Last month, Elon Musk gave an insight on the path that Twitter may take following his acquisition of the social media platform. In an interview with Chris Anderson, responding to a question about free speech, Musk stated that “Twitter or any forum is bound by the laws of the country that it operates in… In my view, Twitter should match the laws of the country. And, really, there’s an obligation to do that.” Musk later doubled down on this apparently-legalistic approach to free speech in a tweet: “By ‘free speech,’ I simply mean that which matches the law. I am against censorship that goes far beyond the law. If people want less free speech, they will ask government to pass laws to that effect. Therefore, going beyond the law is contrary to the will of the people.” But this approach betrays an ignorance of content moderation generally and how Twitter operates outside the United States specifically – especially within Sub-Saharan Africa where it has intertwined with politics and social movements – that is alarming for the potential new owner of Twitter.

From Nigeria to Uganda, Kenya to Ethiopia, Twitter has become an integral part of the democratic experience, with implications that are far beyond the ideological squabbles of the West. For many users in Sub-Saharan Africa, Twitter long ago morphed from a public square for debating political views to ground zero for collective action and demanding accountability from governments and their agencies.

If Musk follows up with his regulatory approach, this may be the end – not the beginning – of freedom of expression in the continent.

The Politics of Twitter Regulation

The seven-month blackout of Twitter by Nigeria’s government, from June 4, 2021 to Jan. 13, 2022, cost the Nigerian economy an estimated N546.5 billion naira (about $1.3 billion USD). But this loss was a small price to pay for the ego of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, which Twitter bruised when the platform deleted his tweet that threatened violence against one of the country’s ethnic groups.

However, Buhari’s banning of Twitter was a long time coming, spurred by more than a single deleted tweet. The digital platform actively supported the youth-led #EndSARS protests against police brutality, which swept through Nigeria and her diasporic communities in 2020 and posed challenges to Buhari’s government. Twitter provided a special #EndSARS emoji and even raised funds via cryptocurrency for the protest. Aside from this direct support from Twitter, the government was visibly angered by the youth movement’s use of the digital platform to propel, mobilize, and sustain protests. In a nightmare scenario for the government, a protest ignited on Twitter spilled into the streets and they could not control it.

The Nigerian government clearly concluded that it had to rein in Twitter if the company were ever to be allowed to operate in the country again. The eventual lifting of the ban on Twitter came after months of negotiations, with Twitter agreeing to abide by Nigerian laws in the moderation of prohibited content and to establish a local legal personality – moves that raised concerns about the Nigerian government’s ability to pressure Twitter to take down critical content. Effectively, Twitter threw Nigerians digital rights under the bus to appease the Buhari regime.

Nigeria is not the only country in the continent that has managed to squash digital rights through regulation of social media. Facebook has remained banned in Uganda since January 2021. Like Buhari, Ugandan’s president, Yoweri Museveni accused Facebook of “arrogance” following the deplatforming of fake accounts and pages linked to his re-election campaign. Due to Facebook’s ban, Twitter is one of the only significant platforms for political engagement and activities in that East African nation. Twitter’s acquiescence to the Nigerian government’s content moderation demands sets a chilling precedent for the company’s approach to such demands in future. Museveni may soon approach Twitter to regulate content or else be banned like Facebook – and free speech philosophy grounded only in following local law will not protect the digital rights of Ugandan users if Museveni cloaks this “request” in the law.

Africa’s Twitter Disinformation Battlefields

As they do elsewhere in the world, elections, protests, and charged political situations in Africa tend to spike online mis/disinformation across the continent. In the fierce competition for attention (including by government-backed actors or officials themselves), local laws governing content moderation can become just another tool for government-sponsored disinformation and/or repression.

For example, during the 2019 Nigerian presidential elections, Twitter was a minefield of disinformation, propaganda, and ethnocentric hate speech. Similarly, as Kenyans prepare for a general election in August, Twitter hosts a flourishing political disinformation industry, waiting to be activated.

