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Africa faces a balancing act on social media regulation

Mark Turnbull
By Mark Turnbull

CEO of Auspex International, a data-driven communications consultancy

Posted on Wednesday, 4 December 2019 10:03

Regulating social media is proving tricky in many jurisdictions. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/

Protests have greeted the Nigerian Senate's introduction of an extensive fake-news bill.

The opposition goes to the heart of a dilemma facing policy-makers across not only Africa but the entire world: how to regulate social media while maintaining the trust of electorates?

  • Critics of the bill – including Human Rights Watch – claim it is too wide-ranging, representing a threat to free speech and legitimate political debate. Domestic opponents cite the absence of equivalent legislation in the US, and point out that many of the issues concerned are already covered by previous legislation.
  • The Bill’s sponsors, meanwhile, cite predictable concerns around ensuring social stability and limiting hostile influence – hence its title, the ‘Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Act 2019’.

Who is right? The Bill is certainly timely when set against the most recent example of online destabilisation targeted against Africa.

At the beginning of October, the Internet Observatory at Stanford University in the US identified a network of 200 Russian-linked Facebook profiles spreading disinformation in eight African countries. With a combined following of over a million, the operation was directly linked to an infamous Russian tycoon currently sanctioned for similar interference in the 2016 US election.

So the problem is real. But are governments also taking advantage of it to clamp down on the general vibrancy of social media – including healthy political opposition?

So the problem is real. But are governments also taking advantage of it to clamp down on the general vibrancy of social media – including healthy political opposition?

The Nigerian legislation is the latest of a wave of government responses that have attracted similar accusations. Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gambia and Uganda have shut down mobile networks – in their entirety or for specific apps – during politically-sensitive periods such as protests or elections. The government of Chad faced heavy criticism for shutting down social media for 16 months while it passed constitutional changes to extend the president’s own term.

  • The spectre of social media being “hijacked for malicious purposes by certain individuals” was cited as a justification, in spite of Chad having one of the lowest rates of internet penetration in Africa.

Yet perhaps the closest precedent for Nigeria’s proposed legislation is Tanzania’s Cybercrimes Act, which also criminalised fake news and has been in force since 2015. As a test case for such measures, it has not gone well.

This month Amnesty International published an extensive review of the country’s human-rights environment, which states in reference to the Act that “these laws undermine the privacy of internet users and stifle freedom of expression […]. People are increasingly afraid of freely expressing themselves online.” It cites examples of genuine whistleblowers being prosecuted as a result.

Dissent that is not allowed to emerge naturally simply becomes more virulent

Such an outcome serves nobody. Suppressing debate is not merely a PR issue for such countries; it also does fundamental long-term damage to the body politic. Dissent that is not allowed to emerge naturally simply becomes more virulent, morphing into conspiracy theories and worse.

The experience of the Middle East shows that political censorship is one of the most regressive short-term actions a government can take. Yet the temptation clearly exists for social-media legislation – framed to address real threats – to introduce censorship by the back door.

That does not mean there are any easy answers. The issue of fake news in particular elicits a wide range of strong opinions.

In the same week that Nigerian pop star Simi took to Twitter to condemn the passage of the country’s social-media bill, one of the West’s most prominent celebrities – Sacha Baron Cohen, the actor behind Borat – used a major speech to lobby for greater government intervention on these issues, starkly suggesting that Facebook “would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads”.

Such divisions do not just exist between celebrities and countries: they also exist between global tech companies themselves. While Twitter and Google have both recently stepped back from political advertising, Facebook is so far standing firm against similar pressure.

Just as those responses reflect the cultures of various firms, differing regional responses reflect differing political cultures – from strongly authoritarian control of the internet in China to the more laissez-faire approach of countries with greater traditions of free speech, such as the US and the UK.

The growth of the internet also provides an unprecedented opportunity for governments to reconnect with their voters’ lives

African countries, too, need a response that accounts for their specific pressures and conditions. The key transition necessary is to step away from viewing social media primarily through the prism of a political or security threat. Although such downsides exist – not least in the sphere of radicalisation and terror logistics – the growth of the internet also provides an unprecedented opportunity for governments to reconnect with their voters’ lives. And here lies the particular opportunity for African governments.

This year’s African Governance Report by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation centred on a serious ‘data-gap’ at the heart of policy, and development policy in particular.

Using the Sustainable Development Goals as a measure, the report concluded that only 40% of policy indicators have sufficient data attached to them – while over half rely on estimates or modelling.

  • The Financial Times summarised the report’s findings as follows: ‘How many people are there in Nigeria? What is the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe? How many people in Kibera have access to healthcare? The answers to such basic questions are: we don’t really know.’

This shouldn’t be the case when acceleration of internet usage – and social media use in particular – is throwing up terabytes of human data every day.

By 2025, the GMSA estimates that around half of Africa’s population will have access to mobile communications, with 3G this year overtaking 2G as the main type of network connection. Facebook meanwhile enjoys a 67% share of social media use, according to latest figures. That means a mine of information about everyday life – including the opportunity to gather those key-policy making indicators which are currently lacking.

Viewed from this perspective, undermining access to social media – or indeed closing it off entirely – adversely affects government’s ability to do its own job in the long term. Public money and limited policy-making power – of not only governments but also multilaterals – must be well-directed to be effective; with data providing the main plank of such efforts in the modern world. As such, countries like Chad should be facilitating the advance of the digital frontier rather than forcibly holding it back.

Yet a rush towards data-gathering can also bring its own problems.

‘Messy data’ – i.e. data which has not been properly sourced and cleaned – can easily send policy-makers off down an expensive blind alley. At best, however, social-media data married to insights from behavioural science can provide a significant step change across the whole lifecycle of policy-making – from design to evaluation to optimisation.

Considering the Sustainable Development Goals, issues such as health, education, gender equality, sustainable cities, strong institutions, and partnership all cry out for such an approach. This is especially the case as corporates will already be designing the architecture for such data-gathering, making them ripe for partnerships.

Looking at the vast policy upsides to social-media growth should help governments find a more natural equilibrium to combatting the potential downsides. The key is to understand and improve people’s lives – addressing the underlying sources of discontent rather than just their symptoms as they appear on social media.

Enacting blanket responses to online criticism – which extend beyond the remit of combatting fake news and into the realm of censorship – only weakens the social contract on which a government’s authority ultimately rests.

Strengthening that contract means taking a more targeted approach to combatting hostile influence while remaining supportive of the overall growth of social media.

The result should be a win-win: populations that enjoy all the economic and social dividends of the internet, and governments leveraging that same vibrancy to drive public-policy choices that create the best possible legacy for future generations.

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