Written by Godfrey AKON

2019: fake news and hate speeches

Every democratic nation situates information at the centre of public enlightenment and national discourse. However, the proliferation of information through social media and sundry platforms, has created a problem of authenticity and reliability.

Although devoid of factual accuracy, misguided information tends to inappropriately have a grip on public discourse, promoting fear, rumours, and baseless remarks. With the intention to deceive, spread propaganda, assassinate character or fuel crisis, authors of fake news resort to prevarications and sophistry or even blatant lies.

While social media does not only offer a breakaway experience from the usual gatekeeping in conventional media to the immediate, uninhibited and wider accessibility of electoral information, it also provides the ease of sharing any kind of information. By nature, its platforms are a perfect tool for interpersonal and group communication where informative interactions occur.

But across the world, its users have cheapened them into podia where the right to freedom of expression is arbitrarily abused; politicians find space for bashing of opponents, angry and distraught individuals pour out their grievances, ethnic jingoists spread their parochial interests and disdain for others, racial bigots aim their slurs and enemies pop their threats.

Whereas the twin evils of fake news and hate speeches thrive in modern times, they especially target periods of election for the pressures they bring and the fact that elections are a time of realignments along party, social, cultural, ethnic and even religious lines. In Nigeria, these lines are frighteningly visible during elections and thus the appropriateness of the time for evil merchants to sow seeds of discord.  

Although some countries do not recognise hate speech as a legal term, both the Nigerian military and the federal government have used it to warn those in the habit of promoting hatred to desist from their objectionable acts as both fake news and hate speeches have proven overtime, to have an erosive effect on society.   

Over the last decade, there have been interferences on the election of several nations more sophisticated than Nigeria on the cyberspace, through the spread of fake news. A report by NBC news on “how WhatsApp became linked to mob violence,” cited one researcher as saying "Political messaging operations use these services to spread disinformation about opponents and groups, which has led to violence."  

“Researchers have found that fake news stories and rumors spread quickly via person-to-person and group messages on the app, using its features in culturally specific ways or taking advantage of third-party workarounds to add extra layers of utility — and creating new avenues of potential abuse in the process.”

In August 2018, Facebook identified and removed 652 pages, groups, and accounts linked to Russia and Iran for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” which included the sharing of political material.

As Nigeria approaches a defining election in February 2019, barely four months away, political actors in the country must endeavour to tone down divisive rhetoric and desist from fanning embers of hatred.

While it is practically grim to gate-keep or filter the spread of information on social media in the build up to the 2019 election, for the love of nation, individual citizens must make effort to self-censor their consumption and sharing of information with groups and friends.

Nigerians must learn that the 1994 genocide in Rwanda where over a million people were killed, could have been averted without the use of available channels of communication to spread hate and target other groups on the basis of their ethnicity.

Politicians must employ peaceful means to campaigns and exercise of franchise, while security agencies must rise up to their responsibility and crush external interference from enemies of the country whose stock in trade is to sow discord through the social media.

 

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