titles, which strikes many people in the US and the UK as comical and overly self-important. When “Prof. Dr.” is attached to someone’s name in such countries as Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Malaysia, etc. it means the person is both a Ph.D. and a (full) professor. This differentiates him from someone who reached the pinnacle of his academic career without a Ph.D. and someone who has a Ph.D. but is still climbing the titular ladder in academe.

But it can get even more pompous.  I know people who have been addressed as “Prof. Dr. Dr. Dr. Brown.” It means this man has four doctoral degrees in addition to being a (full) professor.  A person who has four doctorate degrees in addition to being a professor usually prefixes the following titles to his names: “Prof. Dr. mult.” The “mult.” in the titles indicates multiple doctorates. “Prof. M.D.” indicates that someone has a medical doctorate and is also a professor. If “Prof. Dr. Ir.” is prefixed to someone’s name, especially in Belgium and, I think, Germany, it means the person is a (full) professor, has a doctorate, and also has a master’s degree in engineering. And you thought only Nigerians are obsessed with stacking titles!

 “Prof. Dr.” is never used in UK and US universities. In the UK “Prof.” (or Professor) is prefixed to the name of any academic who has attained the highest rank in academia. It’s a lifetime title. In the US, the preferred title for academics who hold a doctorate is “Dr.,” even if they’ve reached the highest attainable professorial rank, as in Dr. Smith is a professor of virology. “Prof.” or “Professor” is often prefixed to the names of people who teach in a US university but don’t have a doctorate, although it’s usual for Americans to use “professor” as a generic term for “university teacher,” which means “Prof.” can be used for just about anybody who teaches in a university, including graduate assistants.

The terms His Highness (HH) and His Royal Highness (HRH) are often used interchangeably in Nigeria. Is this correct? Otherwise kindly explain the difference.

His/Her Highness and His/Her Royal Highness are legitimately interchangeable, although some people say “His/Her Royal Highness” ranks higher than “His/Her Highness.” However, in the United Kingdom, these honorifics are used only for princes and princess, not the sovereign monarch. The King or the Queen of England is addressed as “His Majesty” or “Her Majesty,” not “His Royal Highness” or “Her Royal Highness.”

British people are often confused when Nigerians address their kings as “His Royal Highness” since that form of address is reserved only for for princes and princesses. A British person unfamiliar with the forms of address in Nigerian English would, for instance, think the Emir of Kano is a mere prince if you addressed him as “His Royal Highness, Muhammadu Sanusi II.”

I don’t know why Nigerians call their monarchs “His Royal Highness” instead of “His Majesty” or some other more befitting honorific, but given how the British colonial government discouraged monarchs in their colonies from being called “kings” (see my August 3, 2014 article titled “5 Words Native English Speakers Never Ever Use for Themselves”) it is conceivable that this, too, has roots in colonial politics of racial and cultural differentiation.

We had a short grammar argument on the use of zero while calling out phone numbers on radio. Most people (me included) favour O as an alphabet. But I believe that it will not be wrong when someone prefers to use, for example, “zero eight zero” and not “OH eight OH.” Which is correct? Please I need your help.

Several people have asked this same question and I answered them privately. I think it’s a good idea to make my response public. It is perfectly legitimate in informal, spoken English to interchange "oh" and "zero" when reading telephone numbers even though “O” is a letter and “0” is a number. The Oxford Dictionary of English says “Oh” is an acceptable stand-in for “zero” “in a sequence of numerals, especially when spoken.” Note, though, that the use of "oh" in place of “zero” is mostly American. British speakers tend to prefer “nought,” as in, “nought eight nought.” "Zero" is the more formal alternative to "oh" and “nought” in both Britain and the United States.

In Nigeria, we have a habit of using popular trade names as the preferred names to represent all similar products. For example, all detergents are called Omo, all soft drinks are called Coke, all toothpaste is Macleans, all diapers are called Pampers, etc. Is this practice exclusive to Nigeria? Do such naming habits exist in America and Britain, too?

