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.
He said: “Today there are three issues we have to look at. The first is to which extent can we hold local media owners to account. A lot of the disinformation obviously is from social media. It is easier to sue the traditional media because they are bound by local laws and it is much easier to hold them to account. But social media is under multi-jurisdictional regulation if there is any threat. But I think there is opportunity here for more jurisdictional collaboration. There should be some kind of agreement between countries that should help us regulate social media much more effectively.
“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.