Nigerians should perhaps wait for the National Assembly to complete the process on what has now been termed the social media bill. When they are done, Nigerians should counter that ridiculousness by declaring a Abuse-Your-Senator day. A day dedicated to posting “abusive statements” against lawmakers on every medium that makes up the social media network. By the time this civil resistance runs for 24 hours, those lawmakers may possibly be cured of their delusions about social media conversations. I guarantee the first problem they will encounter is the enforceability of such a piece of legislation since they seem to underestimate the intractability of the Internet ThePunchNg Abimbola Adelakun report
For instance, someone can describe the Senate President, Bukola Saraki, in an unprintable term and send the message to 100 Whatsapp contacts. Within hours, the message can go viral and nobody will ever be able to trace its origins. Who will then be held liable?
In the United States where there are more sophisticated technical means of fishing out sources of “abusive statements”, people routinely insult the president on social media. He has not folded up and died. Unless we run a system like Thailand where their lese-majesty laws regularly send people to prison for insulting the monarchy on social media and elsewhere, our federal lawmakers had better overlook the zeal of freedom. Unfettered media freedom is critical in Nigeria and social media is a democratised outlet where corrupt and partisan middlemen do not mediate people’s voices.
We can debate people using the media – social and traditional – to send out messages that incite hatred or violence but to direct this protection towards the government as the bill indicates is sheer roguery. Two Nigerians – Abdulmalik Sai’du and Tonye Okio – in 2013 and 2014 respectively have allegedly been illegally detained by their governors – Katsina’s Ibrahim Shema and Bayelsa’s Seriake Dickson – over social media criticisms. Place this hi-tech version of Decree 4 in the hands of repressive governors and draconian becomes Dracula-n. Did the lawmakers think this through?
Now, Saraki is struggling to explain the bill as what it is not. He says the bill is to counter “frivolous” petitions but there we go again. Just like the clause about “abusive statements”, who defines what is “frivolous”? They claim they are worried about statements that will incite the public against the government whereas their own public conduct is a far stronger articulation of incitement than anything ever written on social media.
At a time Nigeria is witnessing major corruption cases, the lawmakers should be rigorously engaged in strengthening extant laws to tighten the wiggle room that has left plenty of cases unconcluded and inconclusive, some for more than a decade.
Any law that rubs their venal ego the wrong way is frivolous; a waste of national time and resources. They seem to have sat too long in their hollowed chamber (understandable considering the sitting allowance package) and are detached from reality. The lawmakers are making a huge joke of themselves on this and they should find a way to desist and save face.
Having said that, I should add that the lawmakers lost a chance to look ahead into the future and preempt the structuring of civility of social media-driven relationships. We should recognise that social media is no longer an electronic playground. It is a cultural frontier where our lives will play out in the theatre of the future. Even as it is now, from politics to law enforcement, the social media plays a critical role in the way our lives are lived. In the United Kingdom, one in five divorce cases is linked to Facebook and in the US recently, a court allowed a woman to serve her husband divorce notice on Facebook. These social media tools can no longer be taken lightly.
As the tools of social media get more and more ubiquitous, now and then, we will need the law to define and delimit what constitutes our right. The social media sphere cannot just be a space where anyone can vomit bile on others; raid through other people’s intellectual wardrobes to clothe their own bare-bodied ideas; collect demographic and psychographic data without consent; or use the anonymity of the computer as mask to attack other people. There are tort laws that presently govern civil interactions and which of course extend to the social media presently.
However, as the social media phenomenon grows, these laws may become antiquated answers to emerging questions. There will come a time when there may not be a legal precedent and we will need to broaden laws to factor the techno-cultural changes our society is undergoing. Could the lawmakers have preempted the future and think of meeting up with it or they are presently weighed down by their own puerile petulance?
Since the social media originated in the US, many social media laws are still skewed towards their cultural nuances. As far back as 1999, the state of California enacted laws against cyberstalking/cyberbullying and about half of the states in the US later followed. Some states have had to re-word the language of their laws to reflect socio-technological changes after some people have manipulated the letter of the law to wriggle themselves from the consequences of their crime.
Sexting and sextortion are not only languages that reflect digital realities but are considered crimes. There is revenge porn too; posting sexually compromising photos of one’s ex-partner on social media after a breakup. In the UK, when couples sign prenuptial agreement now, they are urged to include an understanding that there would be no revenge porn. In some states in the US, if a minor sends or receives sexts (including personal ones) they can be tried for distribution of child pornography. Most of these, I admit, are far from what Nigeria considers crimes and some of them have to do with the stigma we attach to issues of sex and sexuality.
There have also been a number of legal debates about what constitutes defamation on electronic media. For instance, if somebody posts a libelous comment on an article, should the website/blog publisher be liable for retaining and perhaps even making it prominent? Does the law that protects journalists of the traditional media from being compelled to divulge sources extend to the online publisher to protect commenters? Western lawyers have argued about the degree of liability that comes with “retweeting”, and making suggestive comments that can incite malicious comments.
For now, in Nigeria, some of these grey areas in social media laws are not yet ripe for picking. There are many bounds that are yet to be pushed to force legislative processes to re-calibrate their terms. Culturally, we are not even a litigious society such that the possibility of Nigeria debating how much damages can be awarded for a defamation story that goes viral as against the one that does not, may not arise for now. Yet, one fine tomorrow, we will have to tackle some of these questions. When that day comes, hopefully, the debate will involve stakeholders who will thoughtfully and critically reflect on relationships mediated by the social media. Not lawmakers so alienated from reality their imagination addles from the suffocating air of corruption redolent in their chambers.