What you described is called genericization, and it exists everywhere. Genericization occurs when a distinctive brand name becomes so popular that it’s used by the general population as the default name for all brands of the product or service. It’s also called “loss of secondary meaning.” In the United States and the United Kingdom when a product or service achieves a generic status, it often loses its intellectual property rights over its name. That means other products or services can use that name without any legal consequence. That’s why companies fight to prevent the erosion of their trade names. A recent notable example of this is Google, whose name is becoming the generic term for “Internet search engine” and whose name is now being verbified. Google is discouraging dictionaries from giving lexicographic imprimatur to the verb forms “to google,” or “googling,” which are becoming the preferred terms for “searching the Internet” among the general population.

Examples of popular trade names that have been genericized are aspirin, biro, jeep, kerosene, Photoshop, sellotape, Vaseline, Walkman, etc. So, in short, genericization isn’t exclusive to Nigerian English speakers. It’s a worldwide linguistic phenomenon.

Please I have the following questions for you. 1. Will 'legislature' take a plural or singular verb? Personally, I think it's plural. 2. What is the difference between 'less' and 'lesser'? Do they have the same meaning but different usages? 3. Which of these expressions is correct: 'groups of three' and 'groups of threes'?

1. Legislature is a singular noun. Its plural is legislatures.

2. "Less" is the comparative form of "little." The superlative form is "least," as in "little, less, least." it is the opposite of "more," and tends to be used mostly for uncountable nouns, although this norm is increasingly being violated even among native English speakers. "Lesser" started life as an error, as the double comparative of "lesser" (like "worser"), prompting famous English lexicographer Samuel Johnson to call it "a barbarous corruption of less, formed by the vulgar from the habit of terminating comparatives in -er." The Oxford English Dictionary says "lesser" is "now generally poetic or obsolete except in the expression lesser-known." However, I see many native many native speakers use "lesser" to make statements about comparisons that involve size, value, importance, and amount, especially when these are quantifiable.

3. It should be "groups of three."

In the titles of books, which is more appropriate: “guide to” or “guide for”?

Both are correct depending on what you mean. “Guide to” is usually followed by a subject-matter, such as “guide to correct English usage,” “guide to accounting for beginners, etc. "Guide for" is preferred when you mention the potential beneficiaries of the guide, such as "guide for beginners," “a practical guide for doctors,” etc.

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Re: Female Suicide Bombers in Nigeria: How Did We Get Here?

We are all confounded by the emergent phenomenon of female suicide bombers. My last week’s article merely sought to explore the possible triggers for this truly scary development. I didn’t pretend to know the answers. 

A reader who hasn’t given me permission to reveal her name emailed comments to me that said she was “struck by [my] naiveté regarding the challenges faced by Muslim Hausa girls,” adding: “I thought that your idea that it is the boys who are ‘thrown out’ betrays a certain lack of consciousness of gendered nature of disparities. I saw this report in Sahara Reporters (“14-Year-Old Girl Set To Undergo Murder Trial Over Forced Marriage”) which reminds me of the big wahala of forced marriage, sexual exploitation of children and its impact on their health. Please don't forget that Boko Hram talks about selling children into marriage.”

I frankly don’t know how forced marriage and sexual exploitation, which are age-old problems, have contributed to the rise of female suicide bombers in Nigeria. Well, read below the thoughts some other readers shared with me.

