By Idris Mohammed
On the 29th of October 2019, Minister of Information Lai Mohammed said that the Federal Government is making plans to regulate the use of social media due to the rampant circulation of fake news and hateful content on the platforms.
According to him, social media has reached a level that the government may just no longer fold its arms and allow this to continue. He also said, “we cannot allow our media environment to be overtaken by fake news and hate speech, especially on the social media”.
This statement did not go down well with so many people especially those who thought that the government wants to use the avenue to limit the freedom of expression in Nigeria.
Breaking the news does not surprise many Nigerians including the author of this article, because fake news is not something new in Nigeria. Fake news and hate speech are openly broadcast on television and radio on a daily basis and to a large extent in newspapers but social media eases the circulation and spread quickly like harmattan fire.
This is not unconnected to the widespread access to social media platforms and the absence of gatekeeping and regulatory measures.
President Muhammadu Buhari is one of the victims of fake news in Nigeria, in 2015 presidential election for example; a 55-minutes documentary fake and distorted story titled “The Real Buhari” aired on television with more interpretations by the viewers on social media platforms especially on Facebook and Twitter.
Another instance is the claim that President Muhammadu Buhari has been cloned and replaced with a Sudanese named Jibril. The allegation was first made by Nnamdi Kanu, leader of Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB).
However, the most recent and disturbing one was the fake news of Buhari marrying the current minister of humanitarian affairs. The news started as a joke but later took another dimension with a lot of fake evidence like invitation cards and pre-wedding pictures and songs widely circulated.
The fact that such outrageous fake and distorted stories can be easily disseminated and reach a level where many affirmed the dangers and threat of fake news to Nigerian peace and security. Recently, France 24 reported that fake news in Nigeria can push the country into ethnoreligious conflict.
Nigerian conversational space is suffocated with fake news, misinformation, disinformation, hateful and damaging speech that is capable of throwing the country into war.
Fake news is not only fabricated and disseminated by political elites but also young people who are believed to constitute the highest number of Social Media use in the country.
While social media platforms present new opportunities for people to connect around the world, encourages free speech and opportunity for citizens to ask questions and voice out their opinion, the platforms are also being accused of spreading fake news, encourage terrorism, engage in online harassment, steal personal data, restrict free speech and suppress dissent.
The question now in the minds of many Nigerians is; can we regulate social media platforms?
Does social media regulations mean gate-keeping? Or monitoring what goes online on a daily basis on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and many more?
After the Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand, the country is building a coalition with other countries to regulate social media effectively, though some countries like China, Germany and Egypt have already designed measures regulating the usage of social media platforms in their countries.
For example, China heavily limit what citizens can see and do online, Germany has Facebook Act- requiring “manifestly unlawful” post such as hate speech and fake news to be removed from social media platforms within 24 hours or incur fines of up to 50 million Euros and recently, Turkish government cracked down on more than 200 accounts that they affiliated with terrorist activities.
Here in Nigeria, we can simply curb the anonymity of the internet because most of the purveyors of fake news and hate speech are using fake accounts on Facebooks and Twitter.
Recent research shows that the number of fake accounts on Facebook may be far higher than what the company has stated in public, for instance, the New York Times reported that in 2018 the active accounts were 91 million while the fake accounts were 754 million. This raised poser whether we are interacting with real people or bots.
However, there is an argument that the enforcement will only benefit those in power, whether that power is held by the government or cooperation. What so many human right defenders are afraid of, is that the government may hide under this regulation to continue silencing its critics.
Therefore, Government should know that no matter how loudly a citizen criticizes their elected officials, so long as those statements are true or a matter of opinion, that citizens have the right to air their grievances.
With many countries regulating the usage of social media, Nigeria should not be left behind. There is a need for the country to take a clue from the Republic of China where it heavily limited what citizens can see and do online.
The Federal Government should liaise with social media companies to deactivate fake accounts.
National assembly should also enact relevant laws to safeguard the usage of social media. Such laws should stipulate the penalties for the defaulters. There is no gainsaying the fact that the country is seriously in need of social media regulations in view of the abuse it suffers or continues to suffer in the hands of some unpatriotic Nigerians whose stock in such trade is to set the country on flames through their unguarded utterance, hate speech, and fake news.
Finally, whatever measures the Federal Government would put in place to regulate social media, they should not infringe the citizens’ right to free speech as guaranteed under section 4 of the 1999 constitution.
Idris Mohammed, a Public Commentator writes from Abuja. He tweets @idpyar
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