Combating Fake News Is Critical, But Nigeria Regulating Social Media May Be A Step In The Wrong Direction

By  |  November 11, 2019

Social media use in Nigeria is currently out of control, so says the Nigerian Ministry of Information and Culture. Late October, Lai Mohammed, the Minister, announced that the country would soon start regulating social media. The proposal came with harsh sanctions, including three-year jail time and a USD 150 K in fine for either spreading fake news and sanitize social media.

Africa’s largest economy is making this move to protect is “fragile unity,” as the spread of false news is indeed a menace that must be stopped. Earlier this year, Facebook committed USD 300 Mn to the cause and established a content moderation centre in Kenya and Nigeria. However, the West African country regulating social media for the same reason may be the right step, but one in the wrong direction.

Much Harshness For One Little Problem

London-based communications agency Portland released a report which revealed that Africans use Twitter for political conversations more than people from other parts of the world. The high level of corruption on the continent is a huge reason for this, coupled with the rate of internet penetration and how much change young Africans have in their sights. However, social media is just as much of a weapon for inciting unrest as radio, television, and newspaper. There are already things in place for these platforms to maintain conduct, like the retracting of posts on Twitter or the blocking of reported accounts on Instagram.

There are valid reasons for media regulation, like the case of the Kenyan Film and Classification Board. The body’s new law mandated that video content providers on the internet and social media to have a filming license before they can operate in the country. Even those who record videos with their mobile phones are included in the law, in a bid to put a stop to the dissemination of ill-born and false information. Nevertheless, the implementation and enforcement of such regulations could turn out costly and downright problematic.

While there are valid reasons for the call for social media regulation, implementation, and enforcement of such regulations could be prohibitively expensive and problematic. Individuals need to play their part by being proactive and reporting/flagging fake news. Regulating might seem to be a good idea, but it might take away the very essence of social media.

Fake News Or Less Accountability?

There are 29.3 million social media users in Nigeria, with a projected growth of 36.8 million by 2023. It is unclear whether the “democratic government” is genuinely trying to fight fake news or put an end to the critic of its policies. From the African governments’ standpoint, the increased ramp of fake news, hate speeches, extremism, and organized protests all enabled by social media could culminate in a state of untamable unrest. In their opinion, the best way to curb the menace is to bring about restriction.

Of recent, it has become a culture for Nigerians to take to their social media timelines to express their dissatisfaction with to-be policies. From bank charges to USSD fees, the RUGA fallout to President Muhammadu Buhari’s second matrimonial engagement, the (rather harsh and direct) comments seem never to stop pouring in. More so, memes are circulated to turn most of these happenings into funfairs. Most importantly, it could be that the Buhari-led administration wants to punish the whistleblowers or political opponents using strange means.

David Hundeyin, a CNNAfrica and OperaNewsWire columnist, says that the wording of the bill released is intentionally vague because it gives the executive the power to detain or fine anyone for saying anything it does not like. In his opinion, the 27-year-old journalist said a bill really targeted at curbing fake news or hate speech would be very specific in terms of identifying the parameters and metrics for what falls within its purview.

“This bill does no such thing, only using unqualified and undefined terms like “causing unrest,” ‘fake news,’ and ‘hate speech’ Any lawyer will tell you that any law whose dictates are not spelt out to the last detail will inevitably have to be tested in court, with a judicial opinion being the final arbiter. When the issue goes to court for a judicial opinion since the law is vague, the fate of Nigeria’s internet freedoms could effectively be left in the hands of a supreme court led by CJN Tanko Mohammed”.

Square Peg In A Round Hole

There is nothing new about regulating social media, as some Africans even have to pay for using such platforms. It is unclear whether Nigeria is merely trying to follow in the footprints of its African neighbours, such as South Africa, Kenya, and Uganda. Earlier this year, Zimbabwe’s move to generate revenue by placing a tax on social media users turned on its head, only drastically reducing the nd amount of internet subscribers in the East African country. When there are already laws against false accusations, libel, and slander, social media regulation becomes redundant.

Dominic Dominic, co-founder of Akiddie – a Nigerian social enterprise that develops children’s stories in the country’s dominant local dialect – says the new move is an assault on the people’s right to free speech. The social innovator underlined that there are already laws that combat libel and slander, most of which apply to social media wrongdoings.

“But the attempt to deliberately craft a new law to regulate social media means that the social media loses its ability to be used as a tool to hold government and the people in government responsible. It’s also an attack on the free press because the decentralized nature of social media ensures that important stories can get to the people without being unnecessarily censored by the government. If we care about people’s liberties, then we can not allow the government to take this first step in a slippery slope that would eventually result in a repressive state”.

Shalom Dickson, Lead Solutions Designer at Internovent, a social innovation company developing solutions for developing economies – says: “In real life, one would not expect it’s normal to go about pasting posters of some fabricated information that could incite violence and social unrest, and not be arrested for it.”

“The Internet has a higher level of freedom which where anyone can spread rumors in anonymity. The line of caution, however, is that once the bill has been passed into law, it can be abused to accuse anyone of error if their message is considered a threat to a government office.”

“Is the crime based on the fact that a false claim causes violence? Or is it based on the falsity of the claim? If it is based on its potential for violence, then a true claim that may cause violence should be penalized as well. So, the problem lies in the vagueness of the bill, which disposes it to easy exploitation. This makes one wonder whether those possible exploitations makeup the hidden motivation in the first place, “he concluded.

Redressing The Balance

Deducing from the amount of fervour surrounding the regulation, it may not be long before Nigeria joins the internet ban train, especially as it looks like the West African country is following in the footsteps of some East African neighbours and possibly China. The big question is: Do social media platforms hamper the speech of specific ideological groups? Well, with better data, it is better to draw informed conclusions regarding such matters. Policymakers need to prioritize expanded information-sharing among tech companies, civil society advocates, and even researchers.

In the wake of different social norms around the world, a human rights perspective could provide a body of principles for guiding content-moderation policies. The United Nations said in the special rapporteur’s 2018 report regarding regulating user-generated content that “The authoritative global standard for ensuring freedom of expression on [social media] platforms is human rights law, not the varying laws of States or [the platforms’] own private interests.”

Nowadays, individuals are already becoming proactive enough to report fake news immediately they are realized. Even though regulating may seem like a great idea now, it may take away the essence of social media. Emmanuel Ujiadughele, a news correspondent at Rave 917 FM, Oshogbo, Osun State told WeeTracker that the restriction if implemented, will be inimical to the growth of Nigeria’s already stunted democracy. In his opinion, the country is better off providing a more affordable internet connection.

“Although we might concede that there are those who take things to the extreme and the line has to be drawn, we must also see that it is apparent that the government seeks to listen to trolls and not those who provide reality checks. We aren’t talking about conventional or traditional media that can be heavily censored and punished. We’re talking about millions of people writing from the comfort of their homes”.

Feature image courtesy: footprint2africa

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