You are right that we have reached a creepy new phase in Nigeria. But it may get even creepier. I suspect that the next thing Boko Haram will do is to use children as suicide bombers. That would just be the end of Nigeria as we know it. If even children can’t be trusted to be innocent, harmless little creatures, we are finished! Everybody and everything will be suspected. Our lives have been turned upside down now. But it can only get worse, sadly. People used to run for dear lives when they saw bearded person heading their way. Then they started running when they saw people on motor cycles because Boko Haram initially bombed through motor cycles. Then we became afraid of cars. Now, we are made to be afraid of women in hijab. What next will we be made afraid of? It’s just so tiring.
Musa Isa

Your suspicion that the suspect arrested in connection with the assassination attempt on General Muhammadu Buhari was a “made-up suspect” may be right. His mother has said that the “suspect” is well-known in the neighborhood as a mentally disturbed person who cross-dresses. Nigerian security forces can turn anybody into a “suspect” or even a “convict” just to give the public the impression that they are working.
Stephen Yakubu

I really cherish your informative insight about this wanton and brutal heartlessness. But your theories haven't covered other freshly manufactured speculations that are being peddled in Kano! And, although it is just a hunch, it is growing beyond the borders of gossip. Politicians and the sage elders in Kano are formulating some political undertones about these incidents! I wonder if Professor could look into this aspect critically and feed us afterwards with his findings!
Mubarak Ibrahim

My mind is already wrenched and bleeding over the ongoing massacre in Gaza by the Israeli forces, and, unfortunately the disturbing news of these female suicide bombers adds insult to injury. What could have motivated a female to carry out such dastardly attacks is indeed a puzzle. You are not being naïve, Prof. and, yes, your theories are possibilities. However, no doubt they are, or at least one of them, is a female. Her picture has been viral on cyberspace. She typically looks female. Again, I believe no degree of despair could have motivated that; it’s simply a polluted indoctrination injected into their brains by Boko Haram members. For instance, in the Kano Polytechnic incident, the bomber was brought in an expensive car, according to eyewitness accounts. She was again looking posh. I think their deluders simply concoct more hadiths and misinterpret more Qur’anic verses, as they always do, to justify the deadly act. And, chauvinistically speaking, women are said to have a moderate thinking faculty; thus, they easily buy the ideology and carry it out.
Muhammad Muhsin Ibrahim

'Feelings of deep hurt and hopelessness'' are the major drivers to suicide bombing in addition to a sense of loss and brain washing.
Abubakar Umar

Another possibility is that they may have been forced by Boko Haram to carry out the bombings, possibly afraid that noncompliance may result in their families being massacred. Thanks for the link to [the US Army’s] “Female Suicide Bombers.” It is quite interesting as well.
Njong Suka

These suicide bombers are girls, not men dressed in women's clothing. I subscribe to the argument that they are probably forced (as opposed to being brainwashed given how long it takes to indoctrinate people towards a nihilist ideology) with threats to their families perhaps to engage in these acts.
Zainab Usman

 I think women may also resort to suicide bombings if their husbands died in the same course. They may be seduced into believing that they will meet their husbands in heaven if they blow themselves up instead of continuously remaining stranded widows. This is very probable!
Aliyu Bashir Almusawi
You say we should dismiss conspiracy theories as ridiculous. But sometimes we see elements of truth in it. Now remember the abduction of the Chibok school girls. Most people now suspect that they are bewitched to the suicides we see today. Back to conspiracy theory, it suggests that a person can be hypnotised through drugging and psychological manipulations. Such person when hypnotised can go and commit what he will otherwise not do in his normal senses.
Ibrahim Muhammad Kurfi 

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Sunday, August 3, 2014

5 Words Native English Speakers Never Ever Use for Themselves

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

There are certain words that native English speakers in Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand liberally use only for people they perceive to be culturally and racially inferior to them. I call them vocabularies of racial differentiation and exclusion. In this article I am concerned only with words whose racial “othering” is so subtle that most linguistically undiscerning people don’t notice it. I must add that modern native English speakers who use these words aren’t racist or intentionally offensive; they are just subconsciously influenced by their socio-linguistic environments.

