Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka and others yesterday called for criminalisation of fake news.
They spoke in Abuja yesterday at the BBC Conference, on Nigeria 2019: Countering Fake News.
Osinbajo painted a picture of the destructive power of fake news, which he said has the capacity to cause personal harm and lead to violence. Besides, he said fake news can also cause damage to credibility and integrity of public information.
He added that the capacity of fake news to cause great harm is not in doubt as it has the ability to mislead without realising it.
Osinbajo, who narrated his personal experience in the hands of fake news peddlers, said a line must be drawn so as not to infringe on the rights of the people.
He said: “I have also been a victim. Fake news may also cause you marital peace. About three weeks ago I got a call from my wife in the office and she said, Yemi what are you doing with strippers. There is this story on a very famous blog that said, ‘Osinbajo caught with strippers.’ And there was also a photograph of me standing in between the perfectly clothed ladies and under the photograph, the same ladies now not wearing much. It turned out that I have taken photograph with the ladies at an entertainment event when they were perfectly clothed.
“The capacity of fake news to cause great arm is not in doubt at all. It has been the realisation that it may even mislead. I think it was Wilson Churchill that said a lie gets half way round the world before the truth has a chance to get his pants on. But why fake news is now news, is obviously because of the greater dimension of content of harm that it can do and then the scope.
“A lot of these are as a result of the advancement in technology, especially in the past few decades or so. But I think as for the damage done to the credibility and integrity of public information, the capacity of fake news to cause alarm, fear and even violence has been demonstrated again and again.”
He warned that greater damage would be done if nothing was done about it.
“One of the great worries for us should be what harm it has done to public information. I think that a time may come if nothing is done, when nothing will be believed or nothing will be believable because as technology improves in its capacity to manipulate and disseminate, after a while there will be perfect videos raising artificial intelligence and all of the other tools of digital technology,” he added.
He went on: “A perfect video of people speaking or somebody making a speech that he never made at events that never happened. It will become more and more difficult to differentiate between what is truth and what is not.
“I think if we discredit public information, it is a massive danger for society itself aside from the capacity of it to cause physical arm. Ones it destroys the believability of public information, then the means of communicating with each other have been soiled forever.”
While raising concern of human rights in an attempt to address fake news, Osinbajo said it would be impossible to regulate social media without infringing on fundamental rights.
“The second concern is how to deal with the consequence without infringing on the Freedom of Information and also the freedom of the press. Everybody is a press now, so freedom of the press means my freedom to own a blog, my freedom to determinate information, but the the question is how do we regulate now without infringing on these fundamental freedoms.
“Really it will be impossible to regulate social media without infringing on fundamental rights. There is no way we are going to leave that in the hands of government or in the hands of the legislature without refining some activity on the part of government of the legislature. How do you create that balance?”
Commending the organiser for coming up with the conference, Osinbajo said: “This conversation is overdue and I hope that we are able to provide some direction for the way we should handle this problem on fake news.”
Prof. Soynka and other panelists unanimously agreed that fake news be criminalised as a way of curbing the menace.
Other panelists include: BBC World Service Group Director Jamie Angus, Nigeria Guild of Editors (NGE) President Funke Egbemode and Bella Naija founder Uchechukwu Pedro.
Soyinka said fake news has the capacity to cause the Third World War, adding that it might come from Nigeria. The Nobel laurel, therefore, asserted that fake news be treated as a crime.
He said: “People do not understand what is like to have things attributed to you which you know nothing about. Apart from the fact that I have been killed on social media several times, this last year I had telephone calls asking me ‘where are you?’ and I said ‘I am in hall’. And I said ‘I know why you are calling because you thought I was dead’. Emerging waking up one day and finding a statement attributed to you and in a kind of language which you never used. For example during former President Goodluck Jonathan, there were statements that I said that why did Jonathan marry an illiterate. I never made comments like that whatsoever. Those who share fake news are sick.
“And I made a statement that if people are not careful World War 3 may be quickly started by fake news and that fake news probably will be generated by a Nigerian. We have a system where fake news can multiply in a second. Many of the fake news carriers use it for business. I have someone whom we have tracked down in Poland, using a fake Facebook page of my name and my picture. And I give him a deadline to pull down the page. He lives in the Unites States of America but lives in Poland. He is a member of an organisation called some AIESEC which actually encourages young business men and women.
