Published on 11 June 2021
On June 4th when I saw the announcement on Twitter that the Nigerian government was placing a ban on Twitter’s operations in the country due to what they vaguely described as “activities capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence” it was immediately clear that this was Nigeria’s retaliation against Twitter for deleting President Buhari’s tweet some two days prior. Soon after the announcement was made, it was impossible to access Twitter except through Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and that remains the situation at the time of this publication.
As a result, conversations around content moderation by social media companies have resurfaced, as well as questions about how far is too far when it comes to a government’s regulation of social media.
In the case of Nigeria, the government has had a strained relationship with Twitter since the #EndSARS movement of 2020. They have claimed that Twitter gave voice to the movement and allowed for violent attacks on institutions of State. But for those Nigerians who mobilized to challenge police brutality, Twitter was a tool for exposing atrocities, demanding accountability and building a youth-led movement that transcended ethnic and religious lines. Unfortunately, as Twitter and the Nigerian government now try to reach an agreement to lift the ban, one of the changes we have already observed is that the fist emoji with colours of the Nigerian flag that was associated with #EndSARS tweets has now been discontinued by Twitter.
With all that has happened in the past 7 days, some critical questions worth asking are: was Twitter wrong to have deleted President Buhari’s tweet, considering that it encouraged violence? Should a President’s tweet be exempt from Twitter’s rules simply because they are the President? My answer to both questions is No.
If we accept the idea that any President’s hate-filled tweet or post cannot be deleted because they are the President, then we are invariably accepting that world leaders should not be held accountable for any wrongdoing. This would certainly be wrong and would encourage more unlawful actions devoid of repercussions. It becomes even more dangerous in countries with demonstrably repressive governments.
The problem however arises when there is no consistency in the moderation or deletion of hateful and inciting content on Twitter. It portrays Twitter as having double standards. This is why at WITNESS we have continued to advocate for clarity of rules and a contextually grounded application of those rules. The Nigerian government has argued that Twitter failed to delete the hate-filled comments made by other influential figures in the country, yet it had the audacity to delete the president’s tweet. For them, this is preposterous and suggests that Twitter has an agenda.
Clearly, Twitter needs to apply its policy effectively and consistently across board, especially those policies that are informed by and respectful of human rights. To facilitate accurate decision making regarding content moderation, it is imperative for Twitter to continue engaging with local experts who understand the context of particular countries so that this will inform actions taken on content takedowns.
While I acknowledge that governments the world over have been grappling with how best to regulate social media, it should be clearly stated that one thing we must not compromise on is the protection of human rights in every approach to the issue. Policies must be based on the human rights principles of legitimacy, necessity and proportionality. This is why Nigeria’s outright banning of Twitter is hugely problematic because it violates international treaty law such as the right to freedom of expression (article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). Moreover, even Section 39(1) of the Nigerian constitution provides that every person has the right to “hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.” Whatever it was that got the Nigerian government so upset with Twitter is definitely not reason enough to justify a ban. Such action is a gross overreaction.
In addition to the blatant violation of human rights, there has been severe economic impact as a result of the Twitter ban. According to the Cost of Shutdown Tool by Netblocks, it is estimated that Nigeria loses $6,014,390 for every 24 hours access to Twitter is restricted.
Going beyond the economic cost, we also have the impact the ban will have on citizens’ ability to expose human rights abuses. This raises real concerns because the ability of individuals to share video evidence of human rights abuses is tied to the right to record and increases the possibility of getting justice for the victims and holding the perpetrators accountable. However, banning Twitter invariably fosters impunity and makes it easier for atrocities to stay hidden. It is widely believed that for many Nigerians, Twitter is Nigeria’s only functional emergency line and so one can only begin to imagine the ripple effect the ban will have on people who have through Twitter raised alarms about a terrorist attack, an abduction, or a case of police brutality. Moe Odele, a lawyer, tweeted in response to the ban saying:
Sadly, at the same time, we cannot ignore the possibility of this ban being used as a cover by State security agents to further intimidate and harass Nigerians, especially young people, who have the twitter app installed on their phone. The pattern of having the Nigeria police search people’s phones without a warrant is not uncommon as we have come to see through the many testimonies of victims of police brutality in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s Twitter ban also sets a dangerous precedent for the African continent considering that internet shutdowns are becoming more prevalent in recent times. In January, Uganda also shut down access to all social media platforms prior to the 2021 elections and there were reports that the government further ordered that VPNs should be blocked. Congo and Niger have also shutdown internet access in 2021.
The posture of the Nigerian government throughout this entire debacle has been reminiscent of a dictatorship. The fact that Nigeria’s Attorney General has proceeded to announce his plans to prosecute anyone still accessing the Twitter platform via VPNs, when no law exists criminalizing the use of social media, is an extreme abuse of power and a complete departure from the rule of law and due process. And it is deeply troubling that Nigerians cannot confidently rule out the possibility of the government entirely criminalizing the use of social media just so they can double down on their threats of prosecution.
Even though many Nigerians have found a way round the Twitter ban by using VPNs, the government must still reverse the ban and rather approach its concerns regarding content moderation using methods that do not further impede human freedoms. If the government gets away with this without it being fully challenged, one must not be surprised if the next step is a total internet shutdown.
In addition, here are some suggestions we have previously articulated at WITNESS regarding how platforms can adequately confront the challenges associated with the use of their platform to cause harm:
- Ensure platform accountability is grounded in global realities and human rights
- Hold accountable leaders who incite violence on social media
- Create workable ‘evidence lockers’ for critical online content
- Ground content moderation reform in human rights
- Defend witnessing
- Fight mis/disinformation in the right way: “There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit.”
Nationwide protests are being planned for June 12 and I hope this time the government will not yet again take a repressive approach towards citizens exercising their right to peaceful protest. All Nigerians need is a government that dialogues with us and not one that talks at us; we need a government that does not rule us but rather governs—the right way.