On January 25 2011, thousands of Egyptians marched in Egyptian cities, demanding the end of the three-decade-long presidency of Hosni Mubarak. They shared eyewitness pictures and videos on Twitter and coordinated their movements on Facebook while forming a bond that fueled the protests. By evening, Twitter was blocked and the next day, Facebook. After discovering that the protesters were still organising online, the government disconnected Egypt from the global internet 5 days later.
When South African-born entrepreneur, Elon Musk announced his intentions to buy Twitter, his reason behind this audacious move was simple: to advance the platform’s capability to champion free speech around the world.
“I believe in its potential to be the platform for free speech around the globe,” Musk wrote in a letter to Twitter’s Board of Directors, “and I believe free speech is a societal imperative for a functioning democracy,” he continued. But there are questions about how it will affect the already fragile nature of press or internet freedom in Africa.
In Africa, speech is not free
Free speech or freedom of the press is a provision usually built into the foundations of democratic states and nations; but in Africa, over the years, free speech rights, free speech rights, where they exist are regularly violated.
A decade after the Egyptian revolution, something similar happened in Nigeria, Africa’s largest country, where Twitter has an estimated 3 million users. Twitter became the driving force behind the #EndSARS movement in 2020, a series of protests against police brutality that later evolved into a demand for good governance. An already strained relationship with the Nigerian government was aggravated in June 2021, when Twitter moderated a post by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari Twitter account containing threats to a secessionist group. In response, the Nigerian government slammed a 6-month country-wide ban on Twitter until January 2022. In the wake of the ban, Twitter allegedly made concessions including a promise to register as a legal entity in Nigeria, pay taxes, and cooperate with Nigeria to regulate harmful content.
23 countries on the continent are marked as “difficult” by the World Press Freedom Index to practise journalism. Journalists in Africa are arrested and attacked; demoralised because they have to deal with censorship, disinformation, inadequate remuneration, and repressive laws. In 2019, a Beninese journalist who investigates illicit financial flow and government corruption, Ignace Sossou, attended a conference and quoted a public prosecutor, who was one of the speakers, on Twitter but was arrested for misquoting the speaker. Despite evidence that he accurately quoted the speaker, he served six months in prison for “harassment by means of electronic communication”, under a newly passed Digital Code, a law on cybercrime which placed restrictions on electronic communication.
With the public square (where public issues are discussed) shifting to the digital landscape, press freedom and internet freedom are becoming intertwined; and more citizens are becoming involved in public conversations, because of the wide web and technology. This has inadvertently put unprecedented power in the hands of social media companies, and African governments are wary of this power.
This freedom on the internet does not sit well with governments, it has also prompted Twitter to start releasing transparency reports—a report that gives insights into removal requests from governments around the world, since 2012. But in recent times, there has been a spike in takedown requests from various governments, indicating stronger attempts to control the content on the internet. For instance, between January and June 2021, over 196,000 accounts were flagged for takedown by governments across the world, the largest number since it started receiving such requests.
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Twitter’s future in Africa
Twitter’s influence in Africa has grown in recent years. The platform has been used by a young journalist to participate in ”mind-awakening conversations” and access to journalism opportunities. Twitter has also served as an avenue where citizens demand the removal of long-serving African leaders. This influence also means Twitter’s absence can be costly; for example, Twitter’s 7 month-ban in Nigeria cost the country a whopping $26 billion, according to Netblock’s Cost of Shutdown Tool.
In African states, where free speech is repressed and citizens resort to criticising authoritarian governments anonymously, Elon Musk’s plan to authenticate users raises user privacy questions because it will require them to share sensitive personal data which is unsafe, especially in authoritarian regimes. This might discourage users in such regimes from using the platform.
Last week, Musk made a tweet which suggested free speech is what the law defines it to be: ‘By “free speech”, I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people,” he wrote. In some African countries, repressive digital laws already exist. For example, the Beninese Digital Code mentioned earlier, and the Nigerian Cybercrime Act. It is not clear if Musk meant his tweet to apply to foreign governments. If he does, subjecting users to these types of rules like Musk wants to will further repress free speech.
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In subsequent comments on the Twitter deal, Elon Musk suggested that Twitter, under his leadership, will reduce ads, add an edit button, open up its algorithm, increase user verification and reduce the activities of bots. Musk also hinted at lofty ideas to make Twitter the “de facto public square”.
By taking over Twitter, Musk will be going head to head with the African governments that have started manipulating social media to silence dissent and sway public opinion in their favour.
He will also have to deal with Africa’s booming disinformation industry, which the current Twitter leadership has tried to tamp down on by banning accounts in Kenya and even temporarily disabling the Trends feature in Ethiopia.
Another concern on Musk’s ownership is his free speech absolutism stance, which seeks to allow all kinds of tweets except vaguely defined criminal ones. Even though critics say Musk’s Twitter bid is more about personal gains than free speech, he is still going to inherit the many problems of moderating content in Africa and he needs to be at his best to tackle them effectively. For now, though, he has a good legacy of content moderation on Twitter to fall back on which involves fact-checking, labelling manipulated media content, labelling state actors and restricting misinformation even from world leaders like Donald Trump (whom it later kicked out).
While his free speech absolutism stance might be problematic elsewhere, a moderate version of it might be the only way to strengthen Twitter’s moderation in Africa and bypass repressive laws that censor Africans.
From the Cabal
Nigerian fintech, Interswitch is launching healthcare data management system, eClinic through its healthcare arm, eClat. Read more about its plans to digitize healthcare data here.
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Sultan Quadri, Staff Writer, TechCabal.