That Sinking Feeling
Social media will be the death of Nigeria. An exaggeration? Maybe. But that sentiment is not far from the truth. All you have to do is to look at issues affecting our dear and beloved country from the confined social media angle and you’ll think no Nigerian has a life or lives it anymore.
I have had friends tell me that their children living abroad constantly worry about them. This is on account of the picture of Nigeria they get from the social media. A friend told me I was bold to get on the road to travel to my village in the State of Osun because of the news about bandits, kidnappers and herdsmen on that road.
Yet hundreds of thousands of Nigerians journey through the country in search of their livelihood every day and nothing happens to them. But the dominant theme from the social media is as if all Nigerians are cocooned in their homes to avoid anything happening to them. We’ve so frightened ourselves to submission and we’re now pushing ourselves to the breaking point and that self-fulfilling prophesy that all hell will finally break loose.
I wasn’t surprised that at the Senate confirmation hearing of President Muhammadu Buhari’s ministerial nominees, one nominee, Dr Isa Pantami, director general of the National Information Technology Development Agency, gave voice to the feelings of many Nigerians on this subject. He said that great damage is being done to the country. He noted that investors are running away from Nigeria because of its “bad reputation.”
But he then added, “Our image is worse than the reality.” And this is precisely the crux of the matter.
In today’s world that is getting ever smaller and closer by the millisecond, image matters. Nigeria is not being done any favours by this relentless campaign on the social media about how bad it is. While a country has to have a dose of reality for its own sake and growth, presenting outright lies as facts can’t be the way to go.
A scintilla of reality is often dressed up in garment of lies to obfuscate issues to achieve a dark and sinister purpose. When lies go viral, how do we claw back reality?
I was fascinated by a recent occurrence in Ondo State and the response of Arakunrin Oluwarotimi Akeredolu, governor of the state, to it. From a story that went viral on the internet, a huge python worthy of its natural habitat in Southeast Asia and East Indies, fell from the ceiling of the state’s House of Assembly, disrupting that day’s sitting and forcing members of the assembly to scamper to safety. But visiting the premises of the House of Assembly, Governor Akeredolu was able to get a babbling Speaker of the House, Bamidele Oloyelogun to confess that no snake fell from the ceiling and in fact when the ceiling collapsed, no house member was around.
It turned out that the damage had been done by termite infestation. But I guarantee you that the image of that “python” falling from the ceiling of the House is what would stick in the head. And as Nigerians are wont to do, not a few of them will believe that the governor’s intervention was just for cover-up and that the snake actually fell from the ceiling. The pesky social media warrior who contrived this unforgettable image would not offer us any apologies for his lie. It’s the social media, so all is well.
While no country can escape some propaganda in its political life, the anonymity that the social media often confers on peddlers of lies gives them the ability to run roughshod over the rest of us. All is fair in their political war and their intention to cause chaos and tremendous damage to the nation. From 2015 to 2018 President Buhari has died many times. Of course, he must be the Nigerian Houdini. Indeed, our great escapologist who keeps coming back for the dead.
And, when death refuses to kill him, the doubters, gloomsters and doomsters, to quote new British prime minister, Boris Johnson, created a viral video on YouTube that “showed” Buhari has been replaced by a Sudanese impostor Jubril. And when no less a person than the presiding bishop of Living Faith Church Worldwide, Bishop David Oyedepo, swallows this hook line and sinker, you can only imagine what less discerning Nigerians would do. A colleague of mine and publisher of an online platform, discussing this impostor issue with me late last year told me: “It is not impossible. We cannot say the Buhari we have is not an impostor.” The damage had been done.
Even in the past few weeks, another controversy found its way to the social media. This borders on the issue of the photographs of herdsmen on Nigeria’s new passport. This web was spun and woven by no other than a powerful man of God, Apostle Johnson Suleiman. Apostle Suleiman is senior pastor and overseer of Omega Fire Ministries.
Quoting bible passages, he regaled us, on his Twitter handle, with tales of how our new passport was now full of photographs of herdsmen. In fact, he said herdsmen were now representing Nigeria’s six geopolitical zones. The now-deleted tweet went viral and the government, particularly Buhari, came in for a rollicking. This is in spite of the fact that they had done nothing wrong.
Some of our famous columnists got in on the act, pillorying the government. I checked my new passport which is about a month old and saw no photographs of herdsmen. No one apologised for the obvious fake news. The cat had been thrown among the pigeons.
These examples are just the tip of the iceberg. Unsuspecting Nigerians are too quick to pass judgement on issues they are passionate about. Insecurity in Nigeria has been a boon for the social media warriors because it feeds into their agenda. It is not that the government does not have serious problems keeping Nigerians very safe. Rather than help matters, these warriors make them worse by publishing half truths and outright lies. Images from war zones across the world are often used to represent events in Nigeria. This puts everybody on edge.
And this is why many countries, particularly in Europe have, for a while, been debating what to do about the disruption and damage done to their systems by inappropriate use of the social media. Even Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief, called for more government regulation of the internet, particularly as they relate to “harmful content, election integrity, privacy and data portability”, according to an analyst and executive director of Level Up, Carys Afoko. (Level Up is a community for feminist.)
Some countries have been looking at tightening their laws and punishing providers for harmful use of their medium. While purists will object to any government interference in our use of social media, this age when terrorists use the medium to communicate with themselves is a clear and present danger for all. Violent words can stoke violent reactions. And if we cannot expect caution from individuals, the onus is on the social media giants to go hard on those who post harmful contents online.
Given what is going on elsewhere in the world, it is not illogical that the Committee of Intelligence and Security Services of Africa, CISSA, which met in Abuja a couple of weeks ago, concluded that “despite the many benefits of social media, it is increasingly being exploited by some subversive elements and negative forces to destabilise African countries.” The conference agreed that “social media represents a threat”. In addition, it resolved to take necessary measures to check it while at the same time guaranteeing the citizen’s rights to information.
What to do about the social media is indeed a big problem for Nigeria. Getting the balance right between regulation and unfettered freedom is tough. But something has to be done before we all find, one day, we don’t have a country left.