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SOCIAL MEDIA – AN INFORMATION AND MIS-INFORMATION HIGHWAY

The world is witnessing an astronomical growth in the use of internet technology to disseminate information, resulting in the co-existence of plurality of views in an engaging global space. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube etc. have made it easy for citizens to participate in the process of communication through pictures, video, commentaries and reportage of issues from politics, economy, society, human rights, and disasters.

The trend is becoming more popular by the day, driving information globally and throwing up enormous challenges and innovations for the mainstream media. However, it is not unexpected.  With rapid improvement in technology, Denis McQuail in 2009 posited that mass communication is evolving and becoming more complex rather than withering away. He allayed the fear that the new media would ultimately prove to be superior in all respects to the traditional mass media especially television, radio and newspaper. The traditional media in this respect must adapt to new technologies under changing social, economic and cultural conditions.

One area of note is the agenda setting function of the mainstream media that made it pre-eminent with respect to public opinion shaping. Though the mainstream media still set agenda for public discussion through frequent and prominent coverage of issues, it can no longer run away from the role citizen journalists play in redefining the news.  
The rise of citizen journalism is exponential. The presence of bloggers on the Internet has unravelled the unwillingness of traditional journalists to delve deeper into stories that go against certain interests. This snag weakens the authority of the traditionalists and makes readers less likely to trust their impartiality when covering stories. By being able to connect with each other and share their stories and accounts, citizen journalists are learning that the level of debate defined by mainstream journalists sometimes doesn’t match up with their own definition.

The use of social media in Nigeria in the past five years remains unprecedented. This is aided largely by internet technology, the privatization of telecommunication services and mobile telephony revolution. The crave has enhanced debates on issues, offering varied perspectives that challenge the investigative instinct of professional journalists.
Some readers making comments on news stories published on the websites of newspapers have challenged the veracity of some of the stories while offering fresh views that expand reportage.  Some of the comments have gone as far as accusing the professional journalist of bias. Some of the accusations are not unfounded as the media have since been affected by the dictates of the owners and political and commercial interests. However, the traditional media have embraced citizen journalism, turning it into an advantage despite its limitations. Some of the limitations of the social media include rumour mongering, mudslinging and lack of thorough investigation. This is the matter this piece intend to address.

Despite the expanded space the social media has provided, it is littered with insults and wrong information that end up shaping the opinions of many Nigerians. Recently, I stumbled on a story online having to do with a comment on the 2016 violent election in Rivers State, accredited to the Resident Electoral Commissioner of the State Aniedi Ikoiwak. The story with the heading “Excerpt from Rivers REC report presented to the chairman of INEC on Wednesday the 23rd of March, 2016” reads:

"I have reviewed all the reports from field officers and the independent monitors. And have come to the conclusion that, election rigging is usually the reason for electoral violence; often carried out by the unpopular party. The Rivers' experience was such that the All Progressives Congress was not prepared for the elections. I arrived at the above conclusion, when I received a call from a particular leader of the All Progressives Congress; demanding that I move the date of the election to a later date to enable his party the APC, access some funds for the election, and regain political acceptance in Ogoni land through the kick-starting of a cleanup exercise.
Furthermore, part of the reports I got with video evidence, shows that, the All Progressives Congress resorted to monetary inducement and coercion of INEC officials to do their bidding. And the PDP resisted both the members of APC and some INEC officials which led to violence in some polling units. 

To this end, I recommend that INEC:
1-Upholds the declarations and return made in the state and federal constituencies where elections had been concluded. 
2-Conduct and conclude all elections in the remaining 8 local government areas, and polling units on the 2nd of April, 2016 "

By the time I stumbled on the story, overzealous APC and PDP supporters were already insulting themselves on the social media, trading accusations and counter accusations. What I did was to scout for the number of the resident electoral commissioner. I put a call through to him to confirm the story. A disconcerted Ikoiwak said:

"I have not seen the statement and it cannot emanate from my office. It can never be made by me. Am i the person to review a party’s arrangement, whether they made preparations or not? I am surprised. I never made such statement, and no other person made such a statement and nobody in INEC can say such a statement was made in a meeting. Has Nigeria got to a point that we cannot, ah ah, I am shocked….."

The culture of dissent and argument is a critical ingredient of a healthy democracy and this culture would inevitably be diminished if there were only a limited number of providers of the news.  Citizen journalists ensure that a rich diversity of voices continued to exist in the news media. Beyond this, the rate at which wrong information is posted online as true stories is unbecoming of a system ready to use information to grow its polity. Nigerians must be fully aware of the shortcomings of the social media and protect themselves from dangerous misinformation managers on the prowl. Please, don’t run with every information you see online, scrutinize them thoroughly and you will find the missing link in the story.

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