ENGAGEMENTS By Chidi Amuta
An academic colleague and close friend in an American university asked me to contribute some thoughts to a faculty discussion platform on the changing face of journalism especially as reflected in the interplay between legacy and social media as well as the interface between ‘fake news’ and factual reporting in media activity around Nigeria’s last general elections. This was part of a project on the future of global media culture.
Here was my take:
Nigeria’s last election cycle sprang so many surprises. Beyond the electoral outcomes which largely defied most enlightened polls and the deeply divided opinion at home, the election season in general came up with challenges in the area of mass communication and media activity. Almost like the Nigerian electorate, the media was perplexed by the new trends that the 2023 election season revealed.
First, the pattern of media economics and the news business defied familiar traditions and conventional expectations. In the past, it had been the rule that legacy media- print, electronic and outdoor –would experience a boom in terms of patronage and advertisement revenue at election time. There would normally be a deluge of political reporting and advertising as political interests jostle for visibility and topicality. Advertising agency budgets usually balloon, media houses reap a harvest, political reporters don new sneakers for increased activity.
In the past, political parties and candidates would usually pre-book and pre-pay for advertisement and supplement spaces. All manner of PR agents and political media consultants would have a field day. Available reporters would be overly engaged with trying to keep pace with the campaign schedules of key candidates. The scramble and jostle would normally be heightened by the rather large expanse of the Nigerian political landscape.
It is a multiverse of candidates and a market place of ambitions. You had over 80 parties each expected to present presidential candidates. Each of them was expected to present a candidate for each of our 36 state governorships, candidates for close to 400 Federal House of Representatives seats, 90 Senate seats, any number of state Houses of Assembly seats etc. This is literally an army of political contestants each requiring media attention and seeking to be heard by a population of over 100 million voting age adult Nigerians and a limitless international market place of media hungry people who want to hear or read about Nigeria.
But contrary to expectations and projections, the media budgets of both traditional advertising agencies and the media themselves witnessed a rude shock. For some reason, Nigeria’s last election season defied all the ‘normal’ expectations and projections. It was like no season before it. Advertisement revenue was scanty for both legacy and online titles and even the advertising agencies who now had to cope with the demands of new formats, technologies and changing audiences.
Political parties and key candidates held back on their spend till the last moments and even at that point, the advertisement bookings were scanty in relative terms.
On the whole, the legacy print media said they all fared rather poorly in terms of political advertising revenue and traffic. But for a few belated wrap-around front page advertisements, not so much space bookings were made. Television and radio fared slightly better. This is probably because we live in a festival inspired African society in an age of visuals and audio. This is the age of talkatives and gossips! Political candidates dress themselves up like merchandise seeking for colour and dramatic presence. Closely following this is the culture of robust and loud expression for which Nigerians are now world famous. Every Nigerian wants to be heard loudest. So all manner of noisy audio clips got aired on any number of AM, FM and satellite radio stations all over the country and the Nigerian diaspora.
But the emergence and explosion of the social media was perhaps the decisive difference. Online media platforms mushroomed into numerical dominance over and above legacy media outlets. No one has an accurate count of the number of titles and platforms.
For the first time, ownership of the media itself became democratized instead of merely serving the ends of democracy. It is not just in the ownership of the tools of communication- cell phones, computers, tablets etc. The individualized use of these devices to communicate across a democratic space marked the decisive departure towards a new democratization of media communication in the service of democracy and freedom.
In other words, the term social media connotes the unbundling of communication from the ‘fourth estate’ concept to the era of universal freedom. The fourth estate of the realm is now more a description of the function of the media rather than a designation for a specialized professional undertaking and its privileged institutions. For the first time in human history, the fourth estate of the realm is now Everyman, Woman, Child or destitute wielding a cheap cell phone from Vietnam or Shanghai.
The key revolution in communication is that, for the first time, both the voters, the political parties and the candidates themselves all became active communicators. Party online media platforms multiplied and posted their own real time stories and photos. Individual candidates wrote their own news stories, updated and posted their own photo feeds on the go and directed their own Op-Ed commentary warfare and news reports on the go. Since most registered online platforms do not have the necessary funding to be as mobile as the politicians they were reporting at rallies and campaigns, they were less instantaneous and current than the subjects they were reporting on. The politicians went around with their own cell phones and hand held production crew to shoot and broadcast their won videos and push them onto the world stage at the speed of lightening.
Both the voters and election officials also became reporters, commentators and value judges themselves. Therefore, not much media spend by politicians and political parties went to the legacy media or to the numerous new online platforms. Much of the campaign budget stayed in the pockets and bank vaults of parties and political actors.
What Has Fiction Got to Do With It?
The world of fiction is a world of make belief. It is at the same time a true reflection of reality but essentially a lie because it tells life’s truths based on the laws of a ‘lie’. Some scholars have spoken of the truth of literature and fiction as a world of ‘truthful lies’.
A work of fiction exists as an objective reality. We can see and touch a novel, a play or a book of poems. We can listen to recordings of folk tales. But the world which a work of literary fiction recreates does not exist as an objective reality. Its content is never a three –dimensional touchable realty. As audience, we read, perceive and listen in suspended disbelief. We know it is a ‘lie’ but believe it because it reflects truths that remind us of our own experiences in reality. King Lear is not exactly the king in the next town. But the choices he has to make and the experiences he goes through as a tormented fictional sovereign speak of real experiences and the torments of high office when faced with the forces of change. He becomes every king of influence and authority in our real world. We fear for ourselves because we are ‘human’ like the demented king but overcome his torment because we know he is imaginary.
