The Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, took the campaign for social media regulation to the National Assembly last week, using the near-anarchy that dovetailed the #EndSARS peaceful protest as justification. The minister told lawmakers that fake news on social media inflamed the violence that engulfed Nigeria for more than one week, leading to the murder of 22 policemen and about 50 other persons.
In order to drive home his perspective, Lai Mohammed used extreme examples, saying, “If you go to China, you cannot get Google, Facebook or Instagram but you can only use your email because they have made sure that it is regulated. In June this year, there was a riot in Ethiopia when a popular musician was killed. What Ethiopia did to curtail the crisis that followed was to shut down the social media for two days, even when Ethiopia hosts the AU.” Accusing the social media as purveyors of ‘fake news’, the minister called on the National Assembly to support an impending social media policy. Previously, the National Assembly had come up with related Bills for ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations,’ and ‘National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech,’ both of which met with stiff resistance.
Lai Mohammed harped on the negative side of social media. The fact that social media has been used to spread misinformation, disinformation and mal-information is not in doubt. But in many parts of the world, governments have used social media to their own advantage. Primarily, through social media, the government could gauge the pulse of the society in enacting public policies. Also, the social media comes in handy for crisis communication, as seen in its use to disseminate COVID-19 safety protocol. The Nigeria Centre for Disease Control effectively used social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Telegram in creating awareness about the deadly coronavirus. It comes in handy in building trust among the people and setting the records straight, where issues are misunderstood or where wrong information is shared on social media. In essence, social media, as an addition to information dissemination platforms, has its positive uses.
The minister’s renewed call for a regulatory framework may be justifiable if its objective is not to stifle voices of dissent or to effectively put in place measures for internet censorship. In many quarters, this is the interpretation given to the government’s campaigns for legal instruments against social media. For instance, security operatives have used the Cybercrime Act to arrest journalists, accusing them of cyberbullying or cyberstalking, for writing critical reports. This is totally unacceptable. There is enough space in the country’s libel or slander laws for the prosecution of journalists who violate laws guarding the practice of journalism. Also, for most of the issues categorised as ‘fake news’ by the minister, there is enough room for the prosecution of those who share harmful or violent contents in the Cybercrime Act and/or Evidence Act. Cybercrime Act takes care of forgery, falsehood, identity theft, and obscenity, like pornography. The Act also forbids the sharing of racist or xenophobic materials and has imposed a fine of N10 million or five years imprisonment for anyone found guilty of such offences. It even allows for the interception of electronic communication, if such order is given by a judge.’
f the current laws are inadequate and the minister insists on a social media policy, the government should, as an act of good faith, liaise with those in the industry on how to work out a better approach to protect the public from harmful content. That means the government should, first and foremost, engage social media companies with its concerns and work out how such concerns could be taken care of. Also, the government must invest in digital literacy, by enlightening Nigerians on how to verify the contents they access on the social media. Fortunately, there are many easy-to-use tools available on the internet for verifying photographs, videos, audios, websites, and social media handles that share suspicious content. Such should be done in collaboration with institutions that are actively engaged in fact-checking in Nigeria. Also, it is important for the government to meet with stakeholders to determine the social media code of practice, and what should be regulated.
Unless there is stakeholders’ engagement in the government’s desire to formulate a social media policy, its efforts would be viewed with suspicious, and resisted.