LECTURE ON ‘FAKE NEWS, HATE SPEECH AND NATIONAL SECURITY IN NIGERIA’ BY THE HON. MINISTER OF INFORMATION AND CULTURE, ALHAJI LAI MOHAMMED, AT THE NATIONAL DEFENCE COLLEGE ON THURSDAY, 15TH OCT. 2020
Please permit me to thank the authorities of the National Defence College, in particular the Commandant, Major General Attu, for the invitation extended to me to deliver a lecture here today. May I also congratulate the participants of the National Defence College Course 29, who are the reasons we are here today.
2. The invitation to me gave me the leverage to treat the topic that was given to me, which is ‘Fake News and National Security in Nigeria’, as I may deem fit, hence I have decided to take some liberty to expand the topic to read ‘The Impact of Fake News and Hate Speech on National Security in Nigeria.’ I have tweaked the topic in order to make it more relevant to what we are facing in Nigeria at the moment. I am sure by the time I conclude this presentation, you will appreciate better the reason I have taken the decision to recast the topic.
3. Going into this presentation, please allow me to give some background information. Social Media platforms are now the preferred medium for reaching millions of people with whatever ideas, including subversive or anarchic ideas, hence it is the platform of choice for the purveyors of fake news and hate speech.
4. The advent of the Internet as well as the introduction of smart phones have democratized access to and dissemination of information in a very profound way. Anybody with a smart phone and data can access the Internet and disseminate whatever he or she feels like from his or her comfort zones. According to a report by Social Media marketing platform, Hootsuite, which was published by Pulseng in August 2019, of the 98.39 million Nigerian Internet users then, 54% access the Internet on a daily basis while only 12% (24 million) have active Social Media accounts. That number is projected to reach 44.63 million by 2025.
5. The report found that 3 hours 17 minutes is the average amount of time Nigerians spend using Social Media. This is higher than the global average, which is 3 hours 14 minutes. WhatsApp is the most active Social Media platform in Nigeria, with 85% of users. The second is Facebook at 78%, Instagram is third at 57%, followed by Youtube at 53%.
6. The report says in spite of this increase, overall Internet penetration in Nigeria remains quite low, with only 50% of the population connected to the internet, compared to the global average of 57%. The large population of 24 million people (actually, that number rose to 27 million by January 2020) active on Social Media is a huge market for the communication of ideas on whatever scale. The fact that the Internet is unrestrained and the absence of a policy or Act of Parliament to regulate its use, at least for communication purposes, makes the platforms susceptible to abuse.
7. WHAT CONSTITUTE FAKE NEWS AND HATE SPEECH?
According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, fake news is a deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media, as well as online Social Media. In other words, that which is willfully false.
On the other hand, hate speech is defined by the same Wikipedia as that speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, gender, disability, sexual orientation, etc.
8. Still quoting Wikipedia, national security is described as the security and defence of a nation state, including its citizens, economy, and institutions, which is regarded as a duty of government.
Originally conceived as protection against military attack, national security is now widely understood to include non-military dimensions, including the security from terrorism, minimization of crime, economic security, energy security, environmental security, food security, cyber-security etc. Similarly, national security risks include, in addition to the actions of other nation states, action by violent non-state actors, by narcotic cartels, and by multinational corporations, and also the effects of natural disasters.
9. From the foregoing and due to emerging trends in the polity and the economy, it is clear that the scope of national security has gone beyond military actions to efforts by the government to address challenges in the economy, environment as well as the activities of non-state actors and transnational corporations, among others.
10. While exploring the definition of fake news and hate speech, the nexus between fake news/hate speech and national security can be seen in how willful circulation of fake news or the willful purveying of hate speech can put the lives of the citizens in danger and put the very existence of a nation in jeopardy.
11. I will now proceed to list out some real instances of the dangers posed by fake news.
a) The government’s long battle against polio, which finally succeeded recently with the declaration of Nigeria as polio-free, was exacerbated for decades by the rumours promoted in certain circles in Nigeria that polio vaccines were aimed at depopulating Nigerians. That rumour put the lives of millions of children in harm’s way, yet the source has never been identified, neither has the veracity of the claims.
b) A report published by the BBC in 2018 said that the farmers-herders clashes in Nigeria were fueled by fake news in the Social Media. It was convenient for those trying to sow the seed of discord in Nigeria to pick pictures and videos of violence in other climes and rebroadcast them as if they were events taking place in Nigeria. Such videos fuelled reprisals, depending on which side of the divide one was. The people behind the spread of those fake pictures and videos were faceless but driven by dangerous motives.
c) In 2016, an entertainment entrepreneur published a story on his Social Media handle that five students of the College of Education in GidanWaya, Kaduna State, were slaughtered by Fulani herdsmen. The report, which naturally inflamed passions and almost caused reprisal attacks in the state, turned out to be fake. The entrepreneur and the Kaduna State Government are still in court over this matter.
d) During elections, fake news has the capacity to alter the course of an election and trigger legitimacy problems for the winner. A study by researchers at the Ohio State University in the United States concluded that Russian interference and the fake news it promoted probably played a significant role in depressing Hilary Clinton’s support on the day of the country’s 2016 presidential elections. Among the fake news circulated ahead of the election were: 1) Clinton is in poor health due to a serious disease. 2) Pope Francis endorsed candidate Trump, and 3) Clinton approved weapons sales to Islamic Jihadists. All were fake!
