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HomeOpinion2019: Defusing fake news time bomb ROBERT EGBE by ROBERT EGBE

2019: Defusing fake news time bomb ROBERT EGBE by ROBERT EGBE

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Many Nigerians have been exposed to the menace of fake news, misinformation and propaganda, particularly on social media and other online platforms. This has caused ethnic, religious and political tensions in some parts of the country. With a potentially-heated general elections coming in February, next year, what legal and other remedies can be deployed to check fake news? ROBERT EGBE asks.

When the Nigerian Army began a medical outreach as part of the Operation Python Dance II, code-named Egwu Eke, in the Southeastern states on September 18, last year, its aims were to: offer free medical services in fulfiment of its corporate social responsibility.

But, hours after the outreach began in Ozubulu, Ekwusigo Local Government Area of Anambra State, news began making the rounds that the personnel were forcibly injecting pupils with the Monkey Pox virus.

Pupils in public and private schools in Anambra and the neighbouring Imo, Abia, Ebonyi and Enugu states abandoned their schools as the rumour went viral that the exercise was a tool by the Federal Government, led by President Muhammadu Buhari, a northerner, to depopulate the Southeast.

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Nearly a month later, despite a sustained national campaign of assurances by the army and Southeast governors, the Monkey Pox vaccination scare hit Edo, Dalta and Bayelsa states in the Southsouth.

A parent, who identified herself as Mrs. Chiazor, explained on October 14, 2017, why she withdrew her child from school.

She said: “I came to school because I heard that the killer vaccine was already at the Oredo Local Government Secretariat (Edo State) for onward transmission to schools.”

Asked where she got the information from, Mrs. Chiazor replied: “It was on the radio. Children also died in Anambra after they were vaccinated.”

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Fake news sells…everywhere

Nigeria is not alone in the fake news problem. A 2017 study by news website BuzzFeed found that fake news travelled faster and further during the United States election campaign.

The President Donald Trump-administration has been dogged by allegations that he was partly aided into office, rather than his rival Hillary Clinton, by a Russian fake news campaign.

According to BuzzFeed, the 20 top-performing false election stories generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook, whereas the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 reputable news websites generated 7,367,000 shares, reactions and comments.

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Also, a 2016 BBC report titled “The city getting rich from fake news” traced many of the fake news websites that sprang up during the United States election campaign to a city in Macedonia, where teenagers fabricated sensationalist stories to earn cash from advertising.

This suggests that tech-savvy Nigerian youths could be tempted to cash in on the same scheme, unless the country finds a way to stop them.

Cambridge Analytica

Another dimension was introduced to the fake news problem in Nigeria, last March when The Guardian UK revealed that a Nigerian billionaire paid £2 million to data firm Cambridge Analytica to help former President Goodluck Jonathan win the 2015 elections which he eventually lost.

Will Cambridge Analytica style firms be recruited for the 2019 polls? There is no indication yet that this is the case, but eyebrows were raised on November 2, when it was revealed that The Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) had hired the firm of Brian Ballard, a top US lobbyist, ahead of the 2019 elections. The influential lobbyist has President Trump as one of his clients.

Major recent fake news incidents

Fake pictures circulating on social media which users are falsely claiming depict inter-communal violence are inflaming already high tensions in Nigeria

In January, the presidency denounced a fake Twitter account which appeared to justify herdsmen attacks in Benue State to the anger of the public.

A month later, a letter alerting the public to an apparent attack by herders on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, a major route in the country’s Southwest, went viral before the police issued a statement to deny it.

What is the government doing to stem the tide?

On July 18, Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed said the National Campaign Against Fake News has received a boost from the Social Networking Platform, Facebook, which plans to partner with the Federal Government to check the menace.

To tackle the menace, he said: “We have launched a national campaign against fake news and hate speech. The aim is to sensitise Nigerians to the dangers posed by fake news; how to spot fake news and what to do”.

On October 18, the Minister warned that the challenge posed by hate speech and fake news was a serious threat, not just to the peace and security of Nigeria, but to its very existence.

A media adviser to President Buhari, Tolu Ogunlesi. has said the government has reported “hundreds” of fake news websites to tech companies since 2015, in an effort to stem the tide.

“A particular case was that we had people impersonating the Minister of Finance on Facebook. They were using the account to financially defraud people,” he told AFP.

