Nigeria missed opportunity to lead global conversation on social media regulation

Earlier this month, the Nigerian federal government blocked Twitter from the country’s mobile networks after the social media company removed a controversial post from President Muhammadu Buhari’s account. The decision for Africa’s largest and most populous economy comes as many governments around the world put increased pressure on social media companies, with serious implications for free speech.

So what really happened in Nigeria, and how does this fit into the broader trends in censorship and regulation of social media? Eurasia Group analysts Amaka Anku and Tochi Eni-Kalu explain.


Why has Nigeria restricted access to Twitter?

Buhari’s tweet contained a threat to use force against a secessionist group in the southeastern region of Nigeria. After a big backlash on social media, Twitter deleted the tweet on the grounds that it was an incitement to violence. The Nigerian government then banned Twitter, fearing that, as Information Minister Lai Mohammed explained, the social media platform was “capable of undermining the existence of Nigerian businesses.” Nigerian officials were resentful of the power of social media influencers to shape Twitter’s policy towards official government rhetoric, and they also claim double standards when it comes to moderation of content on the platform. For example, they point out that Twitter has done little to silence Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the secessionist movement of the indigenous peoples of Biafra, who has repeatedly tweeted hate speech and incited violence against it. State. For these reasons, the Buhari government believes that Twitter has started to pose a threat to Nigeria’s national security. But by banning the platform, they also stoked concerns about Nigerians’ right to free speech.

Have there been any reactions to this?

Opposition to the ban has been swift in the diaspora and the international community, where the move is seen as a sign of the Buhari administration’s authoritarian drift. While there has also been backlash at the national level – a legal challenge has been launched as some Nigerians openly circumvent the ban by using VPNs – it is unlikely to become disruptive. According to a NOI Polls survey, only a fifth of Nigerians are on Twitter, let alone regularly use the platform. Put simply, most Nigerians will not be affected by the ban, which will limit the possibilities of political backlash.

How does that compare to efforts by other governments to lobby Twitter?

Nigeria’s standoff with Twitter has parallels to India’s growing feud with the social media giant. Authorities in both countries view Twitter’s content moderation practices as an affront to their sovereignty. Nigerian officials have frequently said that Twitter poses a threat to state security, while their Indian counterparts have called companies that resist their restrictions “digital colonizers.”

However, the two governments are unhappy with different things. The Nigerian authorities are unhappy with what they perceive to be inconsistent, if not anti-government content moderation. The Indian government, meanwhile, is actively trying to influence Twitter’s moderation practices in order to silence dissenting voices and limit the company’s tagging of officials’ tweets, and is unhappy that Twitter refuses to comply. .

Could the Nigerian government start moving towards greater regulation?

Nigerian authorities are now using the Twitter spat as an excuse to impose stricter content moderation guidelines on social media companies. On June 10, authorities asked all social media platforms in the country to apply for a broadcast license in accordance with national broadcasting laws. It is not yet clear what such regulation would entail.

What aspect of this story has been lost in the media coverage?

There was almost no discussion of the broader context of Buhari’s tweet, which attempted to summarize the president’s remarks in response to a series of attacks on electoral authorities’ offices in the south of the country. In a video clip, an excerpt of which was included in one of the deleted tweets, Buhari can be heard lamenting the human toll of the civil war while expressing disbelief at the perceived lack of awareness of the loss associated with the war among the current separatists.

This background, and the fact that Twitter suppressed the speech of the Commander-in-Chief of a country’s armed forces threatening force against a rebel armed group, without first consulting that government, raises serious questions about the due diligence that social media companies owe it to rulers on national security issues. The episode also shows how to “work the referees” – or lobby companies that moderate political discourse, in the same way that players on a basketball court may try to win referees’ sympathy by shouting fouls – is becoming a staple of 21st century politics.

This reality should normally raise eyebrows across the world – the EU and UK, for example, are working on legislation for content on social media platforms, also the subject of intense partisan debate in the US. after the Capitol uprising of January 6. Instead, the overbreadth of the Nigerian government and the apparent restriction of Nigerians’ right to free speech is now history.


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