By Jerome-Mario Utomi
The easy accessibility individuals have to publish ideas on the Internet has led to the emergence of a new meritocracy of ideas that is similar in some ways to the public forum that existed during the time of America’s founding. It has several structural characteristics that make it particularly useful and powerful as a tool for reinvigorating representative democracy —Al-Gore, former VicePresident in the United States.
IF there is a single factor/occurrence that has redefined information management and promoted citizen journalism across the globe, it is the dawn of internet/social media. As citizens participate more in the news process, ‘the flow of news and information is controlled less by editors, who are accustomed to choosing the stories to be covered from among the many possible events and issues that occur in a community.
Some editors now rely on citizens’ participation (called “crowd sourcing” or “user-generated”) to augment the work of their limited numbers of reporters and photographers. With more participation and coverage, journalists and citizens feel more connected to the community and each other’.
At present, the presence of social media means different things to different people. To the Nigerian youth for example, social media with the recent success of the Endsars campaign which started on Twitter has become a positive force that can enhance, among other things, communication, stakeholder engagement, knowledge acquisition, awareness building, volunteer management, accountability, advocacy, relationship building activities and promotes community foundations, whose main goal is to address community problems. Increasingly, they foster a “community” that is built less on geographic boundaries than on a sense of belonging, social media provide a diverse and transcendent public dialogue.
Yet, even with this recognition of the critical/far reaching role social media plays, particularly its ability to engage minds on tasks such as learning, reasoning, understanding and other activities that creates positive impact, and crowd of ‘exiting progress’, recorded by users across the world, the instincts of the present administration says something new and chiefly different.
While the present administration admits, like every other nation, that social media constitute a principal component of, and aids political, socioeconomic discussions across the globe, the Federal Government has, however, through its actions and inactions argued persistently that just as an unchained torrent of water submerges whole countrysides and devastates crops, even so, uncontrolled use of the social media serves but to destroy.
Hence the need to have the space regulated. Supporting the above claim is the Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, recently disclosure of government’s intention to regulate the social media in Nigeria. To copiously quote him, he in part said: “Since we inaugurated our reform of the broadcast industry, many Nigerians have reached out to us, demanding that we also look into how to sanitise the social media space.
I can assure you that we are also working on how to inject sanity into the social media space which, today, is totally out of control. No responsible government will sit by and allow fake news and hate speech to dominate its media space, because of the capacity of this menace to exploit our national fault lines to set us against each other and trigger a national conflagration.”
Similar to the minister’s position were two feeble attempts in the past to regulate the information space via the introduction of the Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019 and the hate speech bill. At the most basic level, the Internet Falsehood and Manipulations Bill, 2019, sponsored by Senator Mohammed Sani Musa, (APC Niger East), among other provisions, seeks to curtail the spread of fake information.
It seeks a three-year jail term for anyone involved in what it calls the abuse of social media or an option of fine of N150, 000 or both. It also proposes a fine of N10 million for media houses involved in peddling falsehood or misleading the public.
The hate speech bill on its part, proposes that any person found guilty of any form of hate speech that results in the death of another person shall die by hanging upon conviction. This is in addition to its call for the establishment of an ‘Independent National Commission for Hate Speeches’, which shall enforce hate speech laws across the country.
As alluring as this proposition/explanation by the government appears, there exist in the opinion of this piece some obvious omissions. First, it is of considerable importance to state that the solution to fake news and hate speech, urgent as they are, cannot be found in social media censorship but in a constructive and rational approach.
Secondly, for the wheel of understanding to come full circle, we all need to admit as a nation that ‘without wood, the fire goes out, charcoal keeps the ember glowing as wood keeps the fire burning’. Same is applicable to the factors propelling fake News/hate speeches in the country.
What the nation’s information space currently witnesses is but a clash of misinformation between the fifth columnists in the fourth estate pretending to be journalists and the poor masses who are the real victims of broken promises. Citizens have recently come to the understanding that; ‘a free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a society. For without criticism, reliable, and intelligent reporting, the government cannot govern.’
It is of great value, therefore, that the government draws a lesson from other nations where social media are not censored, to understand that the marketplace of ideas naturally sorts the irresponsible from the responsible and rewards the later. Nigerians are not interested in this fender-bender information atmosphere and proliferation of falsehood, propaganda, and fake news on the nation’s political wavelength.
They are genuinely willing to say exciting things about how their government created employment for teeming youths, raised her citizens out of poverty and funded the education sector in line with the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) which pegged funding of education at 26 per cent of the national budget or six per cent of the gross domestic products, GDP.
As a final point, while providing people focussed leadership has become the only possible solution to the gathering storms in Nigeria; it is equally significant that the Federal Government look at the direction of the development practitioners, understanding of social media as not just a platform for disseminating the truth or information.
But a channel for pursuing the truth, and the decentralized creation and distribution of ideas; in the same way, that government is a decentralized body for the promotion and protection of the people’s life chances. It is a platform, in other words, for development that the government must partner with instead of vilification. As there is no other way in which government can keep itself informed about what the people of the country are thinking and doing.
The ball is therefore in the Federal Government’s square.
Utomi, is Programme Cordinator of the Social and Economic Justice Advocacy (SEJA)