As citizens, in the heat of the political campaigns and in the build-up to the 2023 elections, we must ensure that we do not become purveyors of fake news and hate speech.
Campaigns for the 2023 general elections officially begin on the 28th of September 2022. The flag bearers of various political parties running for different elective positions will start moving from place to place, canvassing for votes from potential voters. The political party flag bearers do not usually move around to talk to potential voters on their own, they go with their supporters and loyalists. In the course of the campaigns, candidates and their supporters often make statements that cause tensions to rise, and tempers to flare . The rising tensions and flaring tempers are often the result of bad communication that comes in the form of fake news and sometimes hate speech. Fake news and hate speech have been major fuels that sparked pre and post electoral violence in Nigeria.
For example, in Nigeria, fake news does not come more ridiculous than the claim that president Muhammadu Buhari is now a clone. This news spread after the president spent long periods in London in 2017 receiving medical treatment. Purveyors of the fake news maintained that while the president had died, a clone was being made of him within the time he spent on medical trip. Fake news generally emanates from various sources: government propaganda, —given that governments are often known to manipulate the public activists — marketers and influencers of fake news sites and the actions of unintended propagators. The effects of fake news abound in Nigeria – from deaths from reprisals that follow fake news about a communal clash, to the mistrust in state institutions, particularly the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Closely related to fake news is “hate speech”. Hate speech is a little more subjective because what one person may consider as “normal speech”, another may see as hate speech, perhaps from their various ideological and religious positions. However, Fortuna Paula and Nunes Sérgio summed it up nicely in their study A survey on automatic detection of hate speech in text. In the study, they considered that hate speech has a specific target; done to incite violence or hate; used to attack or diminish; and that hate speech can be humorous. After these considerations, they came up with this definition of hate speech:
“Hate speech is language that attacks or diminishes, that incites violence or hate against groups, based on specific characteristics such as physical appearance, religion, descent, national or ethnic origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or other, and it can occur with different linguistic styles, even in subtle forms or when humour is used.”
In Nigeria, the above definition plays out in various forms. In the past we have seen political candidates incite hate towards their opponents on the basis of religion and ethnicity. In fact, in the current political climate, we have seen humour made out of the health status of the APC presidential candidate, we have witnessed the Muslim-Muslim presidential choice of the APC come under severe backlash, with some insinuating that the political party is biased towards a particular religion. We have equally seen attacks on the presidential candidate of the Labor party on the basis of his ethnicity, and the rejection of the candidate of the PDP on the basis of coming from the same ethnic group as the current (and soon outgoing) president.
Hate speech has the same capacity for destruction as fake news. The Rwandan genocide, which saw the killing of over 1 million minority Tutsis by the Hutus in just 100 days in 1994, rode on the back of hate speech. As citizens, in the heat of the political campaigns and in the build-up to the 2023 elections, we must ensure that we do not become purveyors of fake news and hate speech. Rather, we should think critically about the information we want to share because once shared, fake news acquires a life of its own and travels widely. Also, hate speech can be minimized when we show mutual respect to citizens on opposing sides of the political divide. To reduce the chances of sharing fake news and making hate speech, it is important that citizens listen to, and follow as many diverse voices as possible.