1. Chief. Most English dictionaries define this word as the head of a “tribe” or “clan.” That’s why it’s also rendered as “tribal chief.” Since Europeans—or at least contemporary Europeans—have no “tribes” (see the entry on “tribe” below), they have no “chiefs.” Only nonwhite people do. What Europeans had or have are “kings.” But a little more context is needed to unpack the ethnocentrism of the term. I recently read an 1821 British Foreign Office document titled Correspondence with Foreign Courts Regarding Execution of Treaties Contracted. On page 110 of the document, the reader finds that the British colonial government actually went out of its way to purposively discourage people in their African and Asian colonies from calling their monarchs “kings.” King, the document says, is reserved only for a British monarch. Monarchs in the colonies should just be called “chiefs.” If the chiefs enjoy enduring historic prestige among their people, they might be called “paramount chiefs,” but never kings.
An Indian "chief"
Nigerians have internalized this nomenclatural discrimination and call their monarchs “chiefs.” This is especially true in northern Nigeria where non-Muslim—or non-Emirate— traditional rulers are called “chiefs” and their spheres of traditional influence are called “chiefdoms.” In southern Nigeria “chief” is chiefly prefixed to the name of a traditional title holder. (See my June 15, 2014 article titled “A Pragmatic Analysis of ‘Emir,’ ‘Sarki,’ ‘Oba’ and ‘Chief’ in Nigerian English.”)

Won’t it be nice, in the interest of linguistic equity, to prefix “Chief” to the names of these European monarchs: the Chief of England, the Chief of Denmark, the Chief of Norway, the Chief of Spain, the Chief of Sweden, the Chief of the Netherlands, the Chief of Belgium, etc.?

2. Genital mutilation. The removal of the clitoris is called “female genital mutilation” when it’s done by nonwhite people but “clitoridectomy” when it’s done by white people. I personally oppose female circumcision (a value-neutral term for what’s now “female genital mutilation”), but I can’t help but notice the invidious linguistic double standards in calling the act by a derogatory term when it’s done by nonwhite people and by a scientific name when it’s done by white people. Gynecologists in nineteenth-century Europe and America used to remove women’s clitoris in order to “curb female masturbation.” It was called “clitoridectomy.”

In any case, why isn’t male circumcision also called “male genital mutilation” since it’s similar in many respects to so-called female genital mutilation?

3. Indigene. Native English speakers never use this word for themselves in their everyday conversations precisely because notions of citizenship override loyalties to primordial origins in their countries or because loyalty to primordial origins and citizenship are indistinguishable since many European nations are mono-ethnic states. That’s why “indigenes” invariably means nonwhite people whose primordial origins can be traced to the place they currently live. No native English speaker will ever say he is an “indigene of London” or an “indigene of Atlanta,” etc. The inflections and figurative extensions of the word such as “indigenous,”  “indigenize,” “indigenization,” etc. are more commonly used by native speakers than the root, which is also synonymous with words like “autochthon” and “aborigine,” which all connote a primitive person. 

But Nigerian English has developed a more creative use for and meaning of “indigene” than conventional dictionaries envisage. In Nigeria “indigene” is often contrasted with “settler.” Even if your ancestors have lived in a town for hundreds of years, you’re still a “settler” if those ancestors don’t share the same linguistic and ethnic identity as the “indigenes” who founded the town. And you’re considered an “indigene” of a place even if you or your immediate past ancestors have never lived there for even a single day so long as you can trace your lineage to that place patrilineally. 

3. Natives.  Western Europeans—and their descendants elsewhere— are never “natives” even if they are the original inhabitants of a place. The Celts who have lived in Britain, Spain, and Gaul since prehistoric times are not “natives.” That word is reserved for racially and culturally “inferior” peoples in Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc. But the denotative meaning of the word hardly reveals this semantic nuance.  

 Many dictionaries define a “native” as “an indigenous person who was born in a particular place.” That sounds pretty innocuous. But the connotative meaning of the word is more racially discriminatory. It was originally used by white colonialists and later by Western anthropologists to refer specifically to nonwhite people. The New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd edition) captures this subtlety well. One of the definitions of “native,” which the dictionary says is “dated, often offensive,” is “one of the original inhabitants of a country, especially a nonwhite as regarded by European colonists or travelers.” 

