‘Fake news’ has killed Nigerians. Can a bill stop the violence?

In June 2018, images of a baby’s bloodied corpse, a man’s cracked skull and bodies in mass graves quickly spread across Facebook feeds in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation.

The Facebook users circulating these images accused Fulani Muslims in the Plateau state — an area of tremendous ethnic, linguistic and religious diversity — of perpetrating atrocities against Berom Christians. In what the authorities described as an act of vigilante retribution, several Berom youths then dragged Fulani men out of their cars and killed them. At least 10 people died.

A crisis of disinformation is beleaguering nations around the world, sowing discord in established democracies such as the United States, Germany and Britain and rattling fragile ones such as India, Taiwan and Nigeria. With just a laptop and a login, it is so easy to create inflammatory material, rapidly disseminate it and draw strong — even violent — reactions that some experts fear that the very foundations of society are threatened.

Last year, a BBC investigation exposed the bloodshed in Plateau state, linking it to the viral disinformation spread by Facebook.

False information, hoaxes, urban rumors and “deep fakes” — digitally altered video and photos that purport to show actions or speech that did not, in fact, happen — are a rising threat worldwide, but they are especially dangerous to emerging economies such as Nigeria, where internet use is rising far more rapidly than education levels. In the last seven years, the number of internet users in Nigeria has tripled, to 100 million.

Adamkolo Mohammed Ibrahim, a scholar at the University of Maiduguri who studies fake news, says that bots and propagandists who use social media and spread false news are threatening to render democratic rights — including freedom of speech — meaningless. He fears that Nigeria is teetering on the edge of “post-truth” — a time when falsehoods, mild and extreme, permeate society so intensely that the truth becomes meaningless.

With more than 200 ethnic groups and 500 languages, Nigeria, a former British colony, is one of the largest multicultural societies on earth. Since independence from Britain in 1960, it has also grappled with separatist movements, sectarian and ethnic discord and struggles over natural resources, including minerals and oil.

Not until the late 1990s, scholars say, did Nigeria become a genuine multiparty democracy, with competitive, free and fair elections. Now, even those fragile advances are being threatened by fake news.

Last year, for example, President Muhammadu Buhari, who has suffered from various health problems, found himself compelled to deny rumors that he had died and been replaced in ceremonies by a Sudanese clone.

It is no crazier, to be sure, than the far-right claim that Hillary Clinton was behind a child sex ring housed in a Washington pizzeria. But an embryonic democracy such as Nigeria may need layers of protection to keep people safe from communal violence.

“Our democracy is only 20 years old,” said Ibrahim. “There is the fear that if fake news is allowed to continue as it is, it might get to a point where the democracy is threatened and the military might step in.”

Because Ibrahim does not want this to happen, he is supportive of some type of government action.

A federal senator, Mohammed Sani Musa, recently introduced a bill that would criminalize those who create “fake news,” with penalties that include fines and imprisonment for individuals, and financial penalties for companies.

“There is too much misinformation trending in our social media space,” Musa said.

“Is that the kind of world we should live in?”

Though the bill is still in its infancy, opposition to it has been fierce, largely because citizens fear it will only provide cover for censorship.

An online petition decried the so-called social media bill as a measure to curb critical online speech against politicians.

Toyin O. Falola, a professor of African studies at the University of Texas in Austin, said the proposed ban on “fake news” was mainly a reaction to “comments directed at political leaders reporting high level of transgressions and misdeeds.” He noted that Buhari, 77, had been highly secretive about the state of his health. He also said that the government had been incompetent in handling serious problems such as rising tensions between Muslim herders and Christian farmers.

“There is nothing special about ‘fake news’ in Nigeria,” Falola said in an interview. “It has become a global phenomenon in a post-truth age.”

Musa, the senator behind the bill, said “it is not an attempt to stifle free speech, it’s an opportunity to address growing threats that disturb the peace.”

But the legislation — like other proposals around the world to curb fake news — does not offer a very reliable definition of the problem.

Muthoki Mumo, an Africa expert at the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based group that advocates for press freedom, noted that lawmakers in Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania proposed bans on “fake news,” as “part of an attempt to grapple with a public that is expressing itself more freely and frequently online.”

The problem is that authoritarian governments throughout the world have used “fake news” as a pretext to curb legitimate speech. Threats against journalists are rising, and journalists worldwide increasingly are being imprisoned on accusations — often trumped-up and bogus — of disseminating false news.

Agba Jalingo, the publisher of CrossRiverWatch, was arrested by Nigerian authorities in August after the news website reported alleged corruption involving Cross River state’s public bank and governor. Officials asserted that the outlet’s reporting was false, treasonous and an attempt to disturb the peace.

Officials’ use of existing laws to go after reporters is troubling for advocates such as Mumo, who fears this new legislation would give the government greater authority to define truth and silence critics.

“If you have a government that’s willing to implement these laws in a broad way against critics, you’re not going to have a positive outcome no matter how well-meaning it is,” she said. “We’ve seen truth being defined in a way that favors authority. That’s a problem.”

Musa contends that the definition of truth can be sorted out in court and that his proposed ban would not harm nonpartisan journalists.

But the actual outcome remains far from certain.

In October, a court permitted the prosecution to bring forward an anonymous witness, making it harder for Jalingo’s attorney to defend his client in a fair and free trial.

And, for those who cannot afford to fight charges in court, the alternative is pleading guilty and paying the fine. And in a time that is becoming increasingly financially strained for media outlets, the fine can seem lofty.

The market to peddle falsehoods exploded in Nigeria after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, said Ibrahim, the scholar. And, with greater access to the internet and a thriving social media scene, rumors spread like wildfire in the West African country.

For Ibrahim, Nigeria “is in crisis,” and clamping down on “fake news” is key. If a central body can stop false, viral posts from creating violence and confusion, the country has a chance for more peace, he said. And while purported nonpartisan fact-checking organizations are starting to pop up throughout the country, their ability to address the root of “fake news” can never carry the same weight as that of a government.

No one is above the law, Ibrahim said. “Even if the president defines what truth is, the legislature can check him. You can never change the truth. Even if you suppress it, it will emerge.”

Falola disagrees, arguing that the government should not have the power to define what is fake. “The federal government itself is not transparent, thus creating the space for various individuals to create stories to fill a vacuum,” he said. Better governance, he said, is the answer.

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