NIGERIA AND THE CHALLENGES OF FAKE NEWS AND HATE SPEECH
By Solomon Chung
Fake news is false information, stories or hoax created to deliberately misinform or deceive the audience. Fake news is fallacious, misleading, often sensational information presented as facts under the guise of news reporting. It is often aimed at damaging or denigrating the reputation of a person or entity, or making money through advertising revenue.
Fake news comes in different formats spanning spoken, written, printed, electronic and digital communication. The prevalence of fake news has been amplified with the rise of social media, particularly Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter among others.
While there is no generally acceptable definition for hate speech, the United Nations describes it as any kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, especially based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factors.
Hate speech weakens and destroys communities, sowing seeds of fear, hatred, discord, distrust and disunity in its wake. When left unchecked, hate speech can and has often led to violence, leading to needless loss of life and property. It is a known fact that hate speech played a significant role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which left at least 800,000 people dead.
It is for these reasons that Nigeria’s Ministry of Information and Culture devoted the 2017 National Council on Information meeting to the issue of fake news, hate speech and disinformation.
In order to underscore the need to rid Nigeria of these despicable acts, the Ministry followed the meeting with the launch of the national campaign against fake news and disinformation in 2018.
The reality is that social media platforms are now the preferred media for reaching millions of people with whatever information or ideas, be it developmental or destructive. It has remained the platform of the first choice to many because of its strong global appeal.
The power and influence of social media in Nigeria and elsewhere are unimaginable. According to a report by social media marketing platform, Hootsuite, which was published by Pulseng in August 2019, of the 98.39 million Nigerian internet users then, 54 per cent accessed the internet on a daily basis while only 12 per cent (24 million) have active social media accounts.
That number is projected to reach 44.63 million by 2025. The same report found that three hours 17 minutes are the average amount of time Nigerians spend daily using social media.
As advantageous and useful as the platforms are, the fact that the internet is unrestrained and the absence of a policy or Act of Parliament to regulate its use, at least for communication purposes, makes the platforms susceptible to abuse.
In India for example, about a dozen people lost their lives two years ago because of fake news or hoax messages. The victims were lynched after they were falsely accused of child abduction based on fake messages circulated via the social media platform, WhatsApp!
Again in Nigeria, in the wake of xenophobic attacks against Africans in South Africa, some very disturbing videos emerged on the social media purported to be scenes of the violence against Nigerians in South Africa.
However, the videos were later discovered to be of some accidents in India and Tanzania. But some irate Nigerian youths were incited by those videos to the point of setting ablaze some business premises in Nigeria connected to South Africa.
Again, as the world confronts the Coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest challenges of the response to the infection is fake news, which some experts now refer to as “disinfodemic”.
While it is true that the fear and uncertainties that accompany a pandemic, especially one for which no cure has been found, can cause people to seek for and consume whatever information they get to remain safe, we cannot ignore the fact that lives of Nigerians are continuously being put at risk by misinformation. Such misinformation causes people to try unproven remedies in the name of curing or even protecting themselves.
The Nigerian government has never hidden its desire to welcome robust debates on the issue of fake news and hate speech and how to tackle it holistically and collectively without stifling free press and freedom of expression.
The Ministry of Information and Culture has reached out to technology companies like Facebook and Google in order to work with them to curtail the spread of fake news and hate speech on their platforms.
The Nigerian government also embarked on a reform of the broadcast industry as part of efforts to stop the transmission of hate speech by broadcast stations in the country. This led to the increase of the fine for the broadcast of hate speech from N500, 000 to N5 million, a step which is expected to serve as a strong deterrent.
Even though the government has made efforts to sanitize the social media, there is still much to be done in tackling the menace of fake news and hate speech in Nigeria.
Presently, the government lacks the technology to monitor social media and stop the purveyors of fake news and hate speech in their tracks. The country also lacks a national policy on the use of social media. These factors are critical to any effort aimed at curbing the excesses and misuse of social media in any country.
Therefore, fake news and hate speech requires a coordinated response from policymakers, religious leaders, legal practitioners, journalists and the general public to address the main drivers of these menace and to provide coordinated response which upholds the fundamental rights and inclusion of all communities and individuals.