By Tordue Salem, Abuja
Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed on Tuesday sought the partnership of the House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values to track news streams for fake news, warning that Nigeria may “be sitting on a keg of gun powder”, if not addressed through legislation.
The Minister was responding to questions from the lawmakers when he appeared before the committee to defend the 2021 budget proposal.
He warned that the next war that will be fought in the country and across the world, maybe provoked by misinformation on social media.
According to the Minister, “the biggest challenge facing the country was the issue of fake news and misinformation, adding that the government identified this since 2017 and decided to launch a national campaign against fake news”.
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The Minister explained that the government was not seeking to shut down the social media space in the country because “the social media has come to stay”, but to have a social media policy that regulates the social media and check fake news and misinformation”.
He sad “the biggest challenge facing Nigeria today is fake news and misinformation. Based on that, we dedicated an entire National Council on Information meeting in His to that issue after which we launched a national campaign against fake news in July 2018.
“We said then that the next war will be fought without a shot being fired, but with the use of fake news. We didn’t stop there. We went on a tour of all media houses to solicit their support in the fight against fake news. We launched the campaign to regulate social media which was bitterly contested by the stakeholders.
“We kept saying that if we don’t regulate social media, it will destroy us. Social media and fake news will not destroy Nigeria. In 2017, there was a fake video of herdsmen and farmers crisis. It was a video of what happened in Tanzania and was played in Nigeria as if it was true. In 2017, a very popular entertainer in Nigeria raised a false alarm that students of the College of Education, Gidan Ways, Kaduna state had been murdered.
“There was almost reprisals only for him to find out that it was not true. In the same 2017, we found out that some of the videos being posted are things that happened in other parts of the world. When there was a problem between South African and Nigeria, they were posting videos of what happened in India and Tanzania to suggest that Nigerians were being roasted alive. That was what led to the reprisals in the malls.
“At every time, the government has continued to draw attention that this is a menace. Unfortunately, it is not happening in Nigeria alone. The University of Ohaio conducted research and discovered that Hillary Clinton lost the Presidential election to Trump because of fake news which was promoted by Russia and the worked on three issues. First was that Trump had been endorsed by the Pope. The second was that when she was Secretary of States, she authorized the sale of arms and also that she was a very old person. These three things did a lot to sway the votes.
“We are sitting on a time bomb on this issue of fake news. Unfortunately, we have no national policy on social media and we need one. When we went to China, we could not get google, Facebook and Instagram. You could not even use your email in China because they made sure it is censored and we’ll regulate.
“In June this year, there was a riot in Ethiopia when a popular musician was killed. What the government did was to shot down the social media for two days to bring that riot under control. Bear in Mind that Ethiopia hosts the AU and In-office for Africa. But the truth is that the only way to do it was to shut down social media.
“We need technology and resources to dominate our social media. We need a social media policy to determine what can be seen and what cannot be seen.
“The recent #ENDSARS war was fought on social media. They mobilised using social media. The war today revolves around two things. Smartphone and data and these young men don’t even watch television or listen to the radio or read newspapers.
“You will be shocked that when you start arguing with your children, they will be quoting social media. So, we need a social media policy in Nigeria and we need to empower the various agencies and we need technology to be able to regulate the social media”.
However, while warning against shutting down the social media space in the country, Hon. Oghene said it was wrong to always look at the negative sides of the social media at all time without mentioning the good side.
He said “talking about the recent looting of covid-19 items, in some places they will be looting, but nobody will know. The government will not know and the police will not know. But because of social media, people will be posting as it is happening and the government will be able to go there and save lives.
“There was a time when some boys were digging the road and because of social media, this information came out and the situation was arrested. If there are no social media, that will not happen.
“I want to appeal that there desire to shot down the social media, we should not overdo it because it will harm us. China is not a good example because it is a communist country. Nigeria has always been free, we are a Democratic country.
“Let us look at other democracies and see what they have done with their social media. This technology is already here. It is not going to go away. We should have enough laws in our law books to deal with social media. If people post things that are not correct, they can be taken to court. If the laws are not enough, bring a bill and the National Assembly will pass it into law. If you shot down social media, democracy will be greatly hampered”.
Chairman of the committee, Rep Odebunmi Olusegun (APC-Oyo) said the Nigerian government should go in search of the technology needed to regulate the social media in the country and be able to work with what is already available in the cyberspace.
He said “I don’t want the media to misquote us. The social media has come to stay. What the government should do is to look for technology that will work together with what is in the space. We are not asking the government to stop social media. The most important thing is that government should go and look for the technology to regulate so that you can equally be working within the space”
Odebunmi commended the Ministry for proactively disseminating information to Nigerians in the fight tocombat against COVID-19, adding the ministry and the Departments and Agencies under its supervision helped the nation to flatten the curve of the pandemic.
He said “Let me first of all appreciate the Ministry of Information and her agencies for their proactive approach to Information dissemination during the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. I must say that the approach helped Nigeria to greatly stem the tide and as well flat the curve of the spread.
He however lament the low financial allocation to the Ministry, a situation he said is hampering the performances of the ministry, saying “as a matter of fact, budget of the information ministries in States like Akwa-lbom and Rivers States are far more than what the whole Country is proposing for Federal Ministry of Information, in spite of the very high responsibilities attached therein”.