Critics, theorists, publishers and other people who make a living out of producing and popularizing literature take themselves and their trades seriously. They are teachers, scholars, publishers, publicists, printers and even students engaged in real life objective engagements and productive pursuits. Their efforts are not make belief, or fictional fantasies. Literary critics and theorists like myself make value judgments about the fictional people and actions we experience in literature. They do what we as journalists do in our job as witnesses to history in a hurry. We all take ourselves seriously in a world ruled by division of labour and professional specialization.
Where Fiction and Journalism Meet in Politics
Politicians who contest today’s democratic elections around the world have a lot in common with the heroes that dominate the world of literary fiction. Similarly, journalists who report and comment on the actions of these politicians are more like the chorus in Greek tragedy or even comedy. Through us journalists as chorus and cheer mongers, the public as participant/observers in a democratic process are able to draw their conclusions and make up their minds as to which candidate to support or vote for.
A political campaign in full steam takes on the guise of literature in the form of drama. Politicians, like comedians, wear garish costumes. They speak in unserious esoteric language, pretending to be what they are not. Even the things they say are far removed from their authentic beliefs. They speak a language that can be called ‘political speak’ in which every thing is promised and very little is verifiable or intended to be held as an article of faith. Consistent deniability is the hallmark of ‘political speak’.
This is a realm that is in direct opposition to the real world of real people who face poverty and deprivation. These ordinary people go out to listen to political campaign speeches to assuage their adversities and nurture some hope. It is like going out to watch a choreographed piece of dramatic presentation. Nothing approximates dramatic literature better than a political campaign ‘performance’.
Fake News as Fiction Toppling Reality
The rise of ‘fake news’ is the nearest we get to journalists admitting their proximity to fiction makers and creative fiction artists. In ‘fake news’, some ‘journalists’ and commentators put on the garb of fiction writers. But fake news is disturbingly real. It is however more dangerous than factual news. Fake news has a readier likelihood to upset social and political order by inciting riots, mob upheaval and civil disobedience than factual reporting. When we now add the emerging tricks of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to deepen the impact of fake news, we are well within the realm of dangerous journalism and destructive literature. The pen as the ultimate sword! The road to universal political Armageddon is paved with doses of fake news and ‘creative’ reporting! In terms of their destructive potential, fake news animated by AI could be as catastrophic as when AI overwrites the command protocols in the defense computer network of a nuclear super power.
When former US President Donald Trump speaks of ‘alternative truths’ and ‘alternative reality’, he is actually licensing journalists to become fiction writers. Above all, he is deliberately engaging in destructive propaganda as we saw in the January 6, 2022 mob revolt and invasion of the US Capitol. When a journalist concocts fiction and posts it online as fact, he blurs the dividing line between fiction and reality. The reading or listening public is lost as to where to draw the line. Dangerous people fed bad ideas through fake news can be a lethal threat to the world as we saw in the Washington Capitol armed invasion of January 6.
In that event, the parameters for judging news and genuine journalism meet and mix with criteria for literary evaluation because fiction take on a viral life and life itself takes on a literary garb.
The Triumph of Ultimate Power
When we are tasked to assess a major political event such as the last elections in Nigeria, we have a task of disentangling or separating reality from fiction in the actions and behaviors of political actors.
In terms of the reality of experience in Nigeria’s last election, mostly non- factual categories dominated the coverage of the candidates. Religion, ethnicity, youth sensationalism and plain outright comic dramatic effect replaced hard truths in most of the media coverage of the candidates. The candidates became something of fictional heroes- tragic or comic heroes depending on your angle of perception. We may never know whether Tinubu’s “ba ba blu” gibberish was meant to be a comic distraction or something elxe since they have net resurfaced since after he won the election. Similarly, since Peter Obi did not win the election, we have no way of knowing whether indeed his posturing about more prudent governance were genuine. We may never know whether Atiku Abubakar would have been the urbane cosmopolitan Nigerian president or yet another Sahelian Fulani pretender to the throne.
As far as the implications of these developments concern the evolution of the media and political communication, some major shifts have taken place. We are now squarely in the age of horizontal (equalitarian) information flow as against a vertical (top to bottom)information flow. We no longer have the media as the lofty fourth estate of the realm hovering above the reality of political and social life. The media is no longer an elevated elitist reality existing above the social and political realms and handing down information to the rest of society as before. That era is over.
Instead, information has become both an entitlement and social responsibility of everyone. People pass round news, opinion, reports, images among themselves on a horizontal plain even as they carry on with the rituals of daily living. Even when tragedy strikes as in a motor accident or a shooting, people are busy making videos of the incident and reporting it just as they help first responders to assist the injured or evacuate the dead. Everyone is now both a news maker and a news purveyor. To be a citizen is also to be a journalist.
As it were, two things have happened that will forever change the face of communication of social and political realities in the world ahead. First, democracy has appropriated media communication and now owns it. Second, the world of reality and that of fiction have merged in the milieu of the social media to create a new genre of journalism, “fake news” which feeds on or is even quasi fiction or “alternative reality”. The looming dominance of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will further blur all the remaining demarcations between truth, reality, news, fiction and a new virtual world in which humanity a is a collection of mere avatars in a virtual universe.