By Eric Elezuo
It is no longer news that the government of President Muhammadu Buhari is bent on placing a restriction on the usage of social media as a result of the #EndSARS protests, which were largely successful. Many Nigerians have responded against the call, however with governors from the north giving full consent. In this interview, cyber expert and digital techpreneur, Mr. Joel Popoola, sets the records straight, highlighting why it is absolutely irresponsible for the government to clampdown on social media. Excerpts:
If eventually there is a consensus on regulation of social media, what steps do you think government can take without infringing on peoples right to free speech?
Attempts at regulating social media are likely to prove as effective as curing an itchy foot by cutting off your leg. You might solve one problem, but it will create so many more and you’ll look pretty silly while you’re doing it. The government should instead concentrate on building – or rebuilding – trust. And they can do that using social media. Think about how you personally use social media. You use it to communicate with friends and family. Instead of pursuing an antagonistic social media strategy they need to try and become those friends and family. And social media doesn’t just expose our leaders’ wrongdoing. It gives them the platform to demonstrate both their virtues and their values. And to make closer connections with the people they serve.
In addition, it is imperative to note that there are over 25 million Nigerians in the Diaspora, who also use the social media. So when you you clamp down on social media usage among Nigerians within the Nigerian space, how do you wish to regulate those ones in the Diaspora. It is laughable to begin what is not achievable. Nigerian government should jettison the idea of social media regulation. The only option available to them is to run an all inclusive government, and provide the needed amenities for the people to thrive.
As the Federal Government is proposing to regulate the social media in the wake of EndSARS protest, even as Northern governors have supported the move, what is your take as a cyber security expert?
As already stated, I do not think it is possible to regulate the social media, let alone desirable. Those proposing social media regulation need to ask themselves three questions. First, do you think police can really keep track of 44 million Nigerian Facebook accounts? And 24 million WhatsApp accounts? And 40 million Twitter accounts? And do it 24 hours a day 365 days a year? If you do, you’re wrong.
Second, do you think protesters will stop protesting simply because they can no longer tweet their grievances? If you do, you’re wrong.
Third, do you think really thick that protesters will not just come up with a new way of communicating and co-ordinating? If you do, you’re wrong.
The #EndSARS have revealed a generation of protesters which is ingenious and digitally savvy and has frankly run rings around authorities. Don’t think they won’t outwit you. Nigerian leaders are used to being able to shut down protests or criticism. In the digital age, it just isn’t possible. If we continue down this path it is to see a sequence of events in which a likeable, credible young Nigerian from a good family ends up in prison for liking a tweet by mistake – can you imagine the international condemnation and national humiliation we would be bringing on ourselves? The answer instead is taking advantage of social media to communicate and engage better, and to build trust between people and politicians.
In terms of contents, could it have been possible for social media giants like Twitter and Facebook to have censored some of the contents on their platforms during the protests?
There have been something like 28 million tweets using the #EndSARS. Could every one of them have been checked for accuracy? I very much doubt it. One of the most interesting things about social media and the #EndSARS protests is the protestors themselves flagging inaccurate online information, even when it supports their cause. They realised that the most important thing was that information associated with them was credible. This is something the establishment really has to learn from.
Since the social media is sometimes abused through dissemination of fake news, how best can the spread of fake news be checkmated by governments, social media giants and even app developers?
Nigeria has a fake news problem like no other nation – what other nation has been so ready to believe stories about a cloned president? What is worse, as we have seen in recent protests, the systems deployed by the major social media platforms to combat fake news have on occasion ended up accidentally censoring the truth while allowing lies to spread. The major social media platforms seem to be incompatible with meaningful and productive democratic engagement. Which is why we need to consider using other platforms for that purpose.
At the digital democracy campaign I lead, we think the most important question is that of where people get their information from. We believe it is people they trust, so we set up a free app called Rate Your Leader which allows voters to contact their local representatives directly, person to person, and start the dialogue that leads to trust – as well as allowing them to stick to their own networks that they think the information they have received is honest and truthful. We think this is key to better governance and better democratic engagement.
With your experience, would you say the usage of social media tools during the protests, in some ways, constituted any form of threats?
Some leaders seem to believe that these protests would not have happened without the social media. They are wrong. These protests would not have happened if they had paid attention to the growing frustration of Nigeria’s youth being voiced on social media. For years young Nigerians have used social media to document their rising frustration at a political class they believe to be wholly lacking in accountability, transparency and responsiveness. Social media could and should have been the tool our leaders used to identify these issues and take action to engage, address and resolve. The chance was there to make connections, build trust, and share ideas for a better Nigeria. This chance was not taken Instead it has become the tool protesters use to communicate, co-ordinate, and achieve international attention to their cause. The #EndSARS protests have been a masterclass in misunderstanding that in the digital age the rules of governance have changed. The real threat is not appreciating that.”
