Legislating the internet is no silver bullet against fake news. In fact, it is potentially very dangerous as a backdoor to censorship and surveillance. While the Nigerian government has a legitimate interest in ensuring the safety of its citizens, the proposed social media bill advanced last week by the Senate is essentially a cop out by those who suffer internet phobia coupled with some degree of technophobia.
Focus on ensuring a more vibrant and resilient democracy
Nigeria is a country dear to my heart. I spent several years living and working there to promote and facilitate inclusive economic development and trade. It’s a vibrant country overflowing with human energy and innovative minds searching for expression and realization of solutions to African problems and needs. The Nigerian government therefore should not look to the United States or Europe or Malaysia as models for innovating in all things Internet. The regulation they are currently promoting is being done under the guise of “transparency” or as a response to foreign meddling in elections. They are complicated proposals that, if successful, will end up pushing people who fear internet to choose silence and thus result in less vibrant democracy.
Digital security needs to be taken seriously, of course. Despite the perks of using social media like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, we all know they come with negative “side effects”, like cyber bullying, decreased productivity, personal or institutional privacy risks, or malware. The proliferation of extremist content, hate speech and state sponsored propaganda on the internet has also expanded around the globe. But the internet is not in a box somewhere. It cannot be effectively controlled through legislation intended to limit its use by making the government judge and jury over what is fake and real news.
The internet undoubtedly promotes the free flow of information, both good and bad, fake and true. But it also promotes e-democracy by giving interested citizens better access to the information that allows them to support democratic decision-making. As a result, the flow of information has increased social consciousness in Nigeria and thus enhanced democracy, by allowing for a better informed voting population. Limiting internet access and use will essentially walk back democratic gains by disabling users’ right to access information.
The internet is not itself a culprit of anything
Legislation conferring all-mighty power to government to limit internet use or shut it down at any time is a consequence of the anxiety of those who fear losing control over the discourse and messages influencing civil society and its participation in the political process. It’s a reaction akin to when electricity was introduced and people feared they would be fried in their beds.
By threatening to take away the power of freedom of speech and the right to access to information, the Nigerian Senate is effectively threatening to muzzle participation in democracy and will end up destroying the essence of the internet by accelerating the end of net neutrality. Instead of reverting to outdated-big-daddy, authoritarian-like impositions to control public discourse, Nigerian legislators would do better to propose legislation for ensuring more effective funding and accountability for education.
In an era of disinformation and misinformation, everyone - children, youths and adults - has to learn to differentiate between objective and biased information, opinion and sponsored online content. But special attention and effort have to be dedicated to young people. Just because they’re fluent in social media doesn’t mean they are equally perceptive about the content they access.
It’s essential that education include media and news literacy and social media safety in the curriculum as a transversal learning area. The objective is to put every student in better control of what they consume and create by training critical minds. Learning how to search for the truth
is not the responsibility of social sciences and English teachers. It’s relevant to any discipline.
Media literacy education entails developing a transversal curriculum area focused on: 1) understanding the purpose and audience of communication, 2) developing the critical and creative capabilities to access, organize, analyze, evaluate and both receive and generate quality messages from and with a variety of forms of media, 3) developing the skills to be able to inquire, communicate and think critically, and 4) address how specific strategies can be leveraged to entertain, inform, or persuade in a variety of media.
Finland, Sweden and the Netherlands offer successful models of best practices for how to use education to combat fake news by teaching digital literacy and critical thinking about misinformation to school children. Finland, for example, has adapted professional fact-checking methods for use in Finnish schools. The key is developing good research skills and critical thinking and focusing on three areas: misinformation (defective information or mistakes), disinformation, such as hoaxes, and malinformation, or stories that intend to damage.
Increasing concern about data collection and surveillance, fake news and misinformation, data hacks, and phishing scams also calls for digital media literacy focused on adults, including senators. It is therefore important to also include media literacy education outside the traditional classroom to teach adults how to develop effective strategies for safe social media use, including protecting one’s privacy, recognizing false information, and avoiding scams. Focus should be on three key areas: 1) how to evaluate information and its sources, 2) how to adjust online behaviors to protect privacy and 3) how to identify and protect oneself from scams and phishing.
It’s a matter of trust
Trust is the new currency in the digital age. The internet was not designed with trust issues in mind. But using the internet does increasingly require negotiating trust.
