Op-Ed: Authoritarianism, social media, the United States, and Africa


TWITTER and other social media platforms have suspended or restricted President Donald J. Trump’s access, mostly because of his and his followers’ use of them to incite violence, though their stated, precise reasons vary from one to another. They are all private companies, and thus are subject to few restrictions on what content they choose to moderate or remove, writes John Campbell.

Mainstream American opinion is outraged over the assault on the US Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 6 and many Americans are incensed by related efforts to suborn the Constitution in blocking the certification of President-Elect Joseph Biden’s electoral victory. Barring the president from social media platforms has not been seen as an infringement on his constitutional right to free speech. The legal argument runs that companies are free to enforce their own standards and policies regarding the content they host. Further, President Trump remains free to make his views known by the myriad other means of mass communication that exist in the United States such as the press, television, radio, and other social media sites.

Polling data shows that a majority of Americans do indeed favour increased regulation of social media. But reactions to the moves by Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and others to limit Trump’s social media access have followed a familiar partisan split. An ongoing debate about how much governments should regulate social media and what the boundaries are (or should be) between free speech and incitement to hatred and violence has been made more pressing by the events of January 6.

This same debate is underway in sub-Saharan Africa, where social media is of growing importance and other types of media are weak or even absent. In some states trending toward authoritarianism or worse—Uganda, Tanzania, and Ethiopia, for example—regimes seek to limit social media to enhance their power by muzzling the opposition. But in others, especially those riven by ethnic and religious conflict, there is legitimate concern that media, now including social media, are a means to incite violence.

Nigeria is a case in point. The country is besieged by an Islamist revolt in the northeast, conflict over land and water in the middle of the country that often acquires an ethnic and religious coloration, and a low-level insurrection in the oil patch. The government is weak and commands little popular support. Under these circumstances, Nigeria is ripe for social media incitement to violence.

Weak African governments are often heavy-handed and resort to draconian punishments which are difficult to carry out in practice, their responses to incendiary social media posts have been no different. In Nigeria, the government has introduced legislation to regulate social media that includes the death penalty for certain types of violations. Human rights organizations, many of which are suspicious the administration of Muhammadu Buhari is moving towards authoritarianism, see the legislation as infringing on free speech and stifling the ability to criticize the government. In Nigeria, as elsewhere in Africa, while social media is strong, more conventional media is less so. Hence restrictions on access to social media would, indeed, impede the flow of news and information to a greater extent than in the United States.

Though it remains to be seen, major social media platforms’ barring of Donald Trump is likely to be cited in the Nigerian debate by those that favour the proposed legislation. In commentary by outside friends of Nigeria, it will be important not to impose on Nigeria the circumstances of the United States, which are not necessarily parallel.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC.



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