Opinion: Should social media be criminalised in Nigeria?

by Olufemi Adeagbo

Late Cynthia Osokogu.

Social media today if studied with the deserving attention, will reveal to the Nigerian government the existence of a young population that is increasingly abusive, often inarticulate, frustrated, restless, aggressive and often impatient – as evidenced in the shallowness of some of the analysis that one sees across social media platforms.

Social media has been in the news lately. Salvos from political leaders and various sectors of society, especially following the death of Cynthia Osokogu have tended to portray social media a  pervasive  enabler of evil. Some have called for curtailing the freedom, whilst others have taken up argument on the other side of the divide, stressing that Social media represents a democratic platform to express opinions and views freely and without fear or reprisal.

Only this week, President Barack Obama of the United States of America stated that in this modern world, where all sorts can be published at the click of a button, to respond with violence, simply empowers those who wish to generate hate. Whilst the context was that of the condemnable film that has triggered so much violence, this statement recognizes the pervasive power of the Social media platforms to spread information with unpredictable consequences.

Perhaps a good starting point will be to really examine what social media means. Wikipedia defines social media as ‘web- and mobile-based technologies that support interactive dialogue and introduce substantial and pervasive changes to communication between organizations, communities, and individuals’. In essence, users generate and share all types of content within their established networks.

With some 100 million connected SIM cards in Nigeria, and a sizeable community of online users, social media has exploded in Nigeria, with an increasing focus on political matters – admittedly often in indecorous manner.

But social media is not the demon some are making it out to be. Social media networks deliver communication and collaboration, allowing people to gain productivity advantages, share interests and develop and sustain social relationships, and much more. Unlike guns, which are primarily designed to take life, social media is designed to foster human interaction.  If  human beings decide to use it to support their nefarious activities, that is the fault of the particular human mind. Human beings travel on roads to commit crimes. They use vehicles, they use guns, they use non – social media means. Can we start to blame the smooth expressway used by fleeing robbers as the reason that robbery occurred in the first place?

Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State while answering questions from the press on the apprehension of one of the Osokogu murder suspects at Nnewi, described as unfortunate, a situation where some people, rather than tap the enormous advantages that go with the internet and other social media, sought to put them into bad use. He said “the bad usage of the social media was symptomatic of the erosion of values in the society, adding that what Nigeria needed most is value-reorientation and ethical rebirth. We have got to a stage where we have completely lost our sense of values and this is at the root of our problem as a country. What we need at this time is ethical re-birth that will reshape our psyche to embrace things that are ennobling and will return our society to the path of virtue.”

Senate President, Senator David Mark, speaking at delivered a keynote address at the Senate  press corps retreat in Umuahia, Abia State expressed the belief that “there must be a measure to check the negative tendencies of the social media in our country. I say this because media practice, particularly journalism, process news gathering and dissemination. It also operates a feedback mechanism and where the practitioners erred there is room for rebuttal. But in the social media a faceless character can post any information that is absolutely false and misleading but will never retract it. At the end of the day, one is bombarded with questions over what one has no business with. I suggest that schools of mass communication and journalism should review their curricular to include the operations of social media.”

These views, in my humble opinion are germane, and they recognize the threats posed by a combination of dysfunctional orientation and access to a  powerful phenomena like social media.

However, social media and its pervasiveness must also be used to capture political vision, interact effectively with the citizens. Images of governor Fashola accosting a soldier breaking traffic rules went across the world. The universal view was that this was a governor committed to fairplay and equity. That is the sort of political capital that social media can bring to the table. Government can, and should actually use social media to tap into, and guage the pulse of the citizenry on an ongoing basis, and engage in rigorous interaction to arrive at useful developmental outcomes. It cannot be an election period tool, only remembered when seeking political office.

The   criminal activities that are carried out with the use of social media are rooted in the attitude of  society,  which is increasingly mirroring the attributes of the leadership class. The psyche of the nation is increasingly twisted, mirroring what the citizens see daily from a leadership class who appear oblivious to the suffering of those around them,  and  who are seemingly unable to come up with sustainable solutions to the challenges of security, opportunity creation, national cohesion, provision of energy and many other important  facets of our national life.

As the country lumbers from one scam to another, social media actually helps to propagate information quickly, providing Nigerians with more insight into the level of corruption by a few, that deny others the basics of life. The concussive corruption has fostered ineptitude and a constant slide in standards. Standards in governance, integrity, business ethics, hygiene, education delivery, judicial conduct and indeed virtually everything have suffered.

Social media today if studied with the deserving attention, will reveal to the Nigerian government the existence of a young population that is increasingly abusive, often inarticulate, frustrated, restless, aggressive and often impatient – as evidenced in the shallowness of some of the analysis that one sees across social media platforms. It signposts very serious trouble,  and  government should begin an engagement process to really discover the yearnings, and develop policies and tactical initiatives that respond to those yearnings that are legitimate.

Feedback generated from social media can be an effective plank in fostering participative democracy. Social media breaks down the traditional  values between the citizens and those they have elected to serve them. Connection technologies, including social media, tend to devolve power from the nation state and large institutions to individuals and small institutions,” said Alec J. Ross, senior innovation advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an interview. “Nothing demonstrated that more than the power to publish and distribute at great scale by historically disempowered individuals with inexpensive devices.” In his view, “If governments are not engaging in social media, they are essentially ceding influence and power,”

Our political leaders should also urgently address the root causes of the anger and odium spewed across social media. They should tackle corruption with courage, sincerity and adherence to process. They should look deep inside of themselves and find a new purpose that goes beyond self – aggrandizement. The realization of the potential that God has given millions lies within their scope of influence. As it stands today, the promised dividends of democracy  and  the  realities of our existence simply do not tally with the value realized from our vast resources, or the immense potential for innovation that can truly define this potentially great nation.

President Obama believes that controlling Social media is an obsolete approach. He in fact goes on to state in his speech before the General Assembly of the United Nations that   as  President of the United States and Commander in Chief of the military,  he accepts that people will always call him awful things, and he will continue to defend their rights to do so. Laudable indeed. However, social media because of its pervasive nature must not be used to deliberately impugn government or people, and it may be time to look at a comprehensive basket of privacy and data usage laws that can bring more responsibility to the use of social media where deliberate spreading of malicious and false information is concerned.

This is not a call for the curtailment of the right to express opinions and views. It recognizes the need to address the narrow issue of deliberate and malicious alignment of characters and misinformation, which are really cyber crimes that can have serious implications for National security.  Laws must be put in place to unveil the identity of a perpetrator, and bring them to justice. Of course, there are challenges with this in itself, especially with the potential for coercion or intimidation by the state.

However, this is not a discussion we should shy away from as we seek to shape the social media order in Nigeria in order to ensure its alignment with the very noble ideals that fostered its creation in the first place, and to use it for the common good.

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Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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Comments (2)

  1. @Tolu, it is obvious you didn't read the post. Great post by the way!

  2. What kind of question is that?

    Is that even supposed to be an issue?

    What happened to our freedom of expression?

    Who wants to take it away?

    For what reason?

    When we need the social media now more than ever for a wide range of reasons. Sure what happened to Late Cynthia Osokogu was wrong and tragic but there is good and bad in everything and the benefits of social media far outweigh the costs.

    Don't we have better things to discuss?

    Abeg leave story for tortoise.

cool good eh love2 cute confused notgood numb disgusting fail