Notice, though, that in American English “native” is used widely in a non-racially discriminatory way. When people call a city their hometown they often say they’re natives of the city, as in “I am an Atlanta native,” “She is a native of New York,” etc. I am not sure how widespread this usage of “native” is in British English, but it appears 148 times in the British National Corpus.

The New Oxford American Dictionary’s usage advice on the word is instructive. It says, “In contexts such as native of Boston or New York in the summer was too hot even for the natives, the noun native is quite acceptable. But when it is used to mean ‘a nonwhite original inhabitant of a country,’ as in this dance is a favorite with the natives, it is more problematic.  This meaning has an old-fashioned feel and, because of its association with a colonial European outlook, it may cause offense.”

Most Nigerians don’t realize that one of the reasons the country’s first national anthem (“Nigeria, we hail thee”) was changed to “Arise, o compatriots” in 1978 was because of the appearance of the words “native” and “tribe” (see the entry on “tribe” below) in it. The first anthem was written by a British expatriate by the name of Lillian Jean Williams and has the following words:   

 Nigeria, we hail thee,
 Our own dear native land,
 Though tribe and tongue may differ,

Interestingly, in Nigerian English, when people say they have “gone native” they usually mean they have adorned non-Western, Nigerian clothes. I’ve always had problems with that expression for at least two reasons. 

First, to “go native” is an idiomatic expression in Standard English that means a person, usually a white person, has left his country to some “native land” and ends up internalizing and adopting the “primitive” ways of the “natives.” Second, why are jeans, coat, ties, etc. just “clothes,” but buba, sokoto, babar riga, etc. are “native clothes”? Why does wearing Nigerian clothes represent “going native” when the wearers of the clothes are themselves “natives.”? I suspect that Nigerians unreflexively copied that phrase from British colonialists who described wearing African dresses as “going native.”

5. Tribe. I have written several articles on this odious word (See, for instance, my February 27, 2009 article titled “What’s my Tribe? None” and my March 27, 2009 article titled “Of Tribe and Pride: Deconstructing Alibi’s Alibis for Racial Self-Hatred,” among others). No modern person of European descent belongs to a “tribe.” Only nonwhite people do. The only occasions when native English speakers use “tribe” to talk about themselves is when they talk about their dim and distant past, as in “the Germanic tribes that invaded England in prehistoric times” or the “12 tribes of Israel.” The other occasion is when they use the word figuratively, as in “tribes of journalists gathered there,” etc.
These are "tribal" people
Shorn of all pretenses, “tribe” basically means backward, primitive nonwhite people.  Let no one deceive you that the word means anything other than that. Even the Oxford Dictionary of English recognizes this fact. Its usage note on “tribe” reads: 

“In historical contexts the word tribe is broadly accepted (the area was inhabited by Slavic tribes), but in contemporary contexts it is problematic when used to refer to a community living within a traditional society. It is strongly associated with past attitudes if white colonialists towards so-called primitive or uncivilized peoples living in remote underdeveloped places. For this reason it is generally preferable to use alternative terms such as community or people” (p. 1897).

I personally prefer “ethnic group” as an alternative to “tribe.”

Other derivatives of “tribes” that are no less odious are “tribesman,” “tribeswoman,” “tribalism,” “tribespeople,” “tribal marks.” They basically mean “uncivilized man,” “uncivilized woman,” “primitive loyalty to a tribe,” “uncivilized people,” and “primitive facial art.” A value-neutral term for “tribal marks” is “facial marks.” Lastly, “detribalize” means to civilize, to make less primitive, although Nigerians use it as an adjective (i.e., “detribalized”) to mean “free from narrow ethnic loyalties.”

These terrible words have been congealed in our lexical repertory, so it’s pointless fighting against their use, but I can at least shine a light on the linguistic alienation they represent.

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