“A lot of them run pay-for-job schemes. It’s a common scam, asking people to pay some money in exchange for a job.”

Ogunlesi predicted that misinformation online will still increase as elections approach in February next year when former Vice President Atiku Abubakar will challenge Buhari.

Are existing legislations adequate?

Although the Cyber Crime Act 2015 appears to be more concerned with financial/ICT crimes and hate speech, it does tackle fake news, albeit in an indirect way.

For instance, Sections 24 and 26 of the Act provides that any person who knowingly or intentionally sends a message or other matter by means of computer systems or network that is grossly offensive, pornographic or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character or causes any such message or matter to be so sent; or he knows to be false, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred, ill will or needless anxiety to another or causes such a message to be sent, shall be liable on conviction to a fine of not more than N7,000,000 or imprisonment for a term of not more than three years or to both.

The Act also forbids the distribution of racist and xenophobic material to the public through a computer system or network (e.g. Facebook and Twitter). It prohibits the use of threats of violence and insulting statements to persons based on race, religion, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin. Persons found guilty of this are liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term of not less than five years or to a fine of not less than N10million or to both fine and imprisonment.

In an article last August titled, “Nigeria has enough laws to curb hate speeches”, human rights lawyer Mr Femi Falana (SAN) addressed attempts by the National Assembly to enact new legislation to curb the related problem of hate speech.

He said: “Before further energies and resources are dissipated by the government on the enactment of a new hate speech law it is pertinent to point out that the country has enough laws to deal with the menace. What is however lacking is the political will to arrest and prosecute those who contravene the provisions of the relevant laws.”

Falana also observed that offences which include criminal defamation, inciting statements, breach of the peace, criminal intimidation, publication of statement, rumour or report which may disturb public peace, false publication etc, already attract penalties by imprisonment or payment of fines.

He added: “Under Section 95 of the Electoral Act 2010 as amended, it is provided that no political campaign or slogan shall be tainted with abusive language directly or indirectly likely to injure religious, ethnic, tribal or sectional feelings.

“Accordingly, abusive, intemperate, slanderous or base language or insinuations or innuendoes designed or likely to provoke violent reaction or emotions shall not be employed or used in political campaigns. A political party or persons who contravene the provision of this section is guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction- (a) in the case of an individual, to a maximum fine of N1,000,000 or imprisonment for the term of 12 months; and in the case of a political party, to a fine of N2,000,000 in the first instance, and N1,000,000 for any subsequent offence.

‘Laws not the problem’

Activist-lawyer Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN) shared similar views. Ozekhome, who warned the government against attempts to stifle free speech in the guise of curbing fake news, urged it to take a second look at the existing laws.

He said: “We have enough laws that can deal with fake news in our criminal code in the southern part of Nigeria and in our penal code that operates in the northern part of the country, including Abuja. We have never lacked laws; what we have always lacked is the will to implement laws.

“When a person decides to post a piece of news that is fake, both the person posting and the person who generated that piece of news are liable and should be prosecuted. It is like in the law of defamation or libel; the person who makes a libelous statement is as guilty as the peddler of that libelous statement. That is why if, for example, chief A makes a libelous statement, the newspaper that published it, has also committed libel. The vendor that sells the newspaper has also committed libel. So, it is therefore important that Nigerians should watch news that are posted to them before they themselves disseminate it.

“But we do have enough laws in our statutes to deal with fake news. The Cyber Crime Act that was passed is there.”

Director, Strategic Communications of President Buhari 2019 Presidential Campaign, Festus Keyamo (SAN), reasoned that because of the closeness of the elections, any attempt by the government to curb fake news, could be misinterpreted as a ploy to limit freedom of speech.

He said: “For now, any legal intervention to try to curb fake news will mostly seen as an attempt to gag free speech. It is a big problem to try to balance the two, to the extent that, one, you allow free speech, and two, you ensure that you restrict fake news. Balancing both is problematic.

“You would recall that recently, there was an attempt to enact legislation in respect of fake news, unverified news and Nigerians rose up and condemned it. The National Assembly was trying to criminalise it. If you look at the content of the bill, it talked about news that is untrue, unverifiable; whether we call it hate speech or not, the content of the bill was actually fake news, because the content of that bill was that you post something that you cannot verify, that is not true, then you will be subject to prosecution and fake news is all about stories that are untrue. So, we have a problem on our hands, the problem is how to allow free speech and at the same time curb fake news.”

