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Social media and free speech in Africa (1)

It is probably true that African elections are not won on social media. Still, the same cannot be said of public opinion. There is evidence the dominant narrative on social media is influential. Sometimes, and increasingly so, the first anyone knows about a government policy is when it is announced on social media. American president Donald Trump is the archetypal example of this practice. Of course, and unfortunately so, what “trends” on social media could also be false. Recently, for instance, it was falsely reported that Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, married two of his female cabinet ministers. And even now, despite the country’s secret service bringing the culprit to book, the false report is still widely believed.

Little wonder, African governments are increasingly concerned about social media and the influence it wields. Put another way, African governments are finding that they cannot easily control the media narrative as much as they would like or used to be able to. They are not taking the assault lying down. In Nigeria, a social media bill is in the works. It certainly does not help that Singapore, a paragon of development, has one already. In fact, in the Nigerian case, the draft social media bill reportedly takes a cue from the Singaporean law. To be sure, one is not suggesting that mischief-makers, and there are plenty of those on social media, should be given a carte blanche. But the risk of stifling free speech in the process is real and significant. What is to be done then?

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Fake news predates social media

“Disinformation is as old as humanity. When the serpent told Eve that nothing would happen if she ate the apple, that was disinformation. But today, spreading lies has never been easier. On social media, there are no barriers to entry and there are no gatekeepers.” This exposition by former Time magazine managing editor & one-time American under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Richard Stengel, in his 2019 book, Information Wars: How we lost the global battle against disinformation & what we can do about it, highlights the longstanding use of disinformation or fake news for mischievous ends.

2019 Nobel prize joint-winners in economics and couple Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s Good Economics for Hard Times: Better answers to our biggest problems highlights the issue rather succinctly. Social media is not the problem. But social media magnifies the problem with relative ease. For instance, old media, not new or social media, motivated the genocide in Rwanda. Banerjee & Duflo assert “altogether, Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) propaganda is estimated to be responsible for 10 percent of the violence, or about fifty thousand Tutsi deaths.” The point is that propaganda & fake news predated social media with perhaps even more fatal consequences.

Fighting disinformation through classical regulation, which would probably require full censorship, would almost certainly push a government towards autocracy. And true to type, countries like China and Russia that have a relatively tight lid on disinformation today are autocracies

One concedes, however, that social media has made it easier for mischief-makers to practice their ugly art. Unsurprisingly, fake news and rumours are increasingly first planted on social media before germinating to old media. Fact-based journalism is undoubtedly under attack. Even when news is genuine, the brief format of many a social media platform and the seemingly unquenchable thirst of enthusiasts often means not much is read after the headlining tweet or Facebook/Instagram post. And once a tweet or other social media post goes viral, whether true or not, it is usually difficult for the original author to control the message thereafter.

Better information war strategies needed

Clearly nowadays, it does not take much to plant fake news and get it to permeate through social media with relative ease. Understandably, there is a growing call for regulation. Still, as it is very difficult to discern what is fake news or disinformation, regulation would hardly be a solution. Not without some creativity, at least. Because even when effective, regulating social media would almost certainly stifle free speech. Stengel acknowledges as much. Democracies, by their very nature, being as they thrive on openness to ideas, are not well-equipped to fight disinformation.

Put another way, fighting disinformation through classical regulation, which would probably require full censorship, would almost certainly push a government towards autocracy. And true to type, countries like China and Russia that have a relatively tight lid on disinformation today are autocracies. Incidentally, they are also the leading purveyors of disinformation towards geopolitical ends around the world. Simply put, as Stengel highlights, “in a democracy, government is singularly bad at combating disinformation.” So, should purveyors of falsehoods be allowed to continue going haywire, leaving immeasurable damage in their wake?

One of the first ideas Stengel mulled – to funnily much turf war-type resistance initially – at the American foreign ministry is already being implemented by many governments. But back then, it was a novelty; even for the United States. He suggested a digital hub of sorts, not as originator or author of content but an aggregator to “share, amplify and coordinate” American foreign policy and actions; which essentially involved retweeting and reposting news about the US state department’s activities each day. African governments, which already do this in one form or another, clearly do not think this is enough; in light of their quest for more stringent social media regulation. They are probably right about the limited reach of their current strategies. Even so, they would probably be more effective if they ascribed as much seriousness to the task as they do for old media institutions.

 

Rafiq Raji

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