Although internet lacks many of the values that sustain democratic governance, it has, as made clear by the Internet and Democracy Project developed by Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center, become an ubiquitous communication tool that “influences democratic norms and modes, including its impact on civil society, citizen media, government transparency, and the rule of law”. Citizens have the democratic rights “to access, develop and share independent sources of information, to advocate responsibly, to strengthen online networks, and to debate ideas freely with both civil society and government”. The key to protecting, defending and enacting those rights is trust.
However, trust is neither binary nor evenly distributed. It has different levels and is increasingly fluid as technology increasingly embeds itself into human and organizational relationships. Criminal and malicious forces undeniably exploit the broadening digital engagement in all societies. Failing to protect the systems that connect and control individuals, businesses and public services can have devastating consequences, so everyone, including government, needs baseline security. But the internet is not the culprit of the deleterious impact of cyberforces.
The basic problem is a lack of trust. Regardless of the level of knowledge and use of the internet, trust is both a conscious and unconscious fundamental attribute of relationships. But while trust in personal relationships seems to be increasing, trust in government and business is on the decline because neither seem motivated to protect the public, just themselves.
The younger generation, which comprises more than half of Nigeria’s population of 182 million people, is at the vanguard of those who most actively use technology and see the internet as ubiquitous as the air they breathe. Those who are of an older generation, and occupy the majority of positions of power, fear the internet because at heart they are distrustful of technology.
The problem is that the trust-in-government-train of the younger generation, and a good part of the not-so-young generation, has left the station. But trust cannot be on-boarded through implementation of security processes and systems. The more government interferes with the democratic rights of citizens to information and freedom of communication, the more the train speeds up.
As more and more activities migrate online, and as ever larger numbers of people simply grow up with the internet, it seems inevitable that its use will expand, as will the types and scopes of activities available. Nothing the government will do can slow down the expansion of internet.
In order to slow down the loss of trust and strengthen it, people must have a reason to trust each other more. It certainly doesn’t help if the government does everything possible to play judge and jury over what is fake and true information or impose what information can or cannot be trusted. No matter how much enforcement agencies might or might not help governments protect their citizens, or those who govern, protection through control essentially boils down to the death of public trust.
Rather than feed on their fears and techno-panicking, Nigerian Senators should promote what can go right and together with Nigerian citizens, figure out how to fight disinformation and malinformation without curtailing democratic rights to information and freedom of communication. Studies show that consumption of news from online media websites is positively associated with higher political trust, while the access to information available on social media is linked with a lower propensity to express trust in political institutions.
Government, media and the education community need to work together to explore the opportunities of different communication media for ensuring the quality of news and professional journalism, rather than substandard news and citizen journalism. It’s equally important to clearly identify responsible parties and ensure they are available to answer user questions, deal with errors/failures, and promote continuous improvement. Access to public presentations of the number of fraudulent translations, criminal attacks, malicious uses, etc., should be available, just as police crime data or airline delays are public. The Better Business Bureau and public defenders can be expanded to online systems.
Don’t pander to fear. Promote freedom.
Nigeria, like a majority of African governments, has made great strides in democratic consolidation. These strides become even more significant today, when advanced democracies, like those of the United States, France and Australia, are experiencing setbacks. But like most African governments, Nigeria has a wide state-society gap that needs to be bridged. Defined by political competition, resource allocation rivalries and patrimonialism, this gap is at the heart of the foundational challenges and underlying roadblocks Nigeria faces in order to achieve resiliency at all levels of government. Pandering to the dark side of the internet is definitely not the way to bridge it to achieve long-lasting democratic consolidation.
The Internet is a tool to promote free media and counter biased, extreme or false discourses and messages. Shared norms and practices and government transparency are essential to maintaining functioning democratic communication. The responsibility of the government is to promote freedom of expression on the internet and strengthen public confidence in the integrity of the nation’s public and business leaders.
Enacting the proposed social media bill would be an enormous misstep that will be costly and have debilitating consequences for an already vulnerable economy. Legislation should avoid meddling in the still young Internet and focus instead on ensuring net neutrality and Global Internet Freedom while improving privacy and data security rights and government communications transparency.
Astrid Ruiz Thierry, Principal, Upboost LLC