As expectations continue to heighten over the public hearing on “The Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill 2019 (SB 132)” popularly referred to as the ‘Social Media Bill’, on Monday, March 9, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) wishes to again state that the attempt to gag the social media space will not be tolerated.
The centre condemning in totality, the content of the bill, describes the Senate’s move as an attempt to ensure that there is an amalgamation of power into the hands of a few individuals who would not only gag the media space but will as well ensure that only information they deem fit be made public.
The CDD warns that in a democratic system which we operate in Nigeria, the government must not only police itself but also allow the people who have elected them into power the obligation to do same.
The ambiguous bill which targets the disabling of access by end users will block access orders and interfere with business operations of sprouting SMEs in Nigeria.
Considering that Nigeria currently battling insecurity, access blocking orders could deter online intelligence gathering through both blocking internet access and possibly stimulating the development of an online information black market.
Also, the bill provides for subjective judgement as to whether the transmission of false statements of fact is likely to incite feelings of enmity, hatred towards a person or ill-will between groups of persons.
While the centre appreciates the essence and use of social media among many Nigeria youths in educating, disseminating knowledge, keeping the citizens informed and shaping public discourse in Nigeria, CDD can boldly say that the social media space has become a critical tool for shaping public discourse where many Nigerians seek to harness the positive impact of social media.
CDD urges the Senate to understand that social media is here to stay especially with over 29.3 million users across Nigeria.
It is for this reason that the CDD as one of Africa’s leading think tank has made a list of recommendations that could adopted by the Nigerian Senate to handle issues surrounding the use of social media in Nigeria.
Rejecting the bill in its entirety, the CDD therefore recommend that rather than stifle the rights of the Nigerian citizens, the Senate should retrace its steps closely study these recommendations for possible adoption.
CDD’s recommendations for the Nigerian Senate on the proposed social media bill
- Demand side (end-user) interventions
In focusing on those who produce and distribute disinformation, the Bill represents a supply-side intervention. However, given the decentralized nature of disinformation’s production, a supply-side intervention amounts to cutting the head off a hydra. A robust response would consider interventions to bolster the end-user’s ability to critically engage with and judge the veracity of information. The demand for disinformation is driven by the psychology of news consumption and opinion formation.
The disconfirmation bias suggests that people are unlikely to accept information that conflicts with their pre-existing beliefs. Thus, correction notices are likely to be viewed as government-controlled media and may even reinforce beliefs that false stories are true. Rather than getting involved directly, the government should fund critical thinking and digital literacy training for both child and adult education.
Such critical thinking training should explicitly address the biases that contribute to the demand for disinformation. Beyond national and state education ministries, the National Orientation Agency could seek to introduce awareness of and techniques to mitigate these biases into the national consciousness.
2. Fake-news-proofing platform algorithms
Disinformation is inadvertently fueled by the algorithms that sort search results and the feeds or docking pages of many social media platforms. While the specific features that form the weights of the algorithms are typically unknown, it is evident that more popular posts or results are more likely to be prominently displayed. Unfortunately, fake news posts are often designed to “go viral” with the aim of appearing on as many people’s feeds as possible. But social media platforms and search engines may not have incentives to introduce adjustments to these algorithms on their own; popularity does drive engagement, and engagement is the core of their business models.
Here the government can step in to mandate technical provisions for algorithms such that they mitigate “gaming”, that is, including certain features in posts to stoke virality regardless of veracity. There are also machine learning algorithms that, based on previous instances of news verified as false, predict the falsehood of a given statement with reasonable accuracy.
This arena need not, indeed should not, be the exclusive preserve of academics and technologists. Nigeria needs to invest in its technical capacity to understand and contribute to 21st century technologies, because those who spread disinformation are already doing so.
2. Accreditation for content creators
In one of CDD’s key informant interviews on the issue of fake news, a senior member of the Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ) suggested accreditation of online content creators under their auspices. The official asserted that many of their extant processes for dealing with journalists could benefit online content creators without great modification, including training in norms of ethical journalism and peer-driven sanctions for breaking those norms. This arrangement would also enable the government to deal with the NUJ as the representative for online content creators.