f) Fake news has the capacity to trigger violence. In India, about a dozen people lost their lives two years ago because of fake news or hoax messages. The victims were lynched after they were falsely accused of child abduction based on fake messages circulated via the social media platform, WhatsApp!
g) Again in Nigeria, in the wake of last year’s xenophobic attacks against Africans in South Africa, some very disturbing videos emerged on the Social Media purported to be scenes of the violence against Nigerians in South Africa. However, the videos were discovered to be of some accidents in India and Tanzania, but of course some irate Nigerian youths were incited to the point of setting ablaze some business premises connected to South Africa.
h) As the world confronts the Coronavirus pandemic, one of the biggest challenges to the response is the epidemic of fake news, which some experts now refer to as “disinfodemic”. While it is true that the fears and uncertainties that accompany a pandemic – especially one for which no cure has been found – can cause people to seek for and consume whatever information they can get to remain safe, we cannot ignore the fact that Nigerian lives are continuously being put at risk by misinformation that causes people to try unproven remedies in the name of ‘curing’ or even protecting themselves.
12. HATE SPEECH
Now, what about hate speech? I am sure many of us here remember the role that hate speech played in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, which left at least 800,000 people dead. Hate speech was a major catalyst of that genocide.
Anti-Tutsi articles and cartoons in the Kangura newspaper, as well as hate speech and incitement to violence on the radio station called RTLMC – Radio-Television Libres des Mille Collines – helped to set the stage for that genocide.
13. The station was set up by hard-line Hutu extremists, and received the backing of many rich and prominent people in that country. Those who saw the danger posed by the station called
for it to be shut down, but against the backdrop of freedom of speech, such calls fell on deaf ears, until it was too late. Similar scenes, though not on the scale of what happened in Rwanda, have played out in Cambodia and Bosnia, just to mention a few.
14. Hate speech was also a prominent issue in the run up to the 2015 general elections here in Nigeria. Then candidate Buhari was maligned and tagged with all sorts of names just to present him in a bad light.
Similar actions were repeated in the run-up to the 2019 general elections
15. WHAT HAS THE GOVERNMENT DONE TO CURB FAKE NEWS AND HATE SPEECH?
Let me admit, straightaway, that despite our best intentions and hard work since we pushed these two issues to the fore in 2017, we have not succeeded in curbing fake news and hate speech. But we have succeeded in bringing both issues to the frontburner of national discourse.
Today, Nigerians understand what fake news and hate speech mean, and they are discussing them across the nation.
16. As I said, we have been calling national attention to the dangers of fake news and hate speech since 2017. In fact, the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture organized an extraordinary session of the National Council on Information on fake news and hate speech in Jos, Plateau State, on July 21st 2017. Right after the meeting, the ministry used every available platform to highlight the dangers of fake news and hate speech. We then followed up with a National Campaign against Fake News and Hate Speech – which was launched on
July 11th, 2018.
17. Let me quote a paragraph from my speech at that launch: ‘There is an epidemic sweeping the world. If left unchecked, it could be worse than all the plagues that the world has recorded put together. It is a clear and present danger to global peace and security. It is a threat to democracy. It is the epidemic of Fake News. Mixed with hate speech, it is a disaster waiting to happen’ End of quote.
18. Since then, we have visited many media houses on advocacy and sensitization trips, in furtherance of the campaign. These efforts have brought the issue of fake news and hate speech to the fore. The Vanguard newspaper, the Nigeria Union of Journalists as well as the Nigerian Press Council have also organized events to sensitize Nigerians to the twin evils of fake news and hate speech
19. We have also reached out to the Technology companies like Facebook and Google in order to work with them to curtail the spread of fake news and hate speech. This alliance came in handy in the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Facebook removed any fake story we are able to flag.
20. Also, we have embarked on the reform of the broadcast industry, especially to stop the purveying of hate speech by the nation’s broadcast stations. We have increased the fine for hate speech from N500,000 to N5 million – an action we believe will be a strong deterrent.
The government is seriously handicapped in tackling the menace of Social Media. One, the government lacks the technology to monitor the Social Media and stop the purveyors of fake news and hate speech in their tracks. Secondly, the country lacks a national policy on the use of Social Media. Both are critical to any effort aimed at curbing the excesses and misuse of Social Media.
22. There is no doubt that the security and intelligence agencies have a big role to play in stopping the misuse of Social Media. We have best practices from around the world to learn from. China, with about 1.4 billion people, does not allow an unbridled use of Social Media platforms like Facebook, Google or Whatsapp. Many countries have also enacted laws or leveraged on regulation to ensure a responsible use of the Social Media.
23. The need to act fast is made more urgent by the fact that the extremism being promoted by anti-state groups remains one of the biggest challenges to Nigeria’s national security. Let me quickly state that the veritable tools of choice for extremists to propagate their dangerous and subversive ideas include unrestrained propaganda, fake news and hate speech.
24. These are very potent tools in the hands of extremists, whether they are secessionists, ultra-nationalists, religious extremists or even insurgents. Of course, Social Media is the platform of choice for these malcontents. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Boko Haram terrorists have resorted to the use of Social Media to propagate the ideas in their depraved minds.
25. Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, as a government, we will do everything possible, within the laws of the country, to ensure that fake news and hate speech do not jeopardise our national security or threaten the very existence of our country. But it is pertinent to say that the government cannot do it alone. All Nigerians must eschew fake news and hate speech, and also commit to a responsible use of the Social Media.
26. I thank you all for your kind attention.