Address by Keynote Speaker Mr. Joe Parkinson at the 12th Founder’s Day of American University of Nigeria, Yola, on Saturday, November 25, 2017
I am delighted to be invited to serve as the keynote speaker at this ceremony, the 12th annual Founder’s Day Ceremony of the American University of Nigeria. My gratitude goes to the Founder of this University, His Excellency Atiku Abubakar, GCON and to the Board of Trustees. I want to thank the President of this University, who is also my friend, Dr. Dawn Dekle. To my colleagues in the Communications and Multimedia Design program and indeed, the entire faculty and students of this university, it’s a real pleasure to speak with you today.
I feel deeply honored to be here addressing such an elite group of students, studying at such a respected institution at the heart of intellectual life in Africa’s most dynamic nation.
President Dekle said she was inviting me here today to share some of my perspectives after a decade reporting on uprisings, revolutions and economic crises from around the world for the Wall Street Journal. But perhaps the real reason is because she knows my true claim to fame: I am the only correspondent in the 125 year history of The Wall Street Journal to have a story about Jollof Rice on the front page. The article examined one of the spiciest culinary questions on earth – which country makes the best Jollof Rice.
And we here in Nigeria all know the answer to that question…
Now, I know you’re all mulling what to do when you graduate: whether to go into business, technology or politics?... Whether to focus on improving the world or improving your bank balance?
I wanted to plant a seed in your minds as you begin your professional journeys – about the importance of information, scholarship and the Truth in our digital age. You are refining your minds at a crucial moment for humankind where advances in technology have made facts harder to discern. And today I want you to reflect on your challenge – actually your responsibility – to handle information responsibly – and to navigate a rising tide of false information and fake news.
For the 12 years since I was sitting where you are now, I have worked in the news business: a sector that no matter what career you choose, will play a crucial role in all of your lives. All of you will need accurate news to make decisions, to understand your industry or your community, to form a coherent view of the world.
Now, the news industry has been constantly redefined by technology. Apple launched the smartphone 10 years ago – now more than 2.6bn people use them, allowing every user to access anything at any moment at the touch of a button. Facebook was founded in 2004. Now it has more than 2bn monthly active users – more than half of the online global population. Twitter was founded in 2006. 500m tweets are sent every day – including – full disclosure – many from my own account early in the morning and late at night.
This technological revolution has transformed the way I work – and the way you read and consume information.
Once upon a time a correspondent like me would travel to a place or an event, spend days interviewing sources, thinking, crafting and writing. We would send a story or video report back to our news desk where more people would read, check and edit before publishing. Now, we journalists publish directly and constantly – sometimes 50 times a day - on a variety of different platforms – from the moment we arrive: tweeting news, thoughts or vignettes, instagramming images, blogging, shooting video.
I have just returned from one week in Zimbabwe reporting on the fall of Robert Mugabe, during which time me and my team filed 23 stories and tweeted more than 500 times, giving people real-time updates as the historic events unfolded. Let’s just say we were very excited to be there…
On the one hand, this technological revolution is welcome: it has democratized information – increasing the number of sources we can read and how quickly, even instantaneously, we can read them.
But it has also unleashed a more pernicious dynamic: creating the illusion that all content from all sources is equally credible. They are not: many are publishing false, unverified or fake content – falsehoods that can now supercharged and disseminated in real time by social networks.
Fake news can come in all forms and is expanding and mutating fast. As an example: in Zimbabwe last week, one fake report circulated on social media that you may have seen: that Robert Mugabe’s wife Grace had fled to Namibia. Once upon a time a piece of news like this may have made its way into a single newspaper, but now, within minutes it was amplified by 1000s of Twitter accounts, then re-published by broadcasters BBC, Sky News, CNN. Falsified pictures allegedly showing Mrs. Mugabe in Namibia began to circulate. TV crews spent thousands of dollars to fly there and try to find her. Every aspect of the story was completely false – And yet it was broadcast to 100s of millions of people across dozens of media channels. It fooled the world.
Another example: When I was in Kenya for the election earlier this year, which you’ll remember was very tense, dozens of pictures circulated on social media showing outbreaks of violence across the country. These pictures, some showing people being brutally beaten or killed, were distributed by 1000s of accounts and picked up by some journalists, which gave them credibility. In reality, these pictures were all from 2007, a decade ago, but republished as if they were contemporary. Many people were so angry they began to take to the streets again for revenge. It was a very dangerous moment…
And here in Nigeria – you are all aware of fake news, not only in your domestic newspapers but also in foreign coverage of how the country is portrayed. Nigeria is often portrayed as an unstable, or hostile place when we all know the reality is complex. This is Africa’s largest economy, its most dynamic market and home to millions of entrepreneurial people!
