For much of the past month, Nigeria was gripped by widespread #EndSARS protests calling for an end to police brutality, particularly the disbandment of a rogue police unit.
With thousands of young Nigerians participating in demonstrations which originally began as an online campaign, it marked the largest national protests in a generation in Africa’s most populous country. Given the key role played by young people, it was impossible to miss how digital tools on their smartphones, especially social media platforms including Twitter, were leveraged to drive, organize, and sustain the protests. With the #EndSARS hashtag gaining traction globally, Twitter created a dedicated emoji just as CEO Jack Dorsey amplified bitcoin donation links to fund the protests. (Twitter’s key role was in contrast to Mark Zuckerberg-owned Facebook and Instagram which made high-profile missteps.)
For its part, the Nigerian government claims to be committed to accepting protesters’ demands for accountability and justice. But the government also appears keen to proactively undermine the possibility of future protests by targeting social media and online expression.
Indeed, key government actors, from the minister of information to a raft of state governors, have made recent, high-profile calls for the regulation of social media in the wake of the #EndSARS protests. The recurring rationale for these calls revolve around to stop the spread of “fake news” reports that the government says may “destabilize” the country.
“Social media has come to stay and it will be an antithesis to democracy to shut it down because it is the fastest way of disseminating information, Nigeria’s minister of information Lai Mohammed said last week. “However, we must regulate social media in a manner that it does not become a purveyor of fake news and hate speech. We will not fold our arms to allow purveyors of fake news and hate speech to use the social media to destabilise the country.”
Rinse and repeat
Attempts by Nigeria’s government to regulate social media date back to December 2015 with the proposal of a “frivolous petitions” bill which prescribed jail time and a $10,000 fine for social media posts found to be in contravention of the proposed law. Yet, the bill was withdrawn six months later in the face of widespread public criticism.
With renewed calls for regulation now coming from government actors, the latest attempt could come in form of resurrecting two existing bill proposals that have been discussed by the country’s lawmakers: the “Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bill” and the “National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill.”
Both bills seek to “address the twin issues of disinformation and dangerous speech, even though both target social media,” says Gbenga Sesan, a digital rights activist. “The Nigerian government is often too lazy to change tactic…so my suspicion is that those two bills will make their way back to the top of the National Assembly’s priority list,” he tells Quartz Africa.
Nigeria’s expected attempt at regulating social media will be the latest in an ever-growing list of African countries looking to implement questionable social media laws in moves that digital rights advocates have branded as brazen attempts to stifle online expression.
In many ways, these attempts at regulation are just as proactive as they are reactive. With African countries continuing to record sharp growth in internet users, particularly among young people, there is a likelihood that more citizens will adopt internet and social media platforms as tools for advocacy. Indeed, by 2025, nearly half a billion people will be using mobile internet services in sub-Saharan Africa, while smartphone penetration will increase by nearly 50%. Already Africa’s largest internet market, Nigeria is projected to be home to over 100 million mobile internet users by 2025.
With the government seemingly motivated to regulate online expression, Nigerians will have to become more adept at being watchdogs to protect their digital rights, Sesan says. “We must communicate with our legislators and speak with any government representative that suggests censorship about the need to put an end to this repeated attempt at clamping down on free speech,” he tells Quartz.
As it turns out, it’s a role that already appears to have been embraced as The Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project, a prominent civil society group, has committed to suing lawmakers and the government should any social media regulation bill be passed into law.
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