#EndSARS Renews National Security Pretext To Restrict Social Media Rights

Credit: Temilade Adelaje/Reuters]

EndSARS protesters [File. Temilade Adelaje Reuters]

By Murtala Abdullahi and Fakhrriyyah Hashim 

On October 27th, the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed told members of the  House Committee on Information, National Orientation, Ethics and Values, social media regulation was important.

“ When we went to China, we could not get google, Facebook, and Instagram, you could not even use your email in China because they made sure it is censored and well regulated.” Lai said, in an attempt to justify calls for a Social Media censorship bill as previously pushed for by the members of the National Assembly. Both were equally met with resistance by citizens and CSOs across Nigeria.

Coming a day after Lai Mohammed’s remarks, the representative of Nigeria’s National Security Adviser, Babagana Monguno was quoted telling audience at a workshop to review the cybersecurity strategy 2020, that social media was used to disseminate subversive content to incite violence and cause unrest during the recent #EndSARS protests.

The Northern Governors forum recently called for the censorship of social media because of the immense role it had played in mobilising and sustaining the unprecedented #EndSARS protest against police brutality and profiling. The joint communique released for the public was met with backlash at the governors for their non-prioritization of core Northern issues such as activities of armed groups that continue to terrorise the region.

An analysis of the digital footprint of #EndSARS activism and conversation on Twitter, by Nendo254 on 24th of October, showed #EndSars reached 99 million users and had a total of 280 million Impressions. This reveals an unprecedented level of organising by Nigerians across the world on a united campaign to end police brutality and impunity. It also showcases the reasoning behind the intensified calls for censorship by government officials and politicians, neglecting the importance of a free digital space that enables the prosperity of economic development and citizen participation in governance.

The Nigerian Government’s Response to the Internet of Things 

In the past few years, the Government has enacted a series of laws to curb recurring concerns related to the internet and its borderless expanse. 

The Government has responded to these perceived security threats through several instruments such as the 2014 National Cybersecurity Strategy and the 2015 Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention Act), which provided policy guidelines and a legal framework to mitigating internet crimes, online child abuse and protection of critical national information infrastructure. 

The Cybercrime Act imposes penalties for hacking, cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying, the threat of violence, distribution of racist and xenophobic materials through a computer system or network with penalty ranging from a fine to imprisonment.

In December 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari launched the Revised National Security Strategy, a policy roadmap on how the Government plans to deal with emerging and future security threats including the disruptive impact of emerging technologies, fake news and hate speech. In the same year, the National Assembly had proposed a National commission for the prohibition of Hate speech and the Protection from Internet Falsehood and Manipulation Bills to Govern and regulate social media space.

In 2018, the Nigerian Army established a Cyber Warfare Command charged with the responsibility to monitor, defend and attack perceived cyber threats. And a few days into the EndSARS protests on October 17, the Nigerian army expanded its cyberwarfare operation crocodile smile exercise. According to the army’s spokesperson Sagir Musa, the aim of the renewed exercise was to identify, track and counter negative propaganda on social media. 

Whilst supporters of social media regulation claim it will curb fake news and enhance security, reality points to the opposite. The proposals do not address the root causes of the problems and are a potential slippery slope towards digital authoritarianism, censorship and shrinking of digital rights. This also accentuates the alienation of citizens from their civic duty of holding government accountable, further propelling political apathy among Nigeria’s young population. This is why the passage of the Digital Rights and Freedom Bill is crucial to protecting Nigerian Internet users from the infringement of their fundamental freedoms of expression and association online by any party.  

Notwithstanding, the large expanse of borderless space of the internet is open to every possibility across the globe. This has presented democratic governments with a complex web of challenges as they maintain a priority of protecting consumer privacy and data whilst preserving the digital rights of internet users. A prime example of which has been showcased by the EU through the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR, which ensures users know when their information is collected and consenting to any type of usage beyond the fine prints. 

