In Senegal, where social media sites play a pivotal role in ensuring transparency of elections, President Macky Sall in May began criticising people who hide behind their keyboards to “gratuitously destroy the reputations of individuals and entire families”.
He announced that he had instructed his digital economy minister, Yankhoba Diattara, to draw up legislation to beef up regulation of social media platforms.
For months, the spectre of ‘regulation’ has been hovering over the internet giants, with some leaders seeking to wield control over content and others wanting to rein in tax avoidance practices. Social media sites say they can police themselves with the help of artificial intelligence systems that automatically flag inappropriate content, but critics say this is still merely lip service.
Some governments, and African ones in particular, have joined the anti-social media camp, pointing to the sites’ preponderance to stir political outrage online by providing platforms for slanderous or even threatening speech, fake news, obscene content and ugly wars of words between celebrity worshippers.
A few weeks after his President’s outburst, Senegal’s digital economy appeared to be treading carefully. The moment the president said the legislation was “nearly finalised”, his minister linked Senegal’s social media woes to a wider “global issue”. In a country that fell two spots – from 47th to 49th – in Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index, Diattara stressed the importance of an “inclusive, participatory approach” focused on “protecting citizens as well as their dignity and their freedom”.
A fool’s game
African citizens are suffering the consequences – namely state censorship – of the excesses of a minority of internet users. Towards the end of elections in Africa, social networking sites are often shut down temporarily for more or less valid reasons.
In early June, Nigeria became a prime example of the absurd snowball effect of recent calls for more regulation, though what that entails differs from one country to the next. After the microblogging site Twitter dared to delete a tweet posted by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, deeming it “in violation of” its rules, the Nigerian federal government simply suspended the platform across the country, adding that it would “ensure the speedy prosecution” of those who attempted to avoid the ban “without any further delay”.
But the futility of Nigeria’s efforts is evident, as some internet users are bound to find a way to bypass the ban. In this fool’s game, many Nigerian geeks have managed to do just that, while the less tech-savvy crowd air their grievances against the government’s move on other social media sites.
Understand Africa's tomorrow... today
We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.View subscription options