When Donald Trump suggested you could cure COVID-19 by drinking bleach, Nigerians could be forgiven for thinking his public statements should come with a health warning.
But a row has broken out in America after Twitter labelled two of the President’s posts with a truth warning, describing them as “potentially misleading”.
In response, the president used executive powers to attempt to limit liability protections for social-media companies –making them legally responsible for the content that gets posted on them for the first time.
As a Nigerian tech entrepreneur and digital democracy campaigner, I believe this is an example of the wrong person doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. It is overdue that social media companies take responsibility for the content that is posted on them – but not because one politician resents being shamed for using that platform irresponsibly and inaccurately.
Ironically, the controversial tweets – not even that controversial by this President’s standards –accused postal voting of being “substantially fraudulent” with ballot papers “forged & even illegally printed out & fraudulently signed”, concerns some Nigerians will probably share!
But Nigerians are all-too-familiar with our own fake news crisis. Fake wars, fake terrorist attacks, fake cloned Presidents – we’ve had the lot. One state governor has even spoken of reading about how at that exact moment he was apparently in a coma following a magic tortoise attack!
Social media allows these stories to be spread across Nigeria before the truth has even put its shoes on. And part of this problem is social media companies have historically refused to accept that the things that get posted on their platforms are anything to do with them.
To social media companies, their platforms are just blank canvases. If anyone writes something dangerous or misleading on those blank canvases, it’s has nothing to do with them – even if what is written is dangerous or misleading.
Social media companies have historically refused to admit that they are not blank billboards. They are media providers. And imagine if any other media providers behaved this way.
Imagine the newspapers were just blank pieces of paper that whoever got to the shop first could write whatever news they wanted on, even if that “news” was politically-motivated misinformation. Imagine the nightly television news was people taking turns to read out their conspiracy theories, daydreams, and fantasies. Dangerous nonsense, masquerading as credible information.
As Vice President Yemi Osinbajo has himself said, social media platforms must do more to tackle the “fake news or provocative information” he believes “can cause chaos, civil unrest, war, and even death”.
On the other hand, whilst social media companies should not be punished for belatedly taking steps to ensure that their users have access to the truth, who decides what the truth is? With three of the largest social media organisations owned by the same people, doesn’t that concentrate enormous power in the hands of very few – completely unelected and unaccountable – people?
Politicians need to ask themselves why social media provides such fertile soil for dangerous rumours to take root – and in Nigeria in particular one of the main reasons is the lack of trust electors have for the elected.
Fighting the fake news which has become all too prevalent in Nigeria in recent years necessitates the public having reliable sources of information they can go to online- and where better than going direct to their local representatives?
It is for these reasons that the Digital Democracy campaign created the free Rate Your Leader app – a direct (and abuse-proof) line straight to elected officials from the people who they serve. Ask them anything, person to person, direct from your phone.
And with that contact comes accountability. If you don’t like the answer you get – or you don’t get an answer at all, Rate Your Leader lets you rate your local politician appropriately for everyone to see.
Voters aren’t the only ones to benefit. The app helps politicians understand what matters most to the people who elected, build relationships of trust with the electorate, and get important messages straight to them.
Nigerian voters need to know what information they can trust, and also that they can trust their local representatives. Digital engagement is the most effective and efficient way of delivering that.
To put it another way politicians, do you want your local residents to be getting their information from you, or the man telling them to drink bleach?