The rapidly evolving technology and the changing media landscape have reshaped communication mechanism to be instant, participatory, and global in scale. This modern communication platform has afforded large majority of people to communicate effortlessly with wider audience. Developing events around the world can now be tracked on the go. Social media has brought a lot of developments to humanity. It enables leaders and the leads to be closer to each other, making it possible for the citizens to have direct conversation with their leaders without third parties. It increases participation of the masses on national issues and given voices to voiceless people. But as beautiful and laudable as these may sound, something terrifying is undermining this monumental paradigm shift without quick fix in sight, and Nigeria remains on edge as the country preparing for another important election, next year.
There is no doubt that the increasing negative sides of social media seem to be outweighing its benefits. Recent developments around the world have proved that social media has assumed a destructive dimension and threatening the very humanity it came to improve.
The unending controversies surrounding the U.S election that ushered in Donald Trump as President have actually unraveled the ugliest side (disinformation) of social media. The alleged Russia meddling in the U.S election through the social media platforms is an eye-opener for the rapidly growing virtual community of universal outrage. The revelation of Facebook data scandal with a research firm, Cambridge Analitica gives more insight into the increasing adverse role of social media that was thought to be a tool that would help strengthening democracy, enlightening the populace, imparting knowledge and uniting the world. Social media is now just doing the opposite.
From America to Europe to Africa, communities are being fiercely divided along ethno-religious, socio-political, and racial lines. Politics is becoming brutal, nasty and cruel. Part of the reason is that, by spreading outlandish falsehood and denigrating statements on social media, aggravating angers and, in some cases induce mob attacks and extremism.
However, the evolution of fake news, false news, post-truth, or disinformation (whatever you call it) did not start today. It has been in existence since immemorial, but technology exacerbated it. As more and more people are gaining access to the internet they become purveyors of information and disinformation with the supersonic power of social media. Although, the term ‘fake news’ has not been scholarly defined. But it is generally described as completely false information, photos or videos purposefully created and spread to confuse, misinform the general public in order to influence their judgments.
The current momentum in the debates of the destructive power of social media is as a result of its practical devastating experiences of countries and communities around the world. Social media which was seen not long ago as a nemesis for rogue, unpopular and authoritarian regimes and corrupt officials is now turning out to serve their very interests. Rogues and fantastically corrupt individuals, some of them who had been displaced and disgraced are being currently pushing to the frontline on the strength of fake news spiraling on social media. Donald Trump ascension to the presidency is a reference point in this regard. One of the thousands of fake news reported to have boosted his electoral chances was the Pope Francis’s adoption of his candidacy. This story reached a vast majority of Americans and beyond, and no doubt influenced their electoral judgments.
In Europe, fake news on social media is now aggravating the increasing anger of the rightwing extremism. In Asia, fake news influenced major political events in Southeast Asia last year. From Indonesia’s fake news of biological attack by Beijing to fake elections reports to Myanmar’s–Rohingya crisis, the spread of misinformation and disinformation have been used to bolster hate speech, stereotypes, and propaganda. In Kenya, the recently conducted election witnessed gradual institutionalization of fake news and post-truth as an effective instrument of political manipulation in Africa.
Also, in Nigeria, the proliferation of fake news on social media has reached an unprecedented level, putting the country in a precarious situation. This trend gained prominence during the build-up to the 2015 elections. The reported demise of the then-presidential candidate, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari in London became a hitting point for the then governing party, PDP. The phenomenon assumed a frightening dimension immediately after the inauguration of APC government in may 2015, even as the recently proscribed Biafra agitators quickly seized the opportunity to advance their secession agenda. Ever since then, the country continues to bloom in the vicious circles of ubiquitous disinformation.
In September last year, a well-crafted fake UN speech of President Muhammadu Buhari was circulated on social media even before the President arrived in New York for the 72 sessions of United Nation General Assembly meeting.
Even Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook CEO, who had earlier denied that his platform abetting fake news or hoaxes is now adjusting to the reality as more and more mountain of practical evidence continues to emerge from, and around the world.