Now, I can’t pretend that fake news is an entirely new phenomenon.
The first mention of fake news was made by Chanakya, an ancient Indian philosopher, writing in 300BC, who explained how it could be applied to warfare.
In the 5th century, fake news likely saved the Greek empire. When a powerful Persian army captured Athens, Greek commanders sent the Persians letters supposedly written by his own spies that contained fake news about the Greek forces. The disinformation persuaded the Persians to change strategy and attack in unfavorable conditions, where the Greeks won a decisive victory that changed the course of the war.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, printers would crank out pamphlets or newsbooks offering detailed accounts of monstrous beasts or bizarre occurrences. One pamphlet from my homeland, England, from 1611 reported on a woman who lived for 14 years without eating or drinking… not very plausible.
So what is different now?
The answer is technology. Search engines and social media platforms —offer an unprecedented opportunity to spread false information in real time and at scale. Technology means anyone can be a publisher now – and they have little incentive to protect their brand by telling the truth. Thanks to internet distribution, fake news has become a highly profitable business – generating clicks to sell advertising revenue.
That trend is not likely to end soon. Quite the contrary.
Take a look at this year. One fake item alleged that President Obama would sign an order banning the national anthem in schools – and was shared 3 million times on Facebook alone. Shared by 3 million and therefore likely seen or read by 200 million people. A recent survey by Ipsos Public Affairs found that fake headlines fooled readers 75% of the time.
This is not just a problem for the news world, but increasingly a business problem those of you in finance will have to confront. A few years ago, the world's stock markets lost $130 billion in value in minutes, after the Associated Press tweeted an explosion had injured Barack Obama. AP said its Twitter account was hacked.
To give you a sense of how much money $130 billion is, that is about three times the value of the entire economy of Ghana – three times – erased, instantly, because of a single prank. Smaller incidents of this nature happen daily in the world's markets.
Beyond what this means for the news business, or for business globally, I worry what it means for our societies – for my country, for Nigeria, for the ties between us. This explosion of fake news has helped create an environment where there are few accepted facts. A world where facts are secondary to opinion. A world where the media landscape has fragmented. A world which has become intensely polarized.
So the world needs help.
And this is where you come in!
Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat are not editors – they’re not going to tell you what’s real and what’s fake… and they’re quietly admitting that they don’t have the manpower or technology to cope with this problem.
As highly-educated, digitally literate young leaders – it will be up to you to interrogate this information, act as filters, stand up for truth and reason. Whatever you read – whether its news, history or politics -- be open-minded, but critical. When you want to share content from social media: be suspicious, be skeptical.
More than ever you need to interrogate to understand the source of the information? What is the distributor’s agenda? Is it credible – can it be trusted?
As the history majors among you here know all too well, when people invent their own facts and attack those who question them, it can mark the beginning of the end of a free society.
This is a big deal.
And it’s not easy to fight against.
In a way, all of us are now producing news every day. On our social media accounts we filtering, augment, exaggerate. We’ve put filters on photos to make us look better, thinner, have bigger eyes, or lips. We all do it… There is a pressure to share stories that are funny, controversial, alarming.
But a mentor of mine, one of my first editors who took me under his wing, once said to me something which has always held true: “The truth is hard. But it’s better to be right than to be first, better to be wise than to be loud.”
All of you are blessed: You have the intellectual capacity to not just take information at face value, but to dig deeper. To look past the headline to clarify whether what you are reading or viewing or hearing is, in fact, “good” information.
And you are the demographic to lead this challenge; your voices will be amplified by your openness to the world and a digital fluency that the older generations barely comprehend. You intuitively understand this digital landscape. You can navigate these information trends much better than we can.
The AUN mission statement spells out your responsibility as elite graduates. It reads: “AUN will foster the creation of leaders committed to sustaining a democracy in which diverse people share in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship, proficient in creating and applying technology to wise purpose, and dedicated to securing a humane and prosperous world.”
This is your goal: dig deeper to generate understanding. Understand to identify problems and find constructive solutions. Strive to create understanding and collaboration. Builds bridges. Make society better.
When you next look at your phone, open your apps and start scrolling, be rigorous.
Remember: The truth is in your hands.