Democratic governments of advanced economies have also placed the heap of accountability on big tech companies like Twitter and Facebook to regulate their platforms better by identifying and removing false information, incitement of violence, and online harassment. This has been evidenced in Twitter’s recent push for transparency of information sources as it dealt with the Personal accounts of U.S President Donald Trump and other government and media affiliated pages. In their bid to contextualise the sources of information in tweets, it has allowed them to expose critical bias that puts news into perspective. 

Fundamental risks faced by Big Tech companies, Governments and communities 

Data and Privacy: Social media is vulnerable to abuse and data manipulations in the course of mining. This compromised use of consumer data is deployed to enhance disinformation campaigns and the profiling of online behaviour of users for political and marketing purposes as perpetrated by Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 U.S general elections. 

Internet farms: The objective and composition of these internet or trolls farms vary from bots to humans. They are tasked to amplify social polarisation or shape the conversation to influence public perception and decisions on national issues. In dangerous instances, they set targets on individuals to bully and they also incite violence between groups by pandering disinformation and inciting content to cause chaos. This was evident throughout the #EndSARS protests with a series of attempts to undermine the movement and bully prominent actors using misinformation campaigns. 

In a 2018 testimony to the United Kingdom Parliament digital, culture, media and sport committee, whistleblower Christopher Wylie told Members Cambridge Analytica worked to influence the outcome of the 2015 Elections in Nigeria through the distribution of offensive video with the sole intent of intimidating voters.  In April 2020, CNN uncovered a troll farm engaging in activities to interfere with the U.S 2020 election. 

Fake news, Disinformation and Misinformation:  In an attempt to drive traffic to sites, click bait has become one of the most popular channels of spreading misinformation and disinformation. This, coupled with polarising politics has created an environment where old events are often redistributed to appear recent during crises to evoke a deeper sense of resentment amongst a population. Throughout the #EndSARS protests, there had been independent accounts like @Pushbackng on Twitter created by peaceful protesters to verify posts and news, as well as efforts by mainstream media such as the BBC’s report on false news being circulated online

Terror and propaganda: Violent non-state actors such as militias and terrorist groups use social media messaging for terror and propaganda purposes intending to cause fear and intimidate people and the government. For instance, Boko Haram and its splinter factions use social media for propaganda and terror operations.

Addressing security risks without restricting digital rights and economic opportunities 

In 2018, Nigeria had 92.3 million internet users and 113 million in 2019. This figure is projected to grow to 187.8 million internet users in 2023 as internet penetration and services improve. This means more market for technological companies and economic opportunities for Nigerians, and as such, a multi-sectoral approach is imperative to dealing with risk factors and improving the safety of internet services for consumers. 

Education and Enlightenment: Although citizens have access to more information today than in the entire history of nations, the Nigerian education system was not built to prepare citizens with the requisite skills to navigate, assess, understand and safely consume information. Hence why it is critical to integrate critical thinking exercises, digital media education and social cohesion programs into school curriculum. This will reduce the younger population’s susceptibility to fake news and dangerous disinformation campaigns.

Government and Internet Service Safety:  The Nigerian government needs to contextually articulate the problems introduced by increasing internet proliferation and ensure a clear path that promotes engagement with big tech companies and civil society organisations if it seeks to improve the healthiness of the internet for its Nigerian users. 

Participating in international conversations and multilateral cooperation is critical to encouraging  big tech technology giants to take more responsibility for safeguarding their users from harmful content and behaviours as espoused by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. Government ought to understand that seeking to regulate social media use at the height of civil engagement and organising through #EndSARS by citizens projects a frame of the government’s stifling of the constitutional freedom of speech and right to protest in a democratic state. 

CSO and Internet Service Safety: Civil society organizations should partner with internet companies like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter to improve the fact-checking of online content and educate users on filtering settings and reporting through channels made available by these companies. They should also engage big tech companies on investing in digital education to protect consumers, enhance internal safety tools and adopt localized thresholds for flagging and removal of false, abusive and offensive content.

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