By Joel Popoola
President Muhammadu Buhari must feel pretty awkward.
This week he travelled all the way to Paris to attend a conference which had already been cancelled.
Except, of course, he didn’t.
President Buhari actually travelled to France for a conference which went ahead as planned.
Not such a good story, right? Not one you would have shared online.
There is another African conference in Montpellier – 300km from Paris – which has been moved from July to October as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions.
But conflating the two conferences is only relevant to the people who want to use online misinformation to mislead and inflame the Nigerian people, leading them to share false information amongst their friends and families.
Which they have done in their thousands.
But this is no surprise when people are trying to mislead them on an industrial scale.
Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed this week revealed that there are no less than 478 websites dedicated to pumping out propaganda designed to undermine faith in our political system, in his words “threatening the existence of the country”.
Nigeria’s digital infrastructure is improving all the time. We have seen plenty of evidence of that this week alone.
The Nigerian Communications agency has announced plans to accelerate the rollout of 5G – aiming to deploy the first network by the end of the year, placing us at the forefront of African technological progress. The NCC says this infrastructural investment will “improve the way Nigerians live and work” by advancing smart transportation, medicine, manufacturing and more.
Several states have also announced plans to use drone technology to delivery COVID-19 vaccines to rural communities in Kaduna and Cross River allowing people in 423 hard-to-reach areas to receive lifesaving vaccines in 30 minutes, when it would have taken 2 or 3 days to reach them by car.
Social media giant Twitter this week even announced that Nigeria will be one of the first nations on Earth to pioneer its proposed new voice messaging service.
And our start-up scene is getting so much international attention that even the global style magazine Vogue this week ran a feature on the “West African Tech boom”.
But whilst a recent Financial Times report highlighted our nation as the best in Africa to start a digital business, it also noted “Although Lagos is renowned for its start-up ecosystem, there is a significant disconnect between the city’s tech ecosystem, its surroundings and the wider country, which suffers from chronically poor infrastructure and education, and recurring political instability and security issues.”
But our digital intelligence has to evolve at the same rate as our digital infrastructure. And politicians must take responsibility for that.
At the digital democracy campaign I lead, our aim is to give politicians to keep in touch with their communities and converse directly with the people they serve.
We have created a free smartphone app called Rate Your Leader which puts verified voters in direct contact with the individual elected officials who represent them, creating a two-way communication channel in which voters can have their say on the things that matter most to them directly to the people who have the power to do something about them, and politicians can get important – and most importantly, accurate and honest – messages direct to their communities.
Not only does Rate Your Leader’s abuse-proof technology mean that all communication must be civil and courteous, the app also lets users rate the responsiveness and quality of the information they receive from local leaders, letting their friends, family and peers know that this is an information source they can trust – not to mention a politician worth voting for.
Let me be very clear. The Nigerian government – and politicians of all levels, political beliefs and ethnicities – make plenty of mistakes. Some of them even behave immorally, inappropriately and illegally.
But you will read about these wrongdoings in publications such as this one – often in columns written by me!
As our access to technology and information improves, we must ensure that our ability to tell fact from fiction keeps pace.
Politicians have a critical role to play in that taking advantage of the possibilities of the digital age to communicate directly with the people they serve, providing ready access to authoritative and credible information their residents may otherwise go without.
Joel Popoola is a Nigerian tech entrepreneur and digital democracy campaigner, and is creator of the Rate Your Leader app. He can be reached via @JOPoopola