The only less stable countries than Nigeria are warzones. Our increasing digital connectivity must become the cure of this instability, not its cause.
There are only 10 countries in the world judged to be more unstable than Nigeria. Many of them – Syria and Yemen for example – are actual warzones.
It is in such an atmosphere of instability that misinformation can thrive.
In the past weeks, we have seen hundreds of Nigerians sharing online claims that the government has bought the major social network WhatsApp from Facebook for $7.3million in order to spy on us, and that the presidential residence Aso Rock has burned down.
I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but neither of those stories is true. The pictures purporting to show Aso Rock ablaze were in fact pictures of a market on fire in Ibadan, and Facebook is hardly likely to sell a company it bought for $22bn for $7.3m!
There was positive news for Nigeria however this week when the National Bureau of Statistics published figures showing that more Nigerians than ever have access to digital communications.
Mobile subscribers in Nigeria rose by almost 20m in 2020 – with digital connectivity in the South rising by 15.2% year-on-year.
On face value, these statistics show that Nigeria is making good progress towards becoming a modern digital nation, with all citizens able to take advantage of the educational, employment and engagement opportunities of the digital age.
But if these new users are receiving misleading or dangerous information on their devices it may only compound our political instability.
Voice and accountability is another international metric where Nigeria has a positive story to tell.
The international index for Voice and Accountability compares how citizens around the world perceive their freedom of expression, freedom of association, and a free media.
Nigeria is slowly but surely climbing up the rankings – we are still in the bottom half of the international league table, but we are undeniably heading in the right direction, with things a far cry from how they were in the days of military rule. We are currently ranked 121st. Twenty years ago, we were ranked 181st.
Increasing access to digital communications technology is a huge driver for this change. But we have to take steps to ensure that our increasing digital connectivity is the cure for political and social instability, not the cause or more.
At the digital democracy campaign I lead we are determined to harness mobile technology to build credible links between government and governed.
One of our projects is a free smartphone app called Rate Your Leader. Rate Your Leader allows direct person to person communication between verified electors and verified politicians, allowing direct communication and collaboration.
Not only does Rate Your Leader allow voters to raise issues directly with the people with the power to address them, it also allows local leaders to send important messages direct to the people who need to receive them.
Rate Your Leader also allows users to rate their local leader on accessibility, responsiveness and credibility, allowing their friends, neighbours and peers to see at a glance that this is an information source that can be trusted.
Trust is important. There are those amongst us who deliberately share destabilising, damaging and dangerous information online because it aids their cause. They know how to grab our attention, and they know how to make their lives believable.
But they can only share this information from shady unverified sources. That is why it makes it so important that Nigerians know only to trust information from accounts who can prove that they are who they say they are and that have a legitimate reason to publish this information.
Nigerians know that recognised newspapers are – regardless of their politics – more rigorous and responsible in their reporting than random internet pages.
Now is the time to replicate that watermark of authority for social media accounts. Right now there is next to nothing stopping anyone of us setting up an apparently official account on a major social media platform and beginning to broadcast lies. Enough people believe those lies, it will threaten the entire social fabric of our nation.
At Rate Your Leader we are trying to address this issue by creating credible channels of communication between voters and elected leaders.
The digital age means more Nigerians then ever have a voice. This is a national success. Now we must take steps to ensure that that success does not lead to national failure.
––Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur, digital democracy campaigner and creator of the Rate Your Leader app. You can reach Joel on Twitter @ JOPopoola