The coming of social media technologies increased skills among people on how to use social networking sites, just as mass penetration of mobile internet networks in West Africa gave impetus to the growing presence of civilian population on the sites draws the attention of policymakers in the member states of the regional bloc to checkmate the activities of their citizens’ behaviour in relation to information production and dissemination on digital spaces.
Social media penetration in two of the 15 member states of the ECOWAS, Nigeria and Ghana, in particular, armed people with tools to recklessly share unverified information (Warner-Soderholm et al., 2018) because such penetration has implications cutting across social, political and economic spheres of living of the populations of the two countries.
Hence, the affordability of social media allows its users to transmit fake stories to other users with speed and without any attendant cost (Klein and Wueller, 2017), making social media to become the lifeblood of fake news. Social media expedite the circulation of fake news, unabashedly turning the fake news epidemic into a global, regional and national subject of debate and topic of concern from the level of policymakers to the people for whom policies are made. Concern about the spread of fake news focuses on both the ubiquity of social media and the easy circulation of information that social media platforms drive due to their technical affordances (Allcott &Gentzkow, 2017).
While attention to the impacts of fake news is global, Obereri and Bahiya (2020) argued that the spread of misinformation on digital spaces has more to do with local events and cultural permutations with their effects changing from one place to another. The change, however, is anchored on socio-cultural differences among people, regions and places. Therefore, the motivations that catapult social media users to produce and share misinformation content and its attendant effects may not be adequately captured in studies dwelling on motivation typology. This is even more so in polarized and highly divisive countries like Nigeria and Ghana where social and cultural coexistence are played out along the lines of religion, regionalism, and political party affiliations.
Studies have suggested the different problems of misinformation in both Nigeria and Ghana include death, exacerbation of sectoral conflicts, political hostilities, societal panic, hatred, and rejection.
Social media facilitated by Internet, breaks border and geographical restrictions to create a virtual sphere that brings different people together to exchange and share information that national and international ‘information police’ cannot be easily stopped. The internationality of social media platforms coupled with their power to shock powers and give power to power seekers give voice to voiceless people; aide conflict and terrorism with national, regional and international bearings, fueling concerns for political stability, global peace and stability and cultural preservation.
However, given these consequences, social media with special blocs expressed divergent conflicting views on the best way to regulate social media platforms to preserve national interest –peace and stability. Therefore, Ghanaian and Nigerian governments are not left out from the jostle to keep their social media spaces intact and organised. Flowing from this, the two countries through their various legislative frameworks promulgated at different times, gradually start deploying the same to control the spread of misinformation in their best interests, proponents of social media control would argue.
Attempts to control social media in Nigeria and Ghana
Unarguably, both Nigeria and Ghana have partly different and similar legislation in place to regulate the operations and activities of legacy media – radio, television, newspapers, and magazines. However, the two countries are not on the same page in terms of legislation to control their digital spaces. For instance, Ghana’s Criminal Offence Act which categorises sharing of misinformation content as ‘criminal offence’ was promulgated in 1960. That was decades long before the coming of the internet and current social media platforms. Of all Nigeria’s media legislations rooted in colonial ordinances – law of sedition- and military decrees, none is without any provision that has to do with social media regulation with the view to controlling the dissemination of misinformation.
On the other end, the drafted Social Media Bill in Nigeria provides for three years imprisonment or a fine of $825 for individuals while a fine of $27,500 awaits a media organization found guilty of spreading misinformation when the bill becomes a law. The bill seeks to address misinformation from two different angles with the first being control of the social media accounts of Nigerians and the other being targeted at access to the internet with the police fully empowered by the provisions of the bill to arrest anyone suspected to be involved in sharing misinformation and closing down a media house that disseminates unverified information.
It is no coincidence that moves to regulate social media in Nigeria popped up after the country’s 2019 general elections, confirming the assumption that authorities regulate media generally to protect their political interest (McQuail, 2010). Recent misinformation studies showed that fake news trends around the Trump-Clinton election forced global attention to ‘free internet’ and the need for ‘regulation of the internet and social media as a unilateral response to the scourge of fake news.
While the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides a clause that guarantees freedom of expression to Nigerians in section 39 and a free press, there was not any legal provision in the constitution that attempted to discuss internet-related communication. However, Nigerian laws are generally weak at regulating the internet and social media to forestall spreading misinformation because of the three main amendments to the 1999 constitution, due to 2010, 2011 and 2015 efforts and attention to regulate social media in Nigeria. This has been the norm since independence.
Recent legal framework made to regulate internet related activities in Nigeria came in the form of “Cyber Crimes and Cyber Laws in Nigeria” 2015. The cybercrime and cyber law Act only provides a framework to control internet-related financial crimes without any special and careful recourse to misinformation.
