The recent announcement by the information minister, Lai Mohammed, that the federal government is making plans to regulate the use of social media due to what he called the rampant circulation of fake news and hateful content, has, as should be expected, generated intense debates in the country. Lai Mohammed was quoted as saying: “We cannot allow our media environment to be overtaken by fake news and hate speech, especially on the social media”.
In this reflection, I will review the arguments for-and- against the regulation of the social media across the world. I will also discuss some of the strategies used by countries that have enacted laws to regulate the social media. I will end with some recommendations on how the social media could be regulated in the country:
Libertarians are at the forefront of the opposition to any form of regulation of the social media. Libertarians are individuals or groups who promote civil liberties, non-interventionism by the state, laissez-faire capitalism and the shrinking of the scope and size of government. Libertarians and human rights activists often hinge their opposition on the following grounds:
One, they argue that it will be dangerous to regulate the social media on the grounds that they promote hate speech and fake news when the definitional issues of what constitute ‘hate speech’ and ‘fake news’ have not been conclusively resolved. Libertarians and human rights activists will for instance wonder who will regulate the government which they believe is one of the worst purveyors of fake news and hate speech. For instance for them, when the Nigerian government claims that it has defeated Boko Haram (when it obviously has not) or exaggerates its accomplishments, it should also be regarded as purveying fake news. In the same vein, they believe that it is ‘hate speech’ when a government agency such as the EFCC names and shames someone for corruption before that person has been convicted by a competent court of law. In instances like these, they will wonder who will regulate the government’s fake news and hate speech.
Two, libertarians argue that there are already in our laws legal restraint to the social media. For instance, they contend that defamatory remarks will still be defamatory remarks whether published in a book on social media and that people who feel defamed by the social media for instance should use existing laws to seek remedy.
Three, they also posit that governments, including ‘the African big men’, are absolutely terrified of criticisms and the anonymity of the social media, which empowers ordinary people to level up to them and speak truth to power. They further contend that with the current ‘revolution’ taking place on platforms like Twitter, (through hashtags) and the like, it is becoming more difficult for authorities to maintain the upper hand. For them therefore social media regulation is all about the government and ‘big’ men and women trying to cover their backs by muffling free speech.
People who support the regulation of the social media however have their own arguments:
First, they argue that since an increasing number of people these days receive their information through the social media, a sort of regulation has become imperative in order to protect citizens from misinformation, fake news and outright deception or even theft.
Second, they also argue that social media have evolved. For instance, when they first emerged in the early 2000s, social media were simply seen as companies that created tools that enabled the distribution of information – making them platforms, rather than publishers. However with companies like Facebook and Youtube creating and distributing contents on their systems, they are now seen as publishers who ought to be responsible for their content. In fact several ugly incidents triggered by posts on social media have further mainstreamed the quest to regulate the social media. These included the false child kidnapping rumour in India in 2018 triggered by rumours on WhatsApp which led to the lynching of 17 people, and the livestreaming on Facebook of the Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand in March 2019 in which 51 people were killed. Even Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of one of the largest social media companies in the world Facebook (which owns Instagram) now supports the regulation of social media. So with the social media, the debate has moved from whether they should be regulated to how they should be regulated.
Some countries have already introduced laws to regulate the social media, and these countries seem to have embraced different strategies.
In Germany for instance, regulation of social media went into effect in January 2018. Under the law, social media companies were forced to set up procedures to review complaints about content they are hosting and to remove anything that is clearly illegal within 24 hours. Individuals who violate the law may be fined up to €5m ($5.6m; £4.4m) and companies up to €50m. In April 2019 the UK announced plans to enact laws that would require social media firms to protect users and said that firms which fail to comply will be heavily punished. The EU is considering a clampdown specifically on terror videos. Under the proposal, social media platforms will face heavy fines if they did not delete extremist content within an hour. The EU also introduced the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which set rules on how companies, including social media platforms, store and use people’s data. In Singapore, the country’s fake news laws allow the Government to unilaterally remove content which it deems to be untrue. In China, there are hundreds of thousands of cyber-police, who monitor social media platforms and screen messages that are deemed to be politically sensitive. Some keywords are automatically censored outright, such as references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. Early this year Tanzania introduced blogger licenses and sanctions under the Electronic and Postal Communications Act (EPOCA). Under this, the regulator has the authority to deny or accept license applications as it sees fit, and the cost of a license comes to a total of $900. In Uganda, the country’s parliament passed the Excise Duty (Amendment) Bill 2018, which imposes taxes on usage of social media. Under this, Ugandans are charged the equivalent of (USD0.05) as tax duty per user per day of access.
How should Nigeria regulate its social media such that the regulation should not turn it into an avenue of witch-hunt?
I will recommend the following:
One, government can actually use the social media to fight the many of ills associated with the social media. The argument here is that the business model of many big social-media platforms offers a unique opportunity for the government to reach individual Nigerians and use targeted messages to counter the fake news and hate speech from the social media.
Two, while the social media companies should be held responsible for the information that is spread on their platforms so should the people posting the information in the first place. Regulations should require users to perform identity verification before being allowed to interact on online social media platforms.
Three, given the distrust of the government, social media regulator should be independent and seen to be so, and should include representatives of various credible groups such as religious bodies, civil society and professional groups. Making such a regulator another agency of the government will be a recipe for disaster.