There is increased concern over the abuse of social media in Nigeria with various stakeholders saying it is partly responsible for recurrent civil disobedience occasioned by fake news.
Experts on Wednesday said that through their handheld phones, millions of citizens are hooked to various social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram among others and therefore exposed to information overflow.
They called for a multi-stakeholder approach to address misinformation and disinformation in the country, stressing that there is no single silver bullet to curbing the menace of fake news.
The experts argued that the danger of misinformation and disinformation was monumental and beyond what anyone could estimate, saying the government should not tag dissenting voices or news items that were not favourable as ‘fake news’ without providing evidence.
They noted that while some people use social media platforms to reach out to millions of users with credible information on business and economy, politics, and social life, others use it to mislead gullible users.
According to them, considering that gate-keeping is minimal and sometimes impossible, those using social media for ulterior motives deploy various tools to tinker with texts and photos and create terrible impression that will result in crises or wrong judgement.
Nigerians attributed the carnage recorded at the height of the #EndSARS protests to fake news considering that some social media influences posted unverifiable stories and pictures.
Nigeria confronted with cyber terrorism
Speaking on the issue yesterday, the Chief of Defence Staff, Gabriel Olonisakin described the use of cyberspace as the most precarious challenge facing Nigeria as a nation, adding that it had snowballed to cyber terrorism, which is now the most unpredictable challenge the country is battling with.
Olonisakin, who was speaking through Air Vice Marshal Charles Oghonwen, from the Defence Headquarters, at a workshop on the 2020 national cybersecurity strategy said that cyberspace was being used to facilitate various terrorist activities.
He said, “Cyberspace has been the main warfare after the land, sea, air. It has no boundary and hence does not obey conditional rules in warfare. It remains open to exploitation by state actors, organised syndicates, sects, criminals and terrorists. Cyberterrorism has become the most precarious challenge facing us today as a nation.
“Cyberspace is being used to facilitate various terrorist activities such as recruitment, training, propaganda, intelligence gathering and fundraising. Cyber terrorism is now globally recognised as the fundamental threat to global security,” he said.
Similarly, the National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno aligned with Olonisakin’s submission when he said social media in particular is being used to incite violence in Nigeria.
Apparently reacting to the recent nationwide protests, Monguno, who was represented by Aliyu Mohammed in the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), noted that during the #EndSARS protests, social media was used to disseminate inflammatory comments.
According to him, “We are witnesses to the use of social media to disseminate subversive content to incite violence and heightened tension, causing unrest and sparking widespread looting and destruction across the country.”
The NSA underscored the importance of cyberspace but suggested that it should be regulated in order to achieve its usefulness, noting that it has helped in the enhancement of Nigeria’s national security, economic transformation and national development.
He stated, “Our country is currently at a turning point in its history, a significant section of our population of over 200 million people are young and entrepreneurs, we are also witnessing a rapid rise in our adoption of the internet in our daily lives”.
The contentious issue
The Director of Digital Media Research Centre of the Lagos State University, LASU, Dr Tunde Akanni, warned that it is dangerous for media professionals to keep echoing the concept of fake news, stressing that most of the items tagged as ‘fake news’ do not fit the definition of news but are misinformation, disinformation or mal-information.
Dis-information is information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation or country while Mis-information is information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm. On the other hand, Mal-information is information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organisation or country.
Making reference to the Rwandan genocide, Dr Akanni argued that the danger of misinformation and disinformation can be monumental beyond what anyone can estimate.
David Ajikobi, the Nigeria Editor at Africa Check, a non-profit fact-checking organisation set up to promote accuracy in public debate and the media in Africa said the impact of misinformation and disinformation can be very grave on human health, mental health, finances among others.
“We have seen the effects in so many areas. It could lead to loss of lives. Some conflicts have been fuelled by disinformation and misinformation because they often act as catalysts for unrest. It could lead to loss of livelihoods.
It could lead to a breakdown of law and order as well as threaten society and democracy,” Ajikobi noted while making references to the misinformation about polio vaccine in Northern Nigeria in 2012 as well as how people were scammed in March and April during the outbreak of COVID-19.
Ajikobi, however, countered the idea of slamming fake news on dissenting voices or news items that do not agree with the view of the government.
“Some ministers will label anything they don’t like as fake news. We saw this during the #EndSARS protest. The next morning after the Lekki incident happened, the military took newspaper headlines that reported the incident and labelled them as fake news on their social media accounts, but with events that have unfolded since last Tuesday, we can see that is not the case.
