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Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II and Vanguard’s Internet-Age Junk Journalism

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D. Vanguard is Nigeria’s most visited news website and the 17 th top Nigerian website in all categories, a...

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Vanguard is Nigeria’s most visited news website and the 17th top Nigerian website in all categories, according to Alexa, the Amazon-owned American company that monitors global web traffic. It also has the most Facebook “likes” of any Nigerian newspaper and is outrivaled only slightly by the Punch as the newspaper with the most Twitter followers in Nigeria. But it is also perhaps the most irresponsible and undiscerning user of unverified social media tittle-tattle in its news stories. That, for me, is a troubling mix.

You would think an Internet- and social media-savvy newspaper like Vanguard would also have the common sense to know that not everything posted on the web is worth publishing without further verification and fact-checking. The paper’s editorial philosophy seems to be that whatever is on the web, especially on social media, is inerrant and deserves to be in the news. These days, the paper’s reporters just scout Facebook and Twitter and scoop any trending gossip from cyberia. 

The latest malicious social media gossip that Vanguard gave editorial endorsement to is a tweet from an obviously fake Twitter handle that impersonates Emir of Kano Muhammad Sanusi II. On December 13, a Twitter handle that goes by @Malsanusilamido tweeted that Boko Haram would soon be defeated. The tweet reads: “I say help is on the way. Terror must and will be defeated.”

The following day, Vanguard had this headline: “Muhammad Sanusi II says help is on the way, Boko Haram will be defeated.” But Vanguard didn’t only publicize the tweet of a transparently fake Twitter handle; it also editorialized the tweet and implied that the emir was hinting at a Buhari presidency as the panacea to Boko Haram. “Sanusi, Nigeria’s second most powerful Islamic leader, was presumably referring to the emergence of former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari as the candidate of the opposition All Progressives Congress in next year’s presidential election,” the story, which has no byline, said.

So many things are wrong with this story. First, the emir of Kano isn’t “Nigeria’s second most powerful Islamic leader.” That distinction belongs to the Shehu of Borno. In Sokoto caliphal hierarchy, the second most powerful monarch after the Sultan of Sokoto is the Emir of Gwandu. No Nigerian journalist can defend ignorance of these basic historical facts. But that’s beside the point.

What’s even more indefensible, I think, is that Vanguard’s reporters and editors don’t know that the emir of Kano has officially disclaimed ownership of any social media account since August this year. Premium Times, Nigeria’s fastest-growing home-based online newspaper, in an August 14, 2014 news story titled “Emir Sanusi disowns facebook, twitter accounts,” quoted a Kano Emirate Council official to have said, among other things, that “a twitter handle in the name of the emir was frequently used to publish libellous statements in Mr. Sanusi’s name.”

Yet Vanguard wrote a news story based on a tweet from this fake Twitter handle. Even if the paper’s editors missed the Premium Times story that says the emir has no social media accounts, which is inexcusable, why wouldn’t the editors ask their correspondents in Kano to confirm with the emirate council if indeed the emir issued a statement on Boko Haram on Twitter? That’s a journalistic no-brainer. 

In any case, it has been known in informed circles in Nigeria for long that several fake social media accounts have been opened in the emir’s name right from the time he was governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria. I exposed one such account in my March 30, 2013 column titled “CBN Governor Sanusi Lamido Sanusi’s Fake Facebook Account.” Thanks to my exposure, the account, which was particularly brazen, has been deleted now, but several new ones have sprung up and are being used to fleece many gullible and credulous Nigerians.

It is apparent that @Malsanusilamido is maintained by the same gang of 419 Internet fraudsters who have mutated from sending unsolicited scam emails to Internet users to cloning the social media accounts of famous people to swindle unsuspecting “mugus.”  A quick survey of the handle’s tweets will reveal this to any discerning person. In fact, in replies to @Malsanusilamido’s tweets, several people have imposed on themselves the task of exposing the Twitter handle as an impersonation. Yet, people who earn a living from skepticism, from fact-checking, verifying, and reporting the news, couldn’t, maybe still can’t, tell that @Malsanusilamido is fake.

But, as I pointed out earlier, this isn’t altogether surprising. Vanguard, in spite of, perhaps because of, its impressive online presence, is going down the toilet. Its news agenda is now set by social media chatter, not by the reportorial work of its reporters and writers. Remember the paper’s infamously false May 10, 2014 cover story titled, “Chibok: American Marines locate abducted girls in Sambisa forest,” which was also lifted from Nigerian social media gossip forums? (Read my May 31, 2014 column titled “Journalism is Dying a Slow Death in Nigeria” for details of this and other embarrassing social-media-induced fabrications by Vanguard and other papers).

Vanguard is in the vanguard of destroying what remains of the credibility of Nigerian journalism. This is disconcerting. If newspapers degenerate to mindless chroniclers of idle gossip on social media why would anybody pay money to read them? Newspapers the world over are grappling with disruptions to their business that have been brought about by the advent of the Internet, but passing off lazy social media chatter as news is one avoidable, self-imposed handicap the Nigerian news media will do well to stop. 

After writing this column, I discovered that the story about Emir Muhammadu Sanusi II’s tweet on Boko Haram isn’t original to Vanguard. It was originally written by AFP, the French news agency, and distributed to its subscribers. But this fact doesn’t change the substance of my observation about Vanguard because it’s the only major Nigerian newspaper that republished the story—as far as my research shows.

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This column has caused the fake Emir of Kano Twitter handle () to be "suspended" by Twitter.

AFP's West Africa Bureau Chief Phil Hazlewood (@philhazlewood) just tweeted this to me: "The story has been retracted. Thanks for your input." When I asked him for a link to the retraction, he tweeted: "It's on the wire to subscribers. Whether they then publish it is up to them."

So let's wait and see if the news organizations that republished the original story will also publish the retraction.

So far, only the Daily Trust, which didn't publish the original story, has published AFP's retraction. See the story here titled "Fake Tweet - AFP Retracts Story On Emir Sanusi.", the preeminent Africa-wide news portal, republished Daily Trust's story here.

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