Before the advent of social media, also known as the new media, in this part of the world, the role of the mainstream media was unquestionable in shaping public opinion and information dissemination. Then, in the past, nothing was settled as long as the newspapers and radio/television stations were yet to take a position. Publishers and owners of broadcast media then had considerable influence over the information highway, with the government determining where the pendulum would swing to. Then, publishers of newspapers/magazines and the number of broadcast media owners were too insignificant to pose a threat. It was possible for government to whip traditional media into line. That was then.
All that has suddenly changed. It is no longer so. Great thanks to the advent of the social media that has empowered citizens to provide information and share up-to-date news with others on happenings around their environments. The role of social media now makes reporting the news a second-by-second effort and constantly keeping taps on the information highway. The efficiency of social media is best appreciated when news are conveyed live, using several social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Whatsapp, YouTube, among many others. The significance of these platforms serves to broaden outreach of recipients of such information at a neck-breaking speed.
Initially, people had welcomed the dawn of the social media era with so much enthusiasm, taking into cognisance the speed achieved in providing news/information. However, since the business of information had become everyone’s business through the social media, the abuse of these platforms by persons has led to a wind of anxiety blowing across various countries.
Amidst the tension trailing Nigeria’s affairs, many top government aides have called for the regulation of social media activities in order to control the rising spate of fake news being promoted by social media activism. Ahead of the 2015 polls in the country, the heavy use of social media hawks proved effective in ensuring the bruising defeat of the then ruling party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Through the positioning of various social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter, the All Progressives Congress (APC) made a mincemeat of the PDP in 2015, and that demonstrated the power of what social media could achieve to cause change.
In Nigeria, lies and hate speech have always been a part of the social media world where political opponents are always engaged in swinging public opinion to favour their side. One vividly recalls the use of various social media platforms used by various political parties to lie through in securing political victory. The unprecedented use of the new media by the APC accounted for the defeat of the PDP.
The power of the social media had been put to test earlier In the United States of America in 2008 where Senator Barak Obama became the country’s first black president. It is now the vogue by many presidents and prime ministers, among various global political leaders, to be engaged in social media in a bid to share information with the world. United States President Donald Trump is so popular in the use of the twitter that his aides are often advised to check his twitter handle to ascertain if they still have their jobs. This advice has become necessary due to the fact that President Trump is known to have sacked his aides through his tweets that is followed by millions of people.
Riding on a new wave of social media activism that gave a free platform for political, social and economic leaders to deploy for change, the new media is becoming worrisome as the freedom enjoyed by users is capable of inflicting pains on humanity. Many point out that the absence of strict regulations for social media platforms largely accounts for the negative consequences of their activities. Against the backdrop of incessant blistering criticisms against governments of some countries, especially on rights violations, there are increasing pressures to checkmate social media activism in order to deal with negative attributes of these platforms as promoters of falsehood and hate speech.
Recently, the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, announced plans by the federal government to regulate activities of online publications and curb the increasing hate speech being used to increase tension in the polity. Yes, it may be true that unprofessional online platforms provide platforms for fake news, but to announce a planned clampdown on these online news portals without verifying their ownerships could eventually turn a journey in the wrong direction.
It is a fact that many of these platforms are not run by professionals that are conversant with the ethics of journalism. Some of these portals have not only become disreputable for fake news, but they are set up with the sole reason of inflicting falsehood. Media minders of various government organs are to be blamed for some of these fake news sites as they are allegedly behind some of them. Most mainstream media professionals sometimes depend on these news portals to confirm news sources. In a situation where even the traditional media depend on social media to access breaking news indicates how heavily the old media relies on the new media platforms that do not respect the rules of the game.
For those who seek to regulate social media activism in controlling spread of fake news, there is need to ensure that only online news portals managed by professionals are classified credible. In identifying these credible news portals and blogging platforms, the engagement of various professional groups in ascertaining the professional content of such news platforms is essential.
The federal government should note that the social media is a market place where everyone is free to patronise. As a market place, the rules may sometimes be flouted as cheaters and pickpockets also patronise. The best way government can discourage the spread of fake news and hate speech through questionable online portals is to constantly provide the true story. With the increasing disposition of government resorting to social media in providing information on their activities, attempting to stifle the information flow could create huge crevice for the information highway. Due to the relevance of the social media in promoting business and information dissemination, the federal government should not attempt to frustrate the boundless opportunities provided to millions of our people through the social media.
The new media has become a vehicle that promotes information from all angles and shades, with various sides being offered the right to state their own narratives. In an age where the world depends on the new media for speedy information propagation, it would amount to misapplying the wrong medicine in seeking to shut down social media activism. What the federal government should do now is to ensure that those who engage in the business of information should do so according to the rules. Those who propagate fiction and hate speech should be made to face the full wrath of the law. The resort by mischief makers to use social media to spread falsehood can only be tackled when government at all times opens its doors to tell the truth to her citizens and dispel fears. When those who are in government seek to appropriate its views as representing that of the overall majority, then, friction is bound to happen. Here lies the best means to resolving the negativities of the new media that has given us so much in creating boundless opportunities.