First Lady Aisha Buhari ordered the kidnap, torture, captivity, and arraignment of a Federal University Dutse undergraduate by the name of Aminu Mohammed Adamu because he tweeted that Aisha had literally grown fat on the sweat of poor people. In doing so, she has fallen into the trap of what is called the Barbara Streisand effect, which I’ll explain shortly.
As a professional beautician, she’s understandably hypersensitive to critical remarks about her looks. More than that, though, her noticeably increased weight is the consequence of a sickness, not of gluttony, a fact many medical professionals pointed out when photos of her looking like a pregnant woman first filtered through the Nigerian cybersphere a few weeks ago.
So, it is apparent that the intensity of her hurt feelings, which activated her violent overreaction (I read that she actually participated in repeatedly slapping and kicking Adamu in the process of which she fractured her foot!) sprouted from the double digs at her looks and her ill health.
Although Aisha is a public figure, she is first of all human and, like the rest of us, is entitled to feel hurt at what she considers unfair and uninformed jibes at her unnatural, sickness-induced weight gain, but she is not entitled to take advantage of her marriage to the president to brutalize, maim, and terrorize anybody who hurt her feelings.
More crucially, though, her violent intimidation of Adamu has now become the reputational equivalent of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. In trying to punish the young man for a hurtful tweet that was initially read by a few hundred or fewer people, she has magnified and amplified it beyond the narrow bounds of ArewaTwitter to the entire world.
That’s what’s called the Barbara Streisand effect. It occurs when an overly dramatic attempt to conceal a previously obscure, unflattering piece of information causes it to be more widely known and circulated. It is named after an American entertainer by the name of Barbara Streisand whose attempt to hide her California home from being seen in a public aerial photography project by suing the photography project led to an extraordinarily exponential spike in the number of people who viewed and downloaded the photo of her home.
Before Streisand sued the California Coastal Records Project in her bid to remove the image of her home from the project, only six people had seen or downloaded it. Two of the six people, it was later found, were her lawyers. In other words, only four people had seen or downloaded it. Shortly after she filed a lawsuit to stop people from seeing it, nearly half a million people viewed or downloaded it!
That’s exactly what’s happening to Aisha Buhari. In her attempt to stop Aminu Adamu from mocking her weight gain, she gratuitously invited global publicity to her weight gain. Initially, only Aminu Adamu and his small circle of Twitter followers laughed at her weight gain. In the aftermath of her overreaction and illegal, unjustified violence toward Adamu, there’s now a cacophonous chorus of people mocking her weight gain.
She has unwittingly given permission to millions of people to insult her and feast on her misery. The urge to repeat and publicize negative information that someone wants suppressed through threats is called reactance in psychology. Aisha Buhari has provoked mass reactance in Nigeria like no one has ever done in recent times. I think the Barbara Streisand effect should be renamed the “Aisha Buhari effect” in Nigeria.
Aisha Buhari should never have ordered the arrest of Aminu Adamu. She’s the top dog and Adamu is the underdog. All over the world, across countries, cultures, and generations, whenever there is a battle between the top dog and the underdog, the underdog almost always wins in the court of public opinion, even if the underdog is in the wrong.
Unfortunately for Aisha, Adamu isn’t wrong in both the court of public opinion and the court of law. I heard that before his release from jail on Friday as a consequence of the overwhelming negative publicity that his arrest has generated, Aisha wanted to sue Adamu for libel. That was ignorant, hilarious litigious terrorism that would have been laughed out of the courts.
Not even the wildest definitional stretch of libel could have found Adamu guilty of libel against Aisha based on his tweet. Libel is simply false publication that hurts someone’s reputation and causes them to be shunned by right-thinking members of the society.
What Adamu wrote may be insensitive and misinformed (Aisha is recognizably overweight because of a medical condition, not because she is overeating) but it isn’t false. Adamu would have had to be a medical professional who examined Aisha to know that her weight gain isn’t the result of overindulgence in food. He is not a medical professional and, like all laypeople, deployed the vulgar empiricist judgement that his unaided eyes armed him with to express his opinions about her new looks.
Adamu’s claim that Aisha spends public money (kudin talakawa) is also factually accurate. Since 2015, Aisha and her husband have been sustained by public funds, known idiomatically as kudin talakawa in the Hausa language. So, there was nothing even remotely libelous about that.
Plus, Aisha’s reputation wasn’t injured in any way by the publication of the opinion that implied that she has gained weight after pigging out on food bought from the public treasury. She suffered no reputational or material harm because of it. Buhari didn’t divorce her because of it. She hasn’t lost any contract because of it. She hasn’t been shunned by polite society because of it.
Even if she suffered consequences because of it (she didn’t), it still isn’t libel because it isn’t false. In libel law, truth is always a defense. And in libel, opinions aren’t actionable. Uncomfortable truths aren’t actionable. Harsh, vulgar insults aren’t actionable. Rhetorical hyperboles (such as what Adamu wrote about Aisha, or calling someone barawo, ole, bastard, etc.) aren’t actionable. There are precedents in court judgements in Nigeria for my claims. So, there was no legal basis to sue the young man. None at all.
Having said that, it is important to acknowledge that the nature of the internet, and especially of social media interactions, conduces to unwarranted rudeness and abusiveness. Social media, particularly Twitter, has emerged as the arena for disruptive online behavior, for the exchange of coarse invective, and for all kinds of abrasive vituperative railing.
The people who partake in the insult economy of social media, which they now call “vawulence,” don’t think of the real-life consequences of their insult-fests. They think it’s just a “game.” We call this dissociative imagination in the scholarship of disruptive online behavior. If you have a reputation to protect or if your emotions are too brittle to tolerate the verbal barbarism that dominates social media conversations, you have a few options.
One option is to close off comments from strangers on your timeline. If that is not possible because you have a public profile where comments are public by default, ignore them entirely. That’s why I don’t read comments on my tweets and don’t go to my mentions on Twitter. What the eyes do not see, the heart does not grieve over.
But it appears that Aisha actually went out of her way to look for Adamu’s tweet because she doesn’t follow the young man on Twitter and the young man didn’t tag her. In other words, she went fishing for what would injure her emotions and found it. Then she got mad and abused her privilege to get at the young man. But she has ended up lionizing him and hurting herself more than she could ever have imagined. There’s a lesson in that for all public officials and public figures.
*Kperogi is Professor of Journalism and Emerging Media at Kennesaw State University, Georgia, United States and a notable columnist. He is on Twitter: @farooqkperogi