In terms of fake news, do you think Twitter, Facebook and other have done much in preventing or curtailing its prevalence?
If they had, we wouldn’t be having this conversation! Protests like #EndSARS have proven that they are completely unsuited to communication and collaboration between government and governed – everything you read on them, truth or lie, has to be viewed with the same skepticism, which discredits any information you see on them.
We need to accept that the major social media platforms were not designed to deal with situations like this, and they are not capable of dealing with them. This is why the digital democracy campaign I lead is interested in creating new platforms like Rate Your Leader which are specifically designed to. Rate Your Leader is a Nigerian invention to the world, a soft landing for the elected representatives and the government should embrace it to foil the spread of fake news.
It will invariably confer the status of influencers on all the politicians even if they are suffering from ‘influenza’
If the government goes ahead to regulate the social media, what are the likely implications for the country’s young demographic with huge social media presence?
It is not so much the implications for Nigeria’s young people as the implications for our democracy. Our leaders already look out of touch, unresponsive, unaccountable, and disinterested in transparency. Attempts at shutting down debate will make this worse, no better. We are a young country, where most of the population has grown up in the digital age. They work, socialise, bank, date and learn almost exclusively online. Our leaders must recognise that and adapt.
Why is youth empowerment important in Nigeria now after the #Endsars, and COVID 19?
Other country’s plans for post COVID-19 recovery involve less reliance on oil: Nigeria must fix the roof while the sun is shining if it wants to survive the next storm. Around the world, national governments are turning their attentions to post COVID-19 economic recovery, and this could mean more bad news for Nigeria. Across the globe, governments are developing “clean growth” strategies to recover, rebuilt and re-energise their economies after the disruption of the global pandemic. And a lot of the time, “clean growth” means “not oil”.
It’s not like bad economic news is something in short supply in Nigeria right now. The International Monetary Fund predicts that our economy will shrink by 3.4% this year. Our own National Bureau of Statistics is even gloomier; projecting that economic growth could fall by between 4.4% and 8.9%.
The newly-published Nigeria Economic Sustainability Plan 2020, a roadmap to post-COVID-19 recovery produced by a presidential committee led by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, recognises that the coronavirus crisis has already “depressed the demand for crude oil and precipitated an unprecedented oil price crash”.
The report continues: “Nigeria’s dependence on oil for revenue and foreign exchange makes it particularly vulnerable in this situation.”
There is every change that pent up economic demand will see oil revenues strongly rebound in the second half of 2020 and throughout 2021.
But Nigeria must not allow herself to be “particularly vulnerable” ever again. But within the next few years that vulnerability may even increase.
If other countries intend to become less reliant on imported oil, Nigerian cannot remain reliant on exporting oil.
We must use this period of respite to prepare for the next storm. We need to fix the roof while the sun is shining.
So what is to be done?
The Economic Sustainability Plan acknowledges that “increasing non-oil revenues” must be a national priority and recognises that the digital economy presents a wonderful opportunity to do that.
The plan also outlined specific economic interventions designed to create one million jobs in IT outsourcing, such as:
- “Training in key digital skills in partnership with private sector, providers…allowing young Nigerians “to take advantage of existing initiatives in the digital economy, including in education, entertainment, e-commerce, financial services and software development”.
- “The expansion of broadband connectivity to business services parks and locations.”
These plans are to be welcomed. But they do not go far enough.
If we are to survive the next storm, we need to embed digital in every aspect of our lives.
We need universal broadband in all businesses and all homes.
We need to encourage businesses of all kinds to adopt new practices to improve efficiency and productivity.
We need a digital literate workforce – and digitally comfortable citizens.
We need government to take the lead and take a “digital by default” approach to providing public services – something we have already seen in palliative payments made during the coronavirus crisis.
We need digital democracy!
Early adoption of digital democracy by our states and federal government can create up to 5,000 jobs per state and that is where Rate Your Leader comes in. We are ready to work with any federal/state government on youth empowerment to achieve sustainable result.
Almost 150 million Nigerians will own a smartphone by 2025. Half of young Nigerians already do. More Nigerians own a smartphone than vote.
The government’s plans for the extension of broadband and training for young Nigerians in digital skills are to be applauded.
But these plans are on page 47 of the Economic Sustainability plan.
Its Executive Summary appears to prioritise a national move to “produce what we eat and eat what we produce… focusing on agriculture, increasing the acreage under cultivation and engaging thousands of young people in farming and agro-allied jobs.”
No-one should underestimate the importance of food security in countries like ours. But Nigeria’s future cannot be as a peasant nation.
We must seize the moment to make ourselves Africa’s first truly digital democracy.