Nigeria: Anti-Social Media Bill and Rift Between Citizenry, Govt

13 December 2019
opinion

"The point in contention, in Nigeria, is that with such bill in the hands of a government many fear is capable of abusing power is a dangerous weapon."

The Nigerian government's intention to pass the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill, popularly termed as the Social Media bill, combined with the Hate speech bill is gathering so much online buzz, with media experts saying that these acts could criminalize news. But what does this bill really mean?

Fake News is real. The rise of deep fake video's, identity theft, mis-information, and disinformation is changing the social and political space significantly, and policy actors are struggling to respond. But when people talk particularly about social media, two platforms come to mind: Twitter and Facebook. Both platforms have been facing serious accusations. In December this year, former staff of CPL Resources in Dublin, a third party company that provides moderation services to Facebook said it was suing the company for: psychological trauma as a result of poor working conditions and a lack of proper training to prepare employees for viewing some of the most horrific content seen anywhere online.

Nigeria is not alone in this journey to tame the amorphous tech - in Australia, 'The Sharing of Abhorrent Violent Material' bill would see social media executives jailed for up to three years or their companies fined 10% of annual global turnover if they failed to expeditiously remove the material within a reasonable time. In China, a state of the art system of internet censorship stifles almost all political debate along with hate speech and pornography. In New Zealand, Christchurch attack this year represented the most devastating use of social media and spurred intense political debates around the censorship of Social Media platforms.

But Social Media access is different things for different people. Africa does not share the same problems as Europe. A lot of Nigerians do not see the same picture.

Many agree on the need for regulation of content on Social Media. The point in contention, is that such bill in the hands of a government that has consistently shown an appetite for abuse of power is a dangerous weapon. Especially with the ambiguity with which it was crafted.

According to Amnesty International, the existing Cyber Crimes Act and the Anti-Terrorism Act, which already cover many of the offences the new bills seek to address, have been used as tools to gag freedom of expression in Nigeria.

The proposed National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech bill, and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation and other Related Offences bill, give authorities arbitrary powers to shut down the internet and limit access to social media, and make criticizing the government punishable with penalties of up to three years in prison.

The social media bill contains overbroad provisions that unduly restrict access to and use of social media and seems designed to gag freedom of expression.

For example, section 3, which relates to the transmission of false statements of facts, contains provisions against sharing statements "likely to be prejudicial to the security of Nigeria, public safety, tranquility, public finances and friendly relations of Nigeria with other countries". This could be easily abused to punish critics of government policies and actions, and anyone who asks difficult questions could find themselves liable for 'diminishing public confidence in the government.'

Social media is one of the last remaining places where Nigerians can express their opinions freely. The harassment of journalists and bloggers and the introduction of the Cyber Crimes Act have already shrunk the civic space and created a climate of fear," said Seun Bakare, Programmes Manager Amnesty International Nigeria.

Social media platforms are like tribal market squares. Some like Donald Trump do the business of politics through Twitter, others, like the academia community are there to learn and share, a ton of local and global companies use the platforms for trade and marketing. There is less conversation about how these distinctions - apolitical social media, and political social media. Government departments and political opposition do not use SnapChat, rarely publish through YouTube, Tumblr, or LinkedIn.

Focus is shifting in-between what people should do with Social Media, into the realms of what Social Media platforms should do to ensure that these risks are reduced.

Social Media platforms are responding to the changes occuring on their platforms. In March this year, Facebook founder Mark Zuckeberg wrote an OpEd which categorically stated that the Internet needed new rules

- The Washington Post

Zuckerberg opined that: "From what I've learned, I believe we need new regulations in four areas: harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability."

Other big platforms are responding. Artificial Intelligence is coming to the rescue for some. The video-sharing site YouTube has said 7.8m videos were taken down between July and September 2018, among this number, 81% were automatically removed by machines.

One path is clear, there is a need for a regulation of content on Social Media - many agree to this. In January 2019, speaking at a BBC conference on Fake News, current Vice President Yemi Osinbajo lamented the dilemma that such a bill would give birth to: a battle between the effects of disinformation and cracking down on freedom of speech. The bill puts the citizen on the middle ground. The point in contention, in Nigeria, is that such bill in the hands of a government many fear is capable of abusing power is a dangerous weapon.

Like many other things. That the government really doesn't need this bill for its actions. A commentator who didn't want to be named said:

"Look at Sowore, Zakzaki, Nnamdi Kanu, Dasuki, and a host of journalists that have been detained. The government does not need a Social Media or Hate Speech bill to hang you. Why are they particular about this? I think it extends beyond the safety of content online."

If anything is clear, it is that the relationship between those being governed and those doing the governing is changing - a Social Media and Hate Speech bill, being presented in the Senate not long after the same senate passed an NGO bill clearly shows that the relationship between the citizenry and the government is no longer business as usual.

Tahir Sherriff wrote from Abuja

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