By Nseobong Okon-Ekong and Vanessa Obioha
The announcement that the Federal Government has suspended Twitter operations in Nigeria indefinitely has generated several reactions on the social media platforms. Twitter denizens gleaned the information from the Ministry of Information and Culture headed by Lai Mohammed.
In a statement signed by the Minister’s Special Assistant on Media, Segun Adeyemi, the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria’s corporate existence was cited as one of the reasons for the suspension.
In addition, the Minister said the Federal Government also directed the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) to immediately commence the process of licensing all OTT and social media operations in Nigeria, a move former Director-General of the commission, Emeka Mba, considers as “policy talk without actual policy thought or rigour,” in a tweet.
The indefinite suspension of Twitter is seen as a response to the deletion of the president’s tweet by the microblogging site on Wednesday.
After his meeting with INEC chairman, Prof. Mahmud Yakubu, on Tuesday, President Muhammadu Buhari had tweeted: “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand.”
The tweet drew the ire of many Nigerians who viewed it as insensitive, thus leading to a complaint to Twitter to delete the tweet which the platform eventually did.
Reacting to the suspension, Nigerians found the Federal Government announcing the suspension of a platform on the same platform amusing. The social networking site was replete with Memes and comments regarding FG’s action.
In a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbodiyan, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) vehemently rejected what it described as nwarranted
suspension of the social media platform, Twitter, by the President Buhari-led Federal government, saying it is a draconian action and a slide towards a fascist regime.
“The party asserts that the suspension of twitter, is a vexatious, condemnable and barbaric move to muzzle Nigerians, particularly the youths, ostensibly to prevent them from holding the overtly corrupt, vindictive and divisive Buhari administration accountable for its atrocities, including human right violations, patronizing of terrorists and outright suppressive acts against innocent Nigerians.
“Our party is appalled that the Federal Government could exhibit such priimitive intolerance and power intoxication because the social media giant demonstrated international best practices in not allowing the Buhari presidency to use Twitter as a platform to propagate and spread the Buhari administration’s hatred towards Nigerians.”
Former Vice president Atiku Abubakar tweeted “Hopefully, this isn’t my last tweet,” few moments after the news broke.
Social commentator Japheth Omojuwa, in a series of tweet tried to analyse the rationale behind the decision.
“Except they criminalise tweeting – they can’t, because it won’t stand against the Nigerian 1999 constitution – then this is a pointless activity. They can’t operationalise this thing so it’s an emotional and unfortunate one. Totally uncalled for,” read one of his tweets.
In another, he argued that the presidency cannot suspend Twitter as a corporate because “they don’t have a corporate presence. You can’t criminalise tweeting, so Nigerians will still tweet. They probably thought Twitter is like a TV station that they can just shut down. It’s sad, just to witness it.”
The Fight Against Social Media Platforms
Social media platforms undoubtedly helped transform the world into a global village but in making communication and connection easily accessible, the social networking sites have also been a veritable tool for purveyors of misinformation and violence.
This worrying trend is one of the reasons most countries banned some social media sites. For instance, Telegram, a messaging app was banned in Iran and China based on national security. Russia blocked access to Telegram in 2018 when it refused to give the Federal Security Service backdoor access to its encryption keys according to an online report. In 2019, the country introduced a new internet law that gives the Kremlin the possibility to switch off connections within Russia or completely to the worldwide web “in an emergency”. The law also requires internet service providers to install network equipment – known as deep packet inspection (DPI) – capable of identifying the source of traffic and filter content. In practice, this will allow the country’s telecommunications watchdog Roskomnadzor to be more effective at blocking sites.
However, data from Statista showed that since 2015, over 60 countries have blocked or at least restricted access to social networks. The research organisation noted that about three per cent of the countries surveyed by the online privacy and security company Surfshark, block access to social media and communication apps and are mostly in Asia. The 2020 report showed that in China, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Iran, mainly foreign social networks such as Twitter and Facebook are blocked.
“It should be noted that China has its own national ecosystem of social networks and communication apps. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates restrict the use of internet calls through voice-over IPs.”
But in Africa, most governments have been toeing a similar line. The report disclosed that African and Asian countries had restricted access to social media most frequently in the past five years, even if the restrictions were temporary.
The restriction of social media by countries are often seen as a sign of dictatorship and most practised in undemocratic societies, although some are triggered by the rise of misinformation and threats to the government such as the case of Sri Lanka in 2019 when the country blocked access to social media sites following a series of coordinated terrorist attacks.
In the last Uganda election, the Yoweri Museveni government banned social media ahead of the presidential elections, citing Facebook’s blocking of accounts supporting his government. Other African countries that have blocked or restricted access to social media at one time or the other include Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Chad and Togo.
In recent times, there have been growing concerns to regulate social media due to the increasing spread of misinformation and incitement of violence. In Nigeria, a social media bill was proposed but it had been met with protests, as many viewed it as a way of granting the government absolute control over the people. Last year, Lesotho issued regulations on how ordinary citizens use social media by demanding that users with more than 100 followers register with the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA) as internet broadcasters.
How Can Governments Block Access to Social Media?
Countries that seek to block or restrict access to social media can do so in various ways. One of the most common ways they do this is by ordering internet service providers (ISPs) to block all internet access. It can politely request the restriction or use stricter measures. In a case when the government has direct control, blocking access can be easy peas.
Another way to block access to social sites is through an autonomous system number. Each ISP has an ASN assigned to it. To use such a service to block access to a particular website, the government can create a smaller ASN with an IP range that includes the website it wants to block.
The Implication of Suspension of Twitter Operations in Nigeria
With the rise of tech startups in Nigeria, not a few global tech founders have shown interest in the country. In 2019, Twitter Founder, Jack Dorsey, visited the country as part of his tour of African countries. His visit was greeted with fanfare as tech hubs viewed it as a sign they were getting the global spotlight.
Twitter, to many Nigerians, is more than a social interaction site. It is a source of livelihood to many Nigerians who have used the platform to promote their talents, products and services. It is also a place where social causes are given a voice. For instance, the #EndSARS protest gained traction on the platform. Victims of sexual assault or any form of abuse have used the platform to share their stories. It has also been a veritable platform to hold the government accountable.
By suspending the operations of the microblogging site, the government is not only exercising control over freedom of speech but also depriving many unemployed Nigerians of an opportunity to make a living. Data collected by Statista showed that out of the roughly 28 million Nigerians who used social media in the fourth quarter of 2020, 61.4 per cent used Twitter.
To be sure, the Nigerian president is not the first president to have his tweet deleted by the platform. On more than one occasion, the platform deleted tweets and even suspended the account of former American President Donald Trump which violated its terms.
For the government to take such an action two days after the platform deleted the President’s tweet smacks of retaliation more than the protection of the corporate existence of the country.