When Nigeria’s government said this month it was suspending Twitter, it made the announcement, apparently without irony, on Twitter.
The attorney-general said he would prosecute anyone using the platform. But so ubiquitous has the site become in Nigeria, where rambunctious debate is the norm, that many, including some government officials, have continued to access it using virtual private networks.
Nigeria’s banning of Twitter, apparently in retaliation for the deletion of an incendiary tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari, raises difficult questions about the relative authority of sovereign states and social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Ever since Twitter banned the account of Donald Trump in January after tweets allegedly inciting violence at the US Capitol building, there has been an expectation for it to apply similar standards in other countries. The stand-off with Buhari (4.1m Twitter followers) surely presages online turf wars with other strong-willed leaders, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (6.7m), Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan (17.8m) and India’s Narendra Modi (68.8m).
This is a clash between what ‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a digital rights forum, calls the “cloud nation” and the nation state. It is a contest in which many citizens, despite their reservations about extraterritoriality, side with rules set in Silicon Valley over those meted out by their own parliaments and judiciaries.
In his tweet last week, Buhari violated Twitter’s rules by threatening a violent crackdown when he drew a comparison between current separatist unrest and the Biafra civil war of the late 1960s in which roughly 1m people died, many of starvation. “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,” Buhari, a former soldier and ex-military dictator, wrote in the now-expunged post. “Those of us . . . who went through the war will treat them in the language they understand.”
Twitter deemed the remarks a violation of its abusive behaviour policy, which prohibits content that promotes “a desire for death, serious bodily harm or serious disease against an individual or group of people”.
By this reckoning, the decision to delete the 78-year-old president’s tweet was straightforward. Buhari, or at least his more tech-competent aides, had signed up to the platform, thereby agreeing to its rules. If anyone, whether president or pauper, goes into a restaurant and starts kicking over the tables or spitting at the customers, the restaurateur has every right to eject them.
But Twitter and other social media platforms are more than that. Millions of Nigerians log on each day. Twitter became the forum on which a new movement, known as #EndSARS after the brutal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, flourished. What began as a protest against police brutality, evolved into a broader rallying cry for social justice and ended in a real-world confrontation with the Nigerian state last October, when security forces gunned down at least 12 protesters in Lagos.
Twitter is less local restaurant and more global commons, the modern-day equivalent of the town square. It likes to see itself as a democratic marketplace of ideas. Yet who is Twitter, a for-profit US company, to determine which elected leaders of sovereign nations are free to speak? A “cloud nation” has terms of service but no constitution. Social media platforms are not the neutral spaces they claim. The “like” and “retweet” buttons are the tools of what has been called “a gigantic outrage machine” that accentuates the extreme.
It is not obvious how such companies can determine what crosses the line in foreign countries about which they know little and where no algorithm is equipped to make sensible judgments. People can post in literally thousands of languages and in numerous scripts such as Arabic, Armenian or Ge’ez.
Even posts in English have different cultural connotations. “Cockroach” in Rwanda is not a simple description of an insect — as a western-programmed algorithm might assume — but a hateful cry to genocide. The Nigerian government has complained that, while its president was silenced, people such as Mazi Nnamdi Kanu, who leads what the government labels a terrorist separatist group, have until recently tweeted freely.
Twitter was probably right to sanction Buhari. The Nigerian government was wrong to suspend Twitter. Yet no one should celebrate the fact that an unelected American tech supremo should have more credibility in Nigeria than its own president.