“The first thing is to accept the fact that fake news is real and people should stop rushing to the fake sites. Individuals who have no voice before have been empowered suddenly. Every individual is now a journalist, editor, promoter and most of all a publisher. There is competition to be the first to comment. So the ‘419’ individuals sleep in cafes doing all sorts of things. Fake news should be treated as a crime. When you pin down one of such criminals, it should be a case of INTERPOL because they move all over the place. They should be advertised as criminals and get the police to arrest them.
“I had complained about this to a former inspector general of police that this has to do with personal security, community security. I had expected him to reply but there was no response. Not even acknowledgment. This should be a collective responsibility. Above all we should treat it like a crime.”
The representative of the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Festus Okoye, a National Commissioner, argued that fake news constituted a danger to the forthcoming general elections.
Okoye, who also pointed out that the country has an army of angry people with different agenda, urged the security operatives to be watchful so as to arrest any threat.
The INEC commissioner also challenged Nigerians on the need to be able to draw the line on what they want to believe.
The commission, Okoye said, will be undertaking regular briefing as the elections draw near as part of the measures to curb fake news.
Okoye said: “It is important that we should pay attention to fake news, it is an issue in the forthcoming 2019 general election.
“Fake news is misinformation; it has no basis in fact and no basis in reality. But it is generated for a particular purpose. The issues of fake news is of utmost importance in an election period where the stakes are high and where the gladiators wants to win and some of them want to win by all means. So, there are people who just sit down, mix fiction in other to generate a certain reaction. And when they generate such reaction, you can never tell how it will go. In a country like Nigeria, sometime people receive information saying forwarded as received without you looking at the dynamics of what they are forwarding. So for me if you forward as received that means you believe in what they are forwarding or you can attest to what you are forwarding. It is a very serious issue and we are also paying close attention to fake news.
“The truth of the matter is that during an election period people want to guild their thoughts. As the chairman of the information on voter education committee of INEC, we have had to battle with a situation where it was reported that we have established polling unites in Chad, Niger and other neighboring countries for purposes of having the Internally Displaced persons to vote.
“Nobody wanted to believe us when we said that there is nothing like that. One of the things that generate fake news is our inability to put out information in the public. When we put out information and you give it a different narrative then it is not our fault. I believe that if governments, agencies are proactive in putting out information on public space. In Nigeria you keep on hearing that there is no smoke without fire. That give people the opportunity to believe something even if they know that the chances of that news to be real in not possible. ”
Egbemode warned INEC to be ready for fake news, saying politicians would use fake news to gain advantage. He stressed that fake news is dangerous, posited that some people are paid to spread it.
She said: “Fake news is sophisticated. And some people wants to use that to set the country on fire. They want to see the effect. They know that there are some people who believe in sensation and they just take a full advantage of that. In the newsroom, we also know that fake news infringes on professionalism, it compromises integrity. Names that is built, brand that is build over decades.
“So we make sure that as an editors we cross check. If you cannot prove it then it cannot even be called a news item. That is what we do and that is what we have been doing. This is the season for more fake news. It is because of the advent and strength of the social media that we are having fake news and there are a lot of people who are paid to spread fake news. These people who post or Carry fake news are not journalists. The fake news issue did not originate from the newsroom. We know what we will lose if we peddle the smallest news item that is fake. We will lose ground, credibility. INEC should be ready for more fake news as the election approaches. There is news and there is gossip. When you want what is real you know where to go to. And when you want gossip and sensationalism you know where to go. When you want to listen to a sermon you do not go to a bar.”
Pedro noted that ” A lot of the fake news website mimic real news website, so they have they have similar template, it even contains lot of real information alongside the fake information. Fake news go viral than the real news. Many of these people that are posting fake news employs different methods by putting prominent figures to make it real. This is a political period we should be careful and vigilant. The traditional media is not creating fake news. Newspapers do not do that. The people who are posting fake news are not those who will benefit from it. When we have no official news people are going to take the unofficial one.”