THE Nigerian government claims it has discovered about 476 online news websites that are fighting President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration with ‘fake news.’
Minister of Information Lai Mohammed said the online publications were set up to fight the government.
The minister told officials of the Nigerian Institute of Public Relations (NIPR) on a courtesy visit to his office in Abuja on May 18 that fake news reports from the anti-government online publications usually went viral because Nigerians were gullible.
“Recently, we unveiled almost 476 online publication sites that are dedicated to daily engaging in churning out fake news to fight the government,” Mohammed said.
The latest ‘fake news,’ according to him, was a report that Buhari was advised by doctors, during a recent medical trip to London, to step down because he could not recognise members of his immediate family.
“I begin to wonder how they can go this far, simply because they know that people are gullible and they will make the fake news to go viral,” the minister added.
Mohammed insisted that fake news was threatening Nigeria’s existence.
The minister’s claims at the parley with the officials of the NIPR was in line with the Nigerian government’s continuing push to regulate social media use in the country through an ‘anti-social media law.’
Mohammed, as minister of information and culture, has been championing the campaign.
On October 27, 2020, while appearing before the House of Representatives Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values to defend the 2021 budget proposed by the Ministry of Information and Culture, Mohammed had insisted on the need for the enactment of an anti-social media law.
Addressing the lawmakers, Mohammed warned that Nigeria was sitting on a keg of gunpowder, which could consume the country if the issue of fake news was not urgently addressed.
Making reference to the #EndSARS protests, which were still raging across the country at the time, the minister noted that the next war in Nigeria might be fought on social media platforms.
Buttressing his call for an anti-social media law, Mohammed advanced a claim that the younger people making greater use of social media platforms would not watch televisions, listen to radios or read newspapers.
He described the #EndSARS protest as a ‘war’ that was fought on the social media with ‘smartphone and data’ and maintained the position adopted by the Nigerian government and the Army by suggesting that viral videos and images which depicted the suppression of protesters were photoshopped, and as such, fake news.
”We need a social media policy in Nigeria and we need to empower the various agencies and we need technology to be able to regulate the social media,” Mohammed said.
“The biggest challenge facing Nigeria today is fake news and misinformation.”
Mohammed said the Nigerian government launched a national campaign against fake news after a July 2018 meeting of the National Council on Information deliberated on the matter.
But attempts by the government to enact an anti-social media law have been greeted with stiff resistance from the citizens.
The Social Media Bill, also known as the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulations and for Related matters Bill, 2019, proposed steep fines or jail term for spreading what the government deems as fake news.
The proposed legislation sought to give government regulatory control over conversations on social media platforms, and individuals whose posts are thought to threaten national security or diminish public confidence in the government could be arrested. Authorities could also cut the Internet access of those that violate the regulation.
Penalties for breaking the social media law, according to the draft bill, include a fine of up to ₦300,000 or three years imprisonment for individuals and ₦10 million for corporate organisations.
However, the passage of the Social Media Bill was stalled after it was opposed by Nigerians who feared that it could lead to censorship and a crackdown on dissent.