No one is immune
Everyone who has read news on social media would probably fall victim to fake news. Even the mainstream media are not spared. In an attempt to remain relevant in the face of the obvious threat posed by social media to their very survival, they fall victim to fake news. For example, some years ago, a national daily flashed a fake picture lifted from social media on their front-page that contained foreign mercenaries which the paper described as U.S marine fighting Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Also, just few days ago, the Nigerian media including the self-acclaimed reputable ones were awash with bogus interview granted by the North Central Zonal Chairman of Miyetti Allah, where he was quoted to describe the recent attack in Jos, Plateau State as retaliatory for the killings of large number of their cattle in the state. It was just the latest hoax that exposes the vulnerability and ethical question in the Nigeria media. A Fortnight ago, another purported press release by the alleged national president of Fulani Nationality Movement, (FUNAM) got circulated on social media platforms.
The frightening aspect of fake news on social media is that, while it travels faster than the truth, the vast majority of people take them as prophetic revelation especially when it serves their very interests without questioning the validity. Far from the truth. Fake news is a poison that divides society, blinds the mind, reinforces sentiments and plunges society into unending conflicts that hinder development and create unstable global community.
Recently, British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC chronicled how false or fake news fueling herders-farmers unending conflicts in Nigeria that has resulted to the death of hundreds of people.
Nigeria remains on edge
As Nigeria preparing for another very important election come 2019, the chances of election rigging appear very slim with the introduction of card reader and permanent voter card. But trust Nigerian politicians, they are learning fast and have taken a cue from U.S terrible experience. They have found another means of manipulating electorates in their favour. Youths are being recruited, equipped with internet devices to syndicate trolls and fake news on social media, while professional bodies are equally being sponsored to engage in ominous political activities, all for the purpose of weakening the electoral chances of their political foes.
There is a dear need for concerted efforts to stem the rage of this dreaded phenomenon on social media. Though, the giant social network platforms (Facebook, Google, and Twitter) had earlier promised to do something since the U.S election controversy ensued. But it seems little has been done for the past almost two years, as the problem continues to rear havoc across the world. So they cannot be relied on to solve the problem. But something urgent needs to be done before it is too late.
What needs to be done?
As we have seen, it is unarguable that fake news proliferation on social media is one of the biggest political problem facing leaders around the world. It is an existential threat to world peace. Unfortunately, there is no known universal antidote to the rapidly expanding monstrous firestorm. But nations around the world are responding to the challenge in line with their respective social realities. While some are using technology to counter the spread of fake news, others are using legislation to stem the tide of the poison, yet some others are engaging in massive enlightenment to confront the problem. Recently, Germany enforced law that forces social media companies, such as Twitter and Facebook, to promptly remove content from their websites deemed hate speech or fake news, or face fines of up to 50 million euros. In Czech Republic, a special task force unit has been established to fight fake news online. In Indonesia, cyber army unit has been established to fight the menace. U.S is considering a comprehensive framework to address the challenge.
However, it is obvious that one technique is not sufficient to curb the challenge posed by social media, but a combination of many would be very useful.
Several efforts in the past to regulate the use of social media in Nigeria have failed woefully because of the insincerity of the country’s lawmakers and the fear of gagging free speech. As it is now, Nigeria needs to look inward and sincerely develop a holistic approach to confront this existential threat. Collaboration with reputable online news publishers association like GOCOP and others is a good place to start from. Spiral official response to damaging fake news can do the magic of defusing it. Massive enlightenment of citizens on how to identify fake news online and its negative consequences should be considered, while the establishment of a special unit to track the sources of hate statements and fake news on social media and alert the public is imperative. Special laws that accommodate inputs from all patriotic and reputable stakeholders should be enacted and effectively enforced by an independent and impartial body to checkmate the spread of all forms of disinformation. Above all, operations of regulatory bodies of the media should be strengthened to effectively enforce the media code of ethics in the country. If this threat is left unchecked in Nigeria before the forthcoming election, then the country should be preparing for its’ doomsday.
Adavize, a researcher, commentator, and self-thought enthusiast computer programmer, wrote from Abuja. He can be reached via: [email protected]