Good News, Fake News and Statistics, By Yemi Kale

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We find ourselves today in a global information society where the flow of data and information is constantly evolving. Data is playing a major role in shaping almost every aspect of human life and there is hardly any area of life that data hasn’t been used to transform lives.

But what do I mean when I say data? When we hear data, we often immediately think of numbers and figures. But today the term ‘data’ refers to so much more. Data can be in the form of images, words, figures, facts or ideas. It is very simply a collection of facts that has been translated into a form that provides information. The value of data is becoming more and more apparent as we continue to move towards an information driven economy where data has become the new currency.

Data is vital as it provides clear, objective, and numerical evidence on all aspects of our lives and the state of our country, including the growth and characteristics of our population, economic performance, levels of health and wellbeing and the condition of our surrounding environment. It aids the decision-making process by enabling us to establish numerical benchmarks and to monitor and evaluate the progress of policies or programmes; which in turn ensures that our policy interventions are well designed, effective, and highlight any areas which require improvement. Data puts information in the right perspective so that it is ready to be used in decision-making; therefore the significance of statistical information in supporting evidence-based decision making cannot be overemphasised. Without these, we cannot make well-informed decisions that will catalyse our socio-economic development and transform the future of our generation and the generations of the future. It is when we can collate, understand and interpret data correctly, as well as identify key areas in our society or our economy that require change, that the policy prescriptions and direction of our governments and businesses are more likely to respond to the real needs of our communities.

However, data in itself cannot be understood on its own; to get information from the data, one must interpret it into meaningful information. While misinformation often comes in the form of promoting false data to the public, a fast growing trend is the misinterpretation of data. As getting data has become easier, it is becoming easier to call out fake data. Accordingly, an increasing trend which DUBAWA will have to contend with is with respect to those that deliberately try to misinform by taking true data and twisting its meaning to give a false conclusion.

Such misuse of data can also not be ignored. Some misuse statistics because they are neither willing nor prepared to face the reality and truth exposed by data. This is not a problem of statistics, but rather a problem of the ill-motive of the users of the data. Just as a knife can be utilised to save lives if it is used by a surgeon, it could very well be a harmful instrument in the hands of a criminal. Thus, statistics are ‘innocent’, and, hence do not deserve any wrong labelling. Blames must go instead, to the ones who abuse or misuse it, particularly those who do so knowingly or selectively.

What did life look like before the emergence of this information age? For many of us here, in our early days, we would get our news either from transistor radios if you were an artisan or a trader in the market, or from the radio in your car if you were in the middle class and owned one, or watch foreign news on DSTV if you could afford a cable dish.

If none of this was available, you could always join the F.R.A.N. – not to be confused with the Federal Republic of Nigeria, but the “Free Readers Association of Nigeria”. As an FRAN member, you could read the dailies at most local vendors for free. High-quality, trustworthy and reliable news articles from top newspaper houses of the day – The Guardian, Daily Times, Sketch, Tribune, Concord, Tempo or magazines like Tell or Newswatch.

The news was available to virtually anyone, even in local languages in some cases. The kind of news you got through the phone was often from relatives or neighbours, who probably had access to the same or similar sources of news that you do: Voice of Nigeria, BBC/VOA, NTA or the state-owned broadcasting corporations, etc. And since the universe of news outlets and sources were more or less limited, it is safe to say most people generally had access to the same largely reliable information at the same time — with a few days delay in some remote places.

This was very much the situation of things before the emergence of this information age. Information asymmetry – which I use here to mean a situation where some portion of the public believe one thing and another portion believe another because they receive their information from different sources – was generally not the case. Let’s consider that as the period of ‘good news’.

In this room, one can safely say that no two people will have exactly the same news applications on their phones, even when they are co-workers or siblings. The majority will likely have Facebook or Twitter, or Instagram, or Youtube and possibly some additional media sources on their phones. In today’s information age, we are all living in each other’s worlds, even without leaving our own cubicles.

News – and information more broadly – is now made available straight from distant lands into our hands. We can track the news of a burning skyscraper in Dubai, at the same time watch a live soccer match in London, or follow the discovery of new butterfly species in the Amazon rainforest. And yet, not only do we now have access to more news, but we also have access to different news. Each day, we are being formed and informed by different experiences and sometimes different realities. What we know to be true has become imperiled by overt and covert efforts to reshape narratives in support of private agendas, which are more often than not against the public interest.

This new era, which we call the fake news era, is symbolised by the spread of false dubious information masked as “news” and even embellished with false data or twisted interpretations of data, enabled by various ideologies and cantekerous intentions and accelerated by modern technologies. Some say it is the new way future wars will be fought, in cyberspace, where bullets and bombs will become bytes and megabytes of data, and triggers will be keyboard strokes. Our shared reality about the world, events, facts and truth are turned upside down and re-shaped into an alternate reality that primarily seeks to promote bias and fear, and sow seeds of discord in the society. Information asymmetry exists because those who create fake news know it is so, but those who consume it may not.

For this reason, entities that support the pursuit of truth, and facts-based journalism become the only remedy to ensuring that society does not disintegrate or implode under this circumstance. But for these entities like DUBAWA to be successful, there needs to be political and ideological neutrality, as well as sufficiently trustworthy data that is reliable and accessible, not only to such entities, but to which they can refer their users. This is the role that data and NBS plays by hosting publicly-available reference data and its clear interpretation on nearly every facet of Nigeria’s socio-economic life, so that even when fake news inevitably exists, fact-checkers and citizens can readily verify these by themselves.

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