The advent of the social media has redefined who a journalist is. The exclusive preserve role once held by the Gentlemen of the Press in news gathering, dissemination and public opinion moulding has now been democratized and thrown open to just about anybody who possesses a smart phone, laptop as well as internet connection.
The ownership of these social media platforms are largely held by non journalists which explains the current new reality shift of media power to information technology geeks. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and co-founder of Facebook is a not a journalist as well as Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, Evan Williams and Biz Stone who co-founded it. Brian Acton and Jan Koum who co founded Whatsapp before its sale to Facebook in 2014 were also IT geeks as well as Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger who co founded Instagram. The co founders of Youtube, Snapchat as well as the others are all IT geeks too.
The traditional media especially the print has suffered greatly as a result of the incursion into the media space by these upstarts many of whom are college drop outs. Another distinguishing feature of these platforms is their lean operations which is reflective of the VUCA economy that the world currently operates in. For instance Facebook, the world’s largest social media network creates no content with all the contents there being generated by the users. News breaks faster on social media handles than on the traditional media which has necessitated the shift from news breakers to news analysts to conform to the novel realities of the fast changing times.
The Nigerian Minister for Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed recently disclosed the intention of the Federal Government to regulate the social media in Nigeria. These were his words: “Since we inaugurated our reform of the broadcast industry, many Nigerians have reached out to us, demanding that we also look into how to sanitise the Social Media space. I can assure you that we are also working on how to inject sanity into the Social Media space which, today, is totally out of control. No responsible government will sit by and allow fake news and hate speech to dominate its media space, because of the capacity of this menace to exploit our national fault lines to set us against each other and trigger a national conflagration. That is why we will continue to evolve ways to tackle fake news and hate speech until we banish both. This administration has no intention of muzzling the media or stifling free speech, our campaign is against fake news and hate speech. However, if you engage in disseminating fake news or hate speech, you need to be worried, because we will not spare you. We cannot allow fake news and hate speech to become free speech, because these Siamese Twins of Evil are capable of inflicting untold damage on our democracy and threatening our national unity. They represent a clear and imminent danger to our survival as a nation.”
Mohammed who made his name as the opposition spokesman when the APC was wrestling to take over power with the then ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) must have found himself in a quandary as the government’s spokesman. There are two sides to the coin in this proposed bid to regulate the social media. On the one hand, it is necessary to stem the tide of fake news which is doing more harm than good. Anyone with a decrepit browsing phone sitting in the comfort of his or her house can send damaging information within the speed of light. In the bid to get traffic to their online portals, many blogs and even credible newspaper houses become willing disseminators of this kind of highly destructive news. There is need to bring some level of sanity to this new media space which is gradually pushing out the old traditional.
On the other hand, the government could get dictatorial and crack down on dissidents who air their critical views through these media. Omoyele Sowore the Publisher of the New York based Sahara Reporters has been detained since August 3rd 2019 because of “messages by means of press interview granted on Arise Television network which you knew to be false for the purpose of causing insult, enmity, hatred and ill-will on the person of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.” Agba Jalingo, a Calabar based journalist has been in detention because he penned articles critical of the Cross Rivers State Governor, Professor Ben Ayade. Segun Onibiyo spent about twenty-four days behind bars because of ‘inflammatory articles’ he wrote on social media against the person of the Kaduna State Governor, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai. In August this year, the police arrested Danjuma Katsina and detained him for allegedly writing comments injurious to the reputation of a politician in Katsina state on Facebook. We will also recall the crack down on the social media in the wake of the Arab Spring in North Africa. Former President of The Gambia Yahya Jammeh shut down the social media when he lost the elections to the then relatively unknown Adama Barrow. Paul Biya of Cameroun shut down social media in the wake of the crackdown on the Anglophone speaking part of the country. Many journalists and ordinary folks now fear to express their opinions on social media because the security agencies have morphed into some sort of Big Brother and they could ‘disappear into the thin air without a trace.’
Regulation is not only peculiar to Nigeria. Twitter bowed to pressure from the public to remove political adverts from its platform. There are calls to regulate Facebook especially in the wake of the last US Presidential elections.
Even though the government has the responsibility of regulating the social media to protect her citizens from the potential harm, there should still be measures to prevent it from muzzling the opposition and the voice of critics who offer constructive criticism.
There should be a harmonized balance.