On Monday, the Northern States’ Governors’ Forum expressed unqualified support for Aso Rock’s scheme to cudgel Nigeria’s social media ecosystem. This time, their ruse is “the devastating effect of the uncontrolled social media in spreading fake news.” They called “for major control mechanism and censorship of the social media practice in Nigeria.” The Northern governors’ scaremongering is not the first time social media would be demonised by Nigerian politicians seeking its ban. In the last five years, Nigeria’s lawmakers and the All Progressives Congress stalwarts have consistently expressed their myopias about social media.
However, two fundamentals have consistently been absent in their intervention. First, not a single one of those braying about the potentially damaging effect of social media has convincingly demonstrated how their ill-defined ‘fake news’ has directly caused any unrest or deaths. What they keep railing about is the harm it could do, not what it has actually done. They have not shown us people that have died because of social media mischief, enough to warrant regulation. However, we can show them thousands of people imperilled by their theocentric populism, extreme tribalism, unbridled corruption, and startling incompetence. Rather than confront their collective failure, ‘lazy’ politicians turned social media into an alibi.
Let us start with Simon Lalong, Governor of Plateau State and chairman of the forum, who signed Monday’s communiqué. This year alone, dozens of people have been killed in his state in a series of murderous hits. A marauding force, seemingly working from a hit-list, slaughtered many in villages. They also burnt animals, farms, and houses. Did social media fuel cause that pogrom too? Rather than confront the problems at home, Lalong joined a hegemonic bandwagon to rant about an abstract social media’s power to unleash evil. Is the actual evil that people are committing right under his nose not worse?
Then, there is Kaduna, where violence is not only a recurring event, but Nigerian soldiers also massacred hundreds of Shiites with impunity. Were those murders a consequence of what someone posted on social media? Have the herdsmen been killing and raiding villages in southern Kaduna because they read fake news on social media? In Zamfara, hundreds of people have been killed and tens of thousands displaced this year alone. While the #EndSARS protests were ongoing, bandits stormed a village in Tungar Kwana in northern Zamfara and killed 20 people. Did they do all of these because of social media? I could go on and on, listing all the cases of violence that regularly happen in northern Nigeria.
The way our politicians have been crying about the power of social media and what it purports for Nigeria, one would think that we are a peaceful and prosperous country dealing with a looming threat. In reality, we are a poorly-run country with rapidly escalating poverty rates amid concomitant issues of insecurity and restlessness. For our sanctimonious politicians to be screaming about the threat social media portends while grievous evil occurs on their watch, shows their blatant disingenuity.
Such wilful blindness, Yoruba people would say, is the character of the person that sees a road path but still insists on trampling through the jungle. I am amused by the number of the northern elites, including traditional rulers with big names, who sat in that meeting to bellyache social media. These are people who drove their Rolls Royce past the millions of almajiri children in their region, out-of-school children whose lack of preparedness for the 21st century makes them a ready tool in the hands tinpot politicians. Yet, they are obsessed with social media?
They have not even defined “fake news” and how existing laws run short of managing false statements. What is fake news, and who defines it? Before the advent of the social media phenomenon, were there not “fake news” such as rumours, conspiracy theories, and campaign promises? What exactly is new that these people keep bumping around in their starched agabada pretending they love the country enough to want to save her from dissolution? Look at the northern governors saying they want to protect Nigeria’s unity at all costs. If you care about this country that much, you would be tackling the many problems of multi-generational and multi-dimensional poverty, illiteracy, and diseases bedevilling your states. In a country where a fanatical lawyer could successfully ask the police to arrest an atheist otherwise, they would unleash violence, why wail about social media?
The second thing missing in their intervention is how they intend to regulate social media. The northern governors said they want a “major control mechanism” and “censorship of the social media practice.” Social media is not a faucet that can be turned on and off at the whim of some bureaucrats invested with power to tell us when we have had enough; its strength is the democratisation of opinion-mongering. They cannot pre-empt its mischief; they can only punish people after any damage has been done. Meanwhile, there are already laws to that effect.
How precisely can they control thought flows and on which of the social media apps? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, or YouTube? How does a supposedly democratic country like Nigeria pull off that stunt? Countries like North Korea, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and Bangladesh that ban or regulate social media are not democracies. Even if Nigeria takes the China route by erecting a firewall that can block IPs, filter searches, erase content, and swamp people with pro-government propaganda, they are too inefficient to sustain it.
Besides, people can still set up a pirate radio station and achieve the same effect. Have they heard of Radio Kudirat, and how its irrepressibility drove Sani Abacha crazy? Is that not how IPOB leader, Nnamdi Kanu, bypasses regulators and broadcasts his rants into Nigeria? These fellows running around, saying they want to regulate social media, do not appear to understand the technology that powers social media before asking for a “major control mechanism.”
The incendiary post(s) on social media does not have an entry or exit point, so how can it be regulated? You only need to look at how a single article that linked COVID-19 in China with 5G technology posted on a nondescript blog last year generated a global phenomenon this year to see that regulating what people do on social media is a sheer waste of time. Meanwhile, I am not worried that the Nigerian government can efficiently regulate social media. They lack the capacity, and the best they will achieve is set up another bureaucracy and pump it with money. At the same time, we should be concerned about the number of initiatives in the country they will ruin in the process of trying.
These people need to give up social distancing from this nonsense called social media regulation. It is pointless and distracting. Rather than regulate social media, they should focus on inquiring why fake news thrives in Nigeria at all. They will see that part of the problem is how the Nigeria social contract has broken down, and people no longer trust their government. What they call “fake news” is one of the ways people make up for the lack of trust in official narratives.
You cannot have a society where the Lekki massacre happened, the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), refused to talk about it, the Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, contradicted himself, the army lied and then later confessed their role, a federal minister serendipitously found a camera no one was missing at the scene of the carnage, the Attorney General of the Federation jumped in later and added another lie about hoodlums in army uniform perpetrating violence, and not have regular folks supplying their own version of fake news. Now, the latest news is that the CCTV camera at the Lekki tollgate plaza they told us was intact, for some funny reason, stopped recording just before the moment we needed it to capture. Take a look at the official reports with which we have been insulted on the Lekki massacre matter alone and ask who -between the government that uses official governing mechanisms to muddle serious national issues and the people armed with only social media- is the worse purveyor of fake news