Keyamo noted that the reputable press organisations have a big role to play in exposing fake news because they have the tools to do so. He

He said: “For now, an active, regular press must rise to the occasion. The normal, orthodox press that people still believe in; newspapers, television stations, electronic media, etc, must find a way to quickly respond to fake news publications, in order to ensure that people are not misled. This is because, for now, there is no way we can make any legislation between now and the election period.

“Secondly, if the ruling party initiates anything like that now, it will be interpreted as trying to interfere in the elections and even curtailing the rights of Nigerians. There’s always mass hysteria about such things; nobody will listen to reason.

“But I’m not giving up to say we have to live by fake news, I’m just saying that the regular press should be alive and not ignore any such news, because some of the fake news items will come as internet garbage, but whether it is garbage or not, I think we should respond, the regular news media should respond to such stories as quickly as possible.”

Prosecuting fake news publishers

Kaduna State stands out as the state which does not relent in using the law to solve the fake news problem.

On April 10, the state arraigned the Vanguard newspaper correspondent in the state, Luka Binniyat, for alleged false reporting of the death of some students during a crisis in the southern part of the state.

Mr. Binniyat was slammed with a two-count charge before a Kaduna State High Court sitting in Kaduna, the state capital, court documents show.

He was accused of writing a false report in his newspaper and on the social media that about five students of College of Education, Gidan Waya, Kaduna State were ambushed and shot dead by Fulani herdsmen.

The state also charged the president of Chocolate City music label, Audu Maikori, to court for distributing a similar report, although he later retracted and said he was misled.

“After carrying out a detailed investigation that involved the police, I found out that my driver, who claimed that his brother was also killed in Southern Kaduna, lied to me to extort money”, Mr. Maikori said.

While the Kaduna State government has defended the trials, saying they are necessary to prevent people from spreading false rumours and thus, worsening crises in southern Kaduna, its critics say such trials only distract from the security challenge facing the state.

Scores of people have been killed in Southern Kaduna in clashes manly between migrant herdsmen and local farming communities.

Lesson from other countries

Germany: In June 2017, Germany’s Bundestag (federal parliament) passed the Network Enforcement Act (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz) 2017, which came into effect on January 1.

The Network Enforcement Act is aimed at combating agitation and fake messages (fake news) in social networks.

It requires companies like Google and Facebook to delete content considered hate speech or fake news, or face a fine of up to 50 million euros.

Malaysia: Malaysia has taken stern measures towards combating fake news. It has enacted a law criminalising it, with a penalty of up to six years in jail. The law criminalised the dissemination of “any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas”.

Italy: Last November, two fake news items grabbed the public’s attention in Italy. The first claimed that a nine-year-old Muslim girl was hospitalised after being sexually assaulted by her 35-year-old husband.

The second was a fabricated photo appearing to show Maria Elena Boschi, a prominent lawmaker and member of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s ruling Democratic Party, at a funeral mourning the death of a mafia boss Salvatore Riina.

In response to these and others, Italy launched a two-pronged measure. The first relied on Facebook. Last February, the social networking giant rolled out for its Italian users a new fact-checking programme aimed at identifying and debunking false information that appears on the site.

The second was initiated by Italian lawmakers last October. They launched an experimental project to make media literacy—including how to recognize falsehoods and conspiracy theories online—part of the country’s high-school education curriculum.

The Czech Republic: According to a 2016 report by a Czech think tank, European Values, about 2.6 million of the country’s 10.6million (2016 estimate) population are influenced by fake news.

Last year, the Czech Interior Ministry set up a 20-person unit to monitor “disinformation campaigns related to internal security.” it also runs a Twitter account that shares tips on how to identify reliable news sources, promotes access to free media-literacy classes, and occasionally calls out specific information circulating online as untrue.

China: In 2017, China’s first cybersecurity law came into effect; it requires Internet companies to allow even more surveillance of their networks, submit to mandated security reviews of their equipment and provide data to government investigators when requested, among other regulations.

Kenya: President Uhuru Kenyatta, has signed into law the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act 2018 that criminalises abuse on social media and the spread of false information. According to Reuters, the bill allows for a fine of up to $50,000, two years of jail time, or both, to be imposed on any person who intentionally publishes false information.

This report was first published in the The nation

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