Unlike Nigeria, Ghana has two clearly stated laws that forbid and criminalize misinformation sharing – the 1960 Criminal Offenses Act and the Electronic Communications Act 2008. However, the Electronic Communication Act was well before the discourse on misinformation at international, regional and national levels boils up. Misinformation has been around since creation but much attention was not accorded to it until the second half of 2016. While in Nigeria, an attempt to regulate social media via legislation came up only in 2019 when Senator Mohammed Sani Musa presented the Social Media Bill, arguing that the bill seeks to protect the country from falling victim to information cyber forces as it happened in the build-up to 2016 presidential election in the US is a rushed attempt to regulate social media in the country.
Distribution or sharing of misinformation is termed a criminal offence in Ghana which is punishable by five years’ imprisonment or a fine of 36,000 Ghana Cedi or a combination of both. Under the two laws prohibiting misinformation dissemination in Ghana, social media users are tasked to devise means of judging whether content is misleading or deceptive or unverified because being ignorant of the fact that the information one shares is fake, isn’t a soft excuse from the punishment.
On the other end, the drafted Anti Social Media Bill in Nigeria provides for three years imprisonment or a fine of $825 for individuals while a fine of $27,500 awaits a media organization found guilty of spreading misinformation when the bill becomes a law. The bill seeks to address misinformation from two different angles with the first being control of the social media accounts of Nigerians and the other being targeted at access to the internet with the police fully empowered by the provisions of the bill to arrest anyone suspected to be involved in sharing misinformation and closing down a media house that disseminates unverified information.
Impacts of Current Cyber and Digital Communication Laws on Misinformation in Ghanaian And Nigerian Social Media Spaces
While Ghana is ranked most media-friendly country in Africa, about 57 percent of its population concurred that media and internet culture is poor which calls for action on the part of the policymakers to control social media spaces to guard the public against being in contact with information that’s inappropriate to the society. This simply suggested that despite the criminalization of disseminating misinformation, the rate at which misinformation flourished in Ghana raised concern on the need to regulate. In the 2020 Ghana’s election, 69 percent of respondents in a study by GhanaFact, reported encountering misinformation that year.
However, despite the increasing flow of misinformation in Ghana in the last four years, especially in 2020 which is an election year and a pandemic year, authorities in that country arrested or pursued few social media users for spreading misinformation (Modern Ghana, 2020; Myjoyonline, 2020). “The attention of the Ghana Health service has been drawn to a false rumour that was circulated on social media about a surge in the number of COVID – 19 cases to 1064 on Monday night, 13th April 2020”, a statement signed by ACP David Ekloo who is the Deputy Communications Director at the Ghana police service signalling Ghana’s police plan to purse Ghanaians suspected of spreading misinformation on social media platforms.
The foregone are pieces of evidence of horrible attempts to regulate, prosecute disseminators of misinformation in Ghana which lacks sustained effort to enforce relevant digital communication laws available in the country. Similarly, there was no evidence to juxtapose whether or not the arrested persons were convicted of the offence of spreading misinformation to deter other Ghanaians.
Comparatively, Nigeria is ranked 120 on the global Press Freedom Index, despite the provision of the right to freedom of expression in the country’s 1999 constitution; a situation indicating that the government can wax its media control axe willfully. Besides, at the moment, the much talked about social media bill in Nigeria is not yet a law. By implication, Nigeria does not have clearly codified laws that regulate social media that can be used to check misinformation flow in the country’s social media spaces.
The implication of this is that arbitrary interpretation of some sections of the constitution and cybercrime and cyber security law to regulate social media in Nigeria will linger for a while. On the other hand, it is glaring that misinformation is treacherous to the sustainability of the corporate existence of Nigeria and Nigerians and peace and security.
Recently, the Department of State Security Service, DSS arrested Kabriu Muhammad, an indigene of Kano for cooking the much-circulated fake video citing President Buhari’s wedding with Sadiya Umar Farouk. The arrest was an afterthought in relation to the effects of the video and how it spur dissemination of misinformation about Buhari’s fake wedding and it was a mere show of force that lacks appropriate legal framework to prosecute the suspect.
Misinformation Skills Among Nigerians and Ghanaians
Media literacy, herein referred to as media user’s ability to determine verified and unverified content has been pinpointed as the most effective tool to curtail misinformation to safeguard democracy (Samuel et al., 2019) but according to Stringer (2018), Nigerians generally lack the awareness needed to spot and debunk misinformation. Respondents of a survey conducted in Northern Nigeria reported a lack of idea as to what it takes to identify misinformation content (Wilson and Umar, 2019). Nigeria’s high level of illiteracy in the northern part of the country further exposed Nigerians to be easy-going targets of manipulation for social media disseminators of fake news.
A study finds out that Nigerians are more likely to regurgitate misinformation unknowingly more easily than their US counterparts because of a general lack of skills at identifying and refuting misinformation. Simply put, the latter has better advanced media literacy skills than the former.