For the umpteenth time, the Federal Government of Nigeria sounded the warning horn, calling for all with ears, to be prepared for the swift fall of its hammer, on the only platform it has failed to regulate, the social media. On Tuesday, the Minister for Information, Lai Mohammed, in his characteristic manner, informed all, probably for the last time, that the administration of President Buhari is working on how to inject sanity into social media, which he described as “being out of control”.
Social media, in this present age, has broken down the barriers in communication, a move that has finally brought to the fore, the concept of ‘global village’ by Marshall McLuhan. Social media has become a vital tool in communication technology, with brands, individuals and governments keying into its power. Even the number one citizen of the world, President Donald Trump, has found solace in it.
Ever since the inception of President Buhari’s administration, the government has been finding ways of regulating how Nigerians use social media, with Lai Mohammed at the forefront of the campaign. The irony of this move is not lost on well-meaning Nigerians who remember vividly how this administration exploited the social media in its quest for power.
The insistence and emphasis on hate speech is a cause for worry. Hate speech is an abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, mainly based on race, religion, or sexual orientation. Those currently cooling their feet in various dungeons operated by the state security apparatus are in a real sense not guilty of the above definition of hate speech. Steven Kefason, Jones Abiri, Gidado Yushau, Agba Jalingo are names worth remembering.
The Kaduna State Governor, Nasir Ahmed el-Rufai cannot be forgotten in a hurry when social media, fake news and hate speeches are concerned. President Buhari’s former Special Assistant on Social Media, Lauretta Onochie is another example of the government’s hypocrisy in wanting to soil its fingers with social media regulation.
This is even funnier when various governments at different levels now appoint Special Advisers (SA) on New Media (AKA social media), who make use of the same social media the government is earnestly seeking to regulate, to pass information to the multitude of Nigerians who have made the various social media platforms their source of information. Besides, these people also employ ‘influencers’ who are quick to shut down discerning voices online against their principals.
Without an iota of doubt, social media has proved to be a double-edged sword, a proponent of fake news, the home of faceless mischief-makers, who hide behind the anonymity the platforms provide to carry out their devilish acts. If one has been on the receiving end of the whip, one might be tempted to reason along with our minister. However, throwing away the child with the bathwater will do no one any good.
Nigerians who demand good governance from their leaders have only one viable means of getting their attention, and that is through social media. Recently, Communications Minister Ibrahim Pantami, through the cries of Nigerians on social media saved the country from MTN, who had made plans to add to the taxation burden Nigerians are facing by charging for the use of Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) used for banking services.
Through social media, Nigerians have exposed the nefarious activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to the point that it got the attention of the Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo, who ordered a reform of the police structure. However, that small gain has been reversed, and the rogue officers are back to tormenting the people.
Just as we can easily count the gains of social media, we can easily do the same for the opposites. The prank that got many drinking warm water and salt to escape the dreaded Ebola disease will not go away in a hurry. Within hours, that message, sent through Whatsapp, travelled like wildfire, leaving in its wake, havocs.
For a government that is living under the shadows of press clampdown, through its treatment of dissenting voices, coming up with any ‘ideas’ to clamp down on social media will not go well for its already stained reputation. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Nigeria is currently ranked 120 out of 180 countries with a score of 36.50. Any further attempt will have it slid down that dishonourable ladder.
The various social media platforms are putting measures in place to clamp down on fake news and its purveyors. The likes of YouTube and Facebook have their own rules about what is unacceptable and the way that users are expected to behave towards one another. Twitter is doing the same to ensure that contents such as fake news, hate speech or extremism is not allowed on its platform. Whatsapp has embarked on campaign informing people to beware of forwarded messages via its medium. It also restricted the number of people one can forward messages to only five persons at once.
Instead of walking down that part, the FG should collaborate with these platforms and embark on a massive sensitisation drive on fake news, its dangers, and how to use social media for positive reform. The National Orientation Agency (NOA) also has a role to play. But if the government insists, we can only wish it well, knowing nothing good will come of it.