He said that there is no silver bullet or a one-stop solution to curbing misinformation or disinformation but a combination of efforts.
“In terms of moves to regulate social media, I will think that the government doing what government does. As a fact-checker in this industry and I have operated in other environments, there is no one solution to curbing fake news or misinformation. There is no silver bullet so it is not just about regulation. The solution is a combination of different efforts. Those efforts include media literacy, fact-checking, social media platforms flagging misinformation by themselves. The solution includes journalists, media consumers. We believe in self-censorship. If people are empowered and media literate enough to know how to verify misinformation such as images reverse search and co, it will help,” he added.
Why it will be difficult to regulate now – Sen Na’Allah
The quest to regulate social media started in 2015 when Senator Bala Ibn Na’Allah (APC, Kebbi South) sponsored a bill to that effect. After months of push, the Senate surrendered to pressure from the public, thus the bill was rejected.
Presently, there are two bills at the Senate on the social media. One of it is titled: “A bill for an Act to make provisions for the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations and for related matters, 2019 sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa (APC, Niger East).
It seeks to criminalise the use of social media in peddling false or malicious information and prescribes fines ranging from N150,000 up to N10 million and a three-year jail term or both for breaching its provisions when signed into law.
The proposed act would also allow the police to cut off internet access or block specific social media platform where false information is being transmitted.
Though the bill scaled second reading on the floor of the Senate in November last year, but was vehemently opposed by almost all stakeholders during a public hearing on it. The bill is still awaiting committee report.
Another bill was on the regulation of the social media, titled, ‘The National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speeches Bill 2019’ was sponsored by Senator Aliyu Sabi Abdullahi (APC Niger North).
It passed first reading on the floor of the red chamber in November 2019. Almost one year after, the bill is yet to be laid for second reading. Abdullahi said the bill seeks to establish a federal government agency to curb hate speech in the country.
Speaking to Daily Trust yesterday, Senator Ibn Na’Allah described as ‘herculean task’, the present attempts to regulate social media.
Na’Allah said five years ago when he sponsored a bill to regulate the social media, the zeal to abuse it was not as strong as it is today.
“ Today, I am vindicated by the fact that I once told Seun on Channels that Nigeria would come back and look for this thing, but at a time they would be looking for it, it would have been too late because the damage must have already been done. So, all that is happening shows I have been vindicated.
“So, at that time, it would have been conveniently done because it was a convenient time to regulate it. Today, people who possess the capacity to cause mischief using social media have become so accustomed to it. Regulating it at this stage may be a herculean task. I won’t say they won’t succeed but I know it would a herculean task,” he said.
“We were running away from taking a decision for political expedience. Today, the same political expedience has dictated that we must take that decision, even when it is most difficult for us to take it,” he said in a phone interview last night.
Don’t toy with our unity – Buhari
Also speaking on security of the country, President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday implored Nigerians to desist from actions and comments that could jeopardise the unity and progress of the nation.
He spoke at the Council Chambers of the Presidential Villa in Abuja where he, on behalf of the Federal Government of Nigeria, launched the 2021 Armed Forces Remembrance Day Emblem and Appeal Fund with N10m.
The president said this year’s occasion reminded Nigerians of the need to guard jealously, the unity of the nation which was won at a great cost.
He stressed that “Nigeria’s strength lies in her diversity.”
He said that security threats had undermined Nigeria in the areas of trade, investment and economy, education, health as well as agriculture and frequently denied Nigerians the freedom of movement.
He, however, re-assured Nigerians that security, being one of the pillars of his administration, would continue to be at the forefront until peace and security were restored in the country.
Govt action should not infringe on free speech – Lawyers
Speaking on how to change the trend of social media abuse, Etigwe Uwa (SAN) said if the government sought to regulate the abuse of social media, it does not necessarily contravene the right to free speech except it intends to totally block use.
“Clamping down on social media completely would undoubtedly contravene the constitutional right to free speech. However, prohibiting the publication of false or abusive messages or messages, which promote hate or arson or other criminal behaviour would not.
“The Fundamental Rights may be subject to laws, which are necessary for the maintenance of security, law and order. So, the important thing is to see exactly how the government proposes to regulate social media.
“If such regulation unnecessarily hinders or prohibits free speech then it may be unconstitutional but if it seeks to prevent messages which are inimical to the security of the state or which promote criminal activity then such regulation may not be unconstitutional. In the end, it depends on exactly what the government proposes to do,” he said.