Recently, the Federal Government announced the indefinite suspension of the micro-blogging platform “Twitter”, citing security as the reason behind taking the critical decision. It lamented the role of social media in aiding war mongers to circulate vicious comments capable of inciting violence in the society. Particularly, there is persistent use of twitter platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence.
The latest version of National Security Strategy 2019, a document released by the Office of the National Security Adviser (ONSA), stated that, Nigeria has witnessed an increase in circulation of fake news and hate speech which are exploited to distort socio-political, cultural and economic relationships. They consist of deliberate misinformation spread via print and electronic media sowing distrust and inflaming our fault lines.
Hate speech covers many forms of expressions which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred, violence and discrimination against a person or group of persons on the basis of ethnicity, sex, religion, sexual orientation, race, disability or politics. Fake news is misleading or false news spread with the sole aim of damaging the reputation of a person or an entity.
The issue of hate speech is not a new phenomenon. It is a recurrent issue not only in Nigeria but among the various communities in the world. Baseless news items emanating from media houses, newspapers and those found on social media have created a lot of problems not only for individuals and their families, but it has led to the disunity and conflicts of various types among Nigerian communities. Unfounded and unverified stories have led to killings and a myriad of crises in the country.
Recall that a Yoruba self-acclaimed activist, Sunday Igboho had once issued a quit notice to northerners residing in the southwest, saying that the region will no longer accommodate them. This immediately triggered a reaction from the Arewa Youth Assembly. The issue generated a lot of tension, but was later doused as a result of the swift intervention by the elder statesmen.
While hate speech manifests itself regularly in Nigeria, it is rife mostly during election periods when the struggle for votes and political power provides a conducive environment for hate speech and elections-related violence. Some politicians, public officers, religious figures, and ethnic jingoists spread hate messages during and after elections in both traditional and social media in the form of campaign advertisements, slogans, and verbal expressions.
Minister of information, Lai Mohammed one said that, as well as damaging Nigeria’s reputation broadly, fake news was destroying the media industry and sowing the seeds for national disunity, and he also described it as a “time bomb” waiting to explode. Fake news spreads quickly due to its mode of propagation, thus constituting a threat to national security. This is particularly evident in the on-going counter-terrorism operation in the North East as well as the activities of hostile non-state actors.
While fake news is not a new phenomenon, it has received much attention at the present time because of the popularity of social media for interaction and for the diffusion of news and ideas. Social media is the “lifeblood of fake news” because it permits anyone to anonymously share a viral fake story to people at a low cost without fear of sanction.
Recently, a video was circulated on social media whereby an aircraft was sighted by some locals around the outskirt of Badagry in Lagos, then it was rumored that the plane was on a mission to supply weapons to the herdsmen and other criminal elements terrorising Yoruba land. However, the Nigerian Navy was quick to debunk this fake news thereby admitting the ownership of the aircraft, adding that it was on a flight training exercise.
President Buhari was also a victim of fake news as there was a moment when he was alleged to have died and a cloned Buhari is the one acting as the president in his place. Fake news has been circulated in Nigeria and has caused violent conflicts among various communities. Fake news has led to clashes between herders and farmers, Muslims against Christians, Yoruba and Hausa/Fulani among others in Nigeria.
To curb the spread of hate speech, Nigerian Senate is currently considering harsh bill relating to freedom of expression online which proposes a capital punishment for hate speech. However, the public considered it as an attempt to censor and punish social media users as well as oppositions for freely expressing their opinions. Amnesty International said that; “social media is one of the last remaining places where Nigerians can express their opinions freely”.
While every citizen has the right to freedom of speech which should not be misused or abused, it is good to know that the government could place restrictions on those rights when deemed necessary to protect the rights of other citizens or public confidence in the government. In Nigeria, it is obvious that hate speech permeates every sector of the nation and that social media play an important role in its spread and that there are no specified laws that regulate their propagation.
Therefore, the government should provide laws that effectively regulate the use of social media, and guard against the dissemination of fake news and hate speech. Government should also do more to promote media literacy and support reliable media outlets, so that people can always recourse to information. These can be achieved by engaging and supporting fact-checking organizations, since they are dedicated to exposing fake news, investigating them and publishing the real versions.
•Ya’u Mukhtar is a staff writer with the Emergency Digest. He writes from Madobi in Kano State.