In both Nigeria and Kenya, the disinformation and political propaganda are propelled and sustained by government or political parties through an army of influencers. During elections, Nigerian disinformation influencers drive political propaganda or frame political news, which are then amplified by their followers, especially during elections. Meanwhile, Kenyan disinformation influencers through astroturfing have successfully manipulated Twitter’s trending algorithm to push political propaganda favorable to the ruling government or their families. The going rate for Kenya’s disinformation influencers is between $15 per day to $25 per hashtag, in a country where the monthly minimum wage is about KES50,000 (about $450 USD).

These examples barely scratch the surface. The cesspool of Twitter-enabled disinformation in the continent becomes even more complicated in multilingual countries like Ethiopia, with disruptive and destructive fake news silos that are far removed from the limelight. Long before the escalation of the Tigray conflict between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020, social media had sustained a disinformation epidemic and playbook in that Horn of African nation. The conflict has only exacerbated the disinformation contest on Twitter, with both pro- and anti-government actors battling to dominate the narrative. In November 2021, Twitter disabled one of its own features (“trending topics”) due to manipulation by influencers and the feature’s potential to incite conflict. In December 2021, the Ethiopian government accused Twitter of promoting the TPLF narrative on their platform, while suspending handles that are sympathetic to the authorities.

African Governments’ Use of the Legal System to Limit Expression

Musk’s apparent plan to leave Twitter content moderation to the regulation determined by local laws hinges on the myopic assumption that Twitter is only used by – and at the service of – U.S. users. This geographically narrow understanding of the nature and limits of free expression is particularly ironic given Musk’s cosmopolitan origins – he holds U.S., Canadian, and South African citizenship, and was born in the latter. If he succeeds at taking control of Twitter and wishes to make it “an inclusive arena for free speech” as he has claimed, he will need to better acquaint himself with the varying geographies, complicated politics, and socio-economic diversity of Twitter users, especially those outside the United States. This is because, in countries across Sub-Saharan Africa (and beyond), laws are oftentimes synonymous with the whims and caprice of the government in power.

In 2019, the Nigerian government proposed a social media bill that would have allowed law enforcement to cut off Nigerian users’ access to any “online location” (including WhatsApp, Facebook, or Twitter) and criminalized statements that the government deemed “prejudicial to national security” or to “diminish public confidence” in the government. (The bill faced stiff opposition from digital rights activists and has stalled.) Late President John Magufuli gagged online freedom of expression in Tanzania with expensive licenses. In 2021 alone, outdated laws and exorbitant fees were responsible for numerous violations of the right to free expression in Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Similarly, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ethiopian government introduced a hate speech law which was a ruse to silence online dissent. Meanwhile, Magafuli’s Tanzania tightened internet-usage laws, making it illegal for citizens to publish pandemic statistics online.

These – and countless other regulations on the continent aimed at stifling the free exchange of information and silencing dissent – show that it is delusional or plain idealistic for Twitter content moderation to be solely dependent on local laws. If the goal is maximizing free expression, Twitter has significant power to push back or engage with local governments, rather than simply “matching the law.” For example, Twitter may consider building partnerships with local civil society organisations, academics and activists – who have built up ample experience, expertise, and context necessary for engaging their various governments. These local actors can also help Twitter contextualize their content moderation policies for various regions where they operate.

Across Africa, Twitter remains one of the few spaces still relatively free from government censorship and control. Adopting a narrowly legalistic approach to content moderation in Africa would hand this platform – which currently serves as a bastion of democracy – to government decision-makers. Elon Musk’s Twitter would implicitly endorse the violation of human rights, stifling dissent and gagging Africans’ online freedom of expression.

Image: A man carries a banner reading “Digital Right is Human Right” during a demonstration at Ojota in Lagos on June 12, 2021, as Nigerian activists called for nationwide protests over what they criticise as bad governance and insecurity, as well as the ban of US social media platform Twitter by the government of President Muhammadu Buhari. – Hundreds of protesters gathered on June 12, 2021 in Lagos, a sprawling megapolis of over 20 million people, and police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images)