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Disinformation and Social Media Regulation – The Nigerian Experience

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— 3 minutes reading time

Above: the #EndSARS protests were targeted with misinformation campaigns to sabotage their credibility. Credit: Ayanfe Olarinde

Wadi Ben-Hirki,
Founder, Wadi Ben-Hirki Foundation

Wadi Ben-Hirki is an award-winning and experienced development worker, writer and public speaker. She is the Founder of Wadi Ben-Hirki Foundation and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Accounting from Covenant University.

The following opinion piece has been written by a guest author. The views expressed in it are the author’s own and cannot be attributed to the Strong Cities Network.

In August 2014, when the first case of Ebola virus was reported in Nigeria, a lot of people embraced myths and false information in a bid to tackle the deadly disease. Among the false ‘experimental therapies’ that were spreading like wildfire was the belief that drinking and bathing in water saturated with salt would cure the Ebola virus. Consequently, many people were hospitalised with itchy skin, rashes and high blood pressure, and some even lost their lives.

Governments and institutions across the world have increasingly demonstrated their commitment to ending the menace of misinformation and disinformation which has had devastating consequences on the human populace. As people lose their lives and livelihoods due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more efforts have been put in place to ensure only verified information is shared. As a key public health concern amid the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation sits alongside hate speech, cyber bullying and radicalisation as yet another challenge posed by a rapidly growing digital ecosystem. With over four billion active internet users in the world, it has become imperative for the online space to be greatly strengthened and carefully protected to avert more harm.

Towards the end of last year, Nigeria made headlines around the world as the #EndSARS protests exposed the various forms of injustices perpetrated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police Force. While Nigerian youths exercised their right to protest peacefully, deliberate efforts to spread misinformation sabotaged their credibility. Against this backdrop, the government initiated efforts to regulate social media in a bill submitted to the National Assembly, which became quickly known as the ‘antisocial media bill’. While such an approach might prevent the spread of disinformation in the short term, it would also shut down legitimate efforts to expose human rights abuses and anti-democratic behaviours.

A tangible and sustainable solution to social media regulation in Nigeria should take into account the potential of the internet and social media to be effective tools of positive global change. Achieving a conducive digital ecosystem will require governments to adopt a multi-stakeholder approach that taps into the numerous innovative solutions developed by actors in this space.

The fight against disinformation needs to be a collaborative effort if we are to build a positive digital space

Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have already mapped out intervention strategies to help combat disinformation. Traditional media like radio and television have proved instrumental in educating people on the need to verify data before sharing. Translating such important information and giving updates in major languages in order to have a wider reach and sensitise more people has also been very helpful. At the Wadi Ben-Hirki Foundation, our WeSurfSafe initiative seeks to stop the spread of misinformation and disinformation, and limit the reach of harmful narratives that influence radicalisation. Through infographics, online campaigns, posters and outreach programmes, we guide millions of internet users in Nigeria and beyond on ways to source verified information and the importance of sharing only valid data.

Change is already taking place as various actors mobilise. Nonetheless, with over 125.7 million internet users, it is vital that Nigerian stakeholders such as the government, media houses, the private sector and civil society organisations work together to ensure that the population is informed and educated to online harms.

None of us are safe until all of us are safe. The fight against disinformation needs to be a collaborative effort if we are to build a positive digital space.