Why Taking Claims Of ‘Authorities’ As Truth May Be Dangerous (2)

In accepting that a claim is true, people often prefer the shortcut of placing complete trust in the source of the claim, rather than make an effort to verify its accuracy. This is one of the reasons fake news spreads easily: the impulse to believe a piece of information simply because it is coming from sources perceived to be credible.

This is not to say that the concept of truth can be completely separated from where it is sourced but, for journalists, truth is not absolute. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their book, The Elements of Journalism, that journalistic truth is a “practical and functional form of truth” that can be reasonably relied upon on a day-to-day basis.

Put differently, what is true today may not be true tomorrow and, in verifying claims, we have to rely on probabilities based on the evidence available at every point in time. For instance, some sources are more authoritative than others because of the quality of their data gathering and analysis processes, their access to relevant information, transparency, or history of reliability. Also, claims that are sustained by multiple sources are more likely to be true compared to those sustained by a single source of similar weight. 

The art of verification is a continuous, never-ending process. There is no Supreme Court of Truth. One way to illustrate this is by using a fact-check published in 2018, which faulted figures presented by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and the Federal Ministry of Education. The report proved that the pre-primary school enrolment figures for 2016 were inaccurate and based on unreliable data, and the NBS was made to pull down the document from its website.

In the first part of this article, previously published fact-checks were used to underscore why respected “authorities” should not be believed only on the basis of their political status, academic achievements, and level of influence wielded on social media. Other red flags are highlighted and discussed below.

News reports

It is easy to assume that everything reported as news must be true, but this would be terribly wrong for a number of reasons. Reporters can make the mistake of misquoting a person or not scrutinising the claims they are presented with.

Platforms, including CNN, BBC America, Independent reported in 2019 and previous years that the Amazon rainforest produced around 20 percent of the world’s oxygen supply, when this is in fact not true.

In February, a number of prominent local news websites had reported that the  Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, described Nigeria as the freest and safest country to live in. A recording of the minister’s speech later obtained, however, showed that his actual statement was  “Nigeria was one of the freest … to live in the world.” He also did not describe Nigeria as the world’s safest country.

Last year, leading newspapers falsely reported that a solar panel manufacturing plant established by the Borno State government is the biggest in Africa. 

Another relevant example: In May, a broadcast went viral and claimed that President Muhammadu Buhari had signed an executive order revoking all gun licences. The statement was signed by an “Ahmed Bello” of some “media centre.”  The House of Representatives reacted to the suspicious broadcast, urging the president to revoke the said order. Shortly after, the police denied any knowledge of such developments.

Other red flags to consider are reports resembling news, which are published on or picked from unreliable platforms or satire blogs such as The Onion and The Babylon Bee. In 2019, the News Agency of Nigeria circulated a report claiming that staring at breasts had been found to improve men’s health. Whereas, the study it cited was the creation of The Weekly World News, an old satirical tabloid known to publish outrageous articles.

Successful individuals

Behind every successful man, aside from a woman as the saying goes, is also a large group of fans and supporters ready to believe anything he says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen religious and political figures such as, David Oyedepo, Chris Oyakhilome, Dino Melaye, and Doyin Okupe share inaccurate claims about the nature of the infectious disease.

Not only do famous people run the risk of being perceived as well-informed in areas outside their field of expertise, but they are also often victims of misquotations. Some prominent victims include former President Olusegun Obasanjo, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Speaking at a conference in 2019, Professor Soyinka humorously narrated his ordeal.

“I’ll give you an example, apart from the fact that I’ve been killed so many times, literarily. Last year, I had telephone calls asking me, ‘Where are you?’ I said, ‘I’m in hell. Join me here. I know why you are calling… because you thought I was dead.’ And they laughed,” he recalled.

“You enjoy that actually, reading about your obituary; but then imagine waking up one day and finding a statement attributed to you in a kind of language which you will never use. For example, during the last presidency, statements attributed to me were saying that I said that it served President Jonathan right for marrying an illiterate woman. I never made any comment whatsoever about that lady, and suddenly there it is steering me in the face.

“And at other times a card is created, and from time to time that card comes out on the internet, is sent to me, and it says Professor Wole Soyinka says anybody who votes for this person, one, must be stupid, two, must be mentally retarded, three, his mother must be a goat, four, his father must be a gorilla… under Wole Soyinka’s name. And this goes on all the time.”

Personality traits/closeness

While we may assess people favourably based on their trustworthiness, past behaviour, or the level of rapport we share with them, that is no reason to take their word as gospel truth, especially when doing so threatens the safety of lives and property.

“It is not unusual for people to believe someone, even when they have substantial proof that they are being lied to,” notes psychotherapist, Diane Barth.

She explained that the reasons for this attitude include denial of reality, desire to avoid pain and anxiety, and wanting to believe that someone perceived to be “emotionally or psychologically important” is not likely to lie to us.

The art of questioning

Want to overcome the authority bias? Data analyst and economist, Chuba Ezekwesili, has one recommendation: Learn to ask questions. “Questioning reveals flaws and introduces new approaches,” he says.

“As with any system or person with a claim to expert knowledge, there will be a push back against questioning, but it need not be so. Eliminating authority bias is a mutually beneficial endeavour since it helps the expert sieve out his errors and provides the masses with better answers.”

For example, if someone references a news report of a statement, read the report yourself and, after doing so, see if there is direct (audio-visual) evidence of the speech. And then, even this direct evidence itself must be scrutinised to affirm its authenticity. In seeking the truth, constant scepticism is required and perhaps the best approach remains the independent interrogation of available evidence with guidance from experts on the specific subject. 

Going forward

Notwithstanding, there is often an unwritten hierarchy of credibility and people who occupy certain positions are presumed to be truthful until otherwise proven. When it comes to local elections, the words of the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission would hold up against those of a political candidate; and when it comes to global pandemics, the highest authority is agreed to be the World Health Organization.

But as we defer to these authorities with one hand, we must also constantly check with the second hand, to  ensure there are no conflicting facts in  claims emanating from such prestigious organizations.  Such is the cross of genuine truth-seekers.

The researcher produced this fact-check per the Dubawa 2020 Fellowship partnership with HumAngle to facilitate the ethos of “truth” in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country.

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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