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Lift the suspension, please

During his much-discussed interview with Arise TV journalists nearly two weeks ago, President Buhari stated that he would accept whatever verdict that Nigerians pass on…

During his much-discussed interview with Arise TV journalists nearly two weeks ago, President Buhari stated that he would accept whatever verdict that Nigerians pass on his administration, although he hoped that people will be fair. Of course, the president’s legacy will not be decided one way or another for a long time to come. But I can say right now that the federal government’s suspension of Twitter earlier this month will go down as one of the lowest points of the Buhari Presidency and it does not need to be so.

True, there has been relative calm in the polity since the suspension. Four weeks ago and for a while before then, talk of a looming civil war, for example, was commonplace on social media which then spilled over to the mainstream media and public conversations. This appears to have reduced considerably over the past few weeks. My guess is that any search for phrases like ‘civil war’, ‘Biafra’, ‘Oduduwa Republic’ and so on in the Nigerian social media and mainstream news discourse would return more frequency of use of those terms in April and May than in June. So the political heat, which neared boiling point last month, appears to have cooled off a bit.

But even if this were empirical evidence, rather than just a guess, it would still be no indication that Twitter or other social media were responsible for heating up the polity. After all, Nigerian politics has always been quite hot. Moreover, media influence on human affairs is extremely difficult to prove in a straightforward cause and effect manner, since other factors could also account for the same effects often attributed to the media.

In this case, President Buhari’s own rather timely and excellent interview shortly following the suspension, his official visit to Borno State and his general body language in recent weeks may all also have helped reduce the heat in the polity. If for nothing else, these presidential actions at least show that someone is in charge of the country. That there is relative calm in the country since then is not a justification for the suspension.

It is also true that democratic countries the world over are increasingly concerned about regulating social media and about getting the big tech companies that own them to pay more tax. A recent survey of over 50,000 people in 53 countries released early last month by the Alliance of Democracies Foundation finds growing support for social media regulation across most countries in the study. And about half (48%) of those surveyed think big tech companies are one of the major threats to global democracy, second only to inequality.

Furthermore, Section 230 of the U.S Communications Decency Act (1996) is perhaps the strongest legal shield for social media. It holds that social media platforms cannot be liable for the content users post on their sites, in much the same way a library cannot be held responsible for the contents of the books it hosts. But even there, the parent country of most social media, campaigners are seeking to change this law and make platforms liable for content on their sites in much the same way a newspaper is responsible for the contents in between its covers, in response to things like online child pornography, trafficking and foreign interference in national elections.

So, Nigeria is not at all an exception for seeking to regulate social media. All the world’s known democracies are on the same plane, if for different reasons. Still, the suspension on Twitter is not regulation, it is proscription. And in many ways, the proscription works against the government itself and probably more than it does to Twitter.

First, the suspension makes it harder for the government to make a credible case for social media regulation or for their paying taxes to Nigeria. This is not just about the bad optics that the suspension followed Twitter’s deletion of President Buhari’s tweet, as many commentators have noted. It is also not just about the accusation that the suspension is a form of presidential ego trip. Of course, these perceptions make it harder for the government to make a good case for social media regulation, but that’s not our point.

The real point lies in the connection between research and policy. The government is in a much better position to make the case for social media regulation when it is armed with research data. When the Minister of Information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, queried why Twitter does not delete Nnamdi Kanu’s tweets or alleged that the platform ‘undermines Nigeria’s corporate existence’, I thought his analysis of the problem may be correct, but the solution so crude as to even undermine everything. To make such a case, the government needs to marshal quantitative evidence to support its claim and then show it to the world.

It could commission independent research, which analyses thousands or millions of tweets and posts by those whose social media behaviour may threaten Nigeria’s existence as a country and then use this to make the case for social media regulation even by the platforms themselves. Such an analysis could show not only the flow of fake news, hate speech and inciting comments by so-called influencers but also the potential damage it could do to the country’s corporate existence.

For example, mining Nnamdi Kanu’s account will reveal all the tweets he has ever posted and will show how these may harm Nigeria’s corporate existence. This way, social media platforms will themselves be compelled to regulate their platforms, by deleting such posts or removing such accounts altogether. Facebook, for example, has set up an Oversight Board led by the former Editor-in-Chief of Guardian Newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, for among other things, this same purpose.

But you cannot make such a case without research and you cannot do the research when the platform is proscribed. In short, the Nigerian government can regulate social media better through soft power than by a show of force. After all, social media platforms have far more capacity to regulate their use than any government.

Secondly, banning Twitter merely pushes dangerous social media behaviour underground, making it even more dangerous. Social networking sites work on the basic principle of preaching to the choir. Users simply get more of what they want to hear or view. The more passionate a user is about particular kinds of content, the more of it they receive on social media. The algorisms which govern them are designed precisely to encourage this, which might explain why President Buhari’s tweet was deleted as the algorisms may have flagged off the massive negative reaction it generated by those heavily invested in the issue.

The passionate users and the issues they care the most about, however dangerous these may be to the country, will not go away. They will find other ways to bypass your suspension and continue their activities. Inciting comments and posts will then roam freely undetected, and will reach those most inclined to receive and act on them. And because you have a suspension  in place, more positive narratives on the same issues cannot circulate. This suspension will be counter-productive in the long run.

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