Navigating the boundaries of free speech: Nigeria’s Twitter ban

6 months ago

Image courtesy Giovana Fleck

Note: At the time the ban occurred, the company now named X was called Twitter, so this article refers to X as Twitter throughout.

Governments worldwide are faced with the challenge of striking a balance between safeguarding citizens’ rights and ensuring national security. A clear example of this situation occurred when the government of Nigeria officially banned Twitter in 2021.

Nigeria had a staggering 104.4 million internet users in 2021, achieving a 50 percent internet penetration, confirming how important the internet has become in the country. Nigerians use the internet for several things but, most importantly, to engage in socio-economic activities within the country and to voice their views on matters of governance. However, this digital liberty may also pose security risks, the reason some governments give for infringing upon the digital rights of citizens in many ways, such as Nigeria’s Twitter ban.

Understanding Nigeria’s Twitter ban

From June 5, 2021, to January 13, 2022, residents of Nigeria found themselves prohibited from accessing Twitter. This happened after Twitter removed a tweet posted by former president Muhammadu Buhari, which was deemed to contravene the platform’s policies. The Nigerian government claimed that its reasons for banning Twitter included misinformation and the spread of fake news on the platform, which have had real world consequences. The government contended that it had identified the persistent use of the platform for activities that are capable of undermining Nigeria's existence.

The Twitter ban prompted significant inquiries into the government's commitment to upholding both  freedom of expression and unrestricted access to information. But, even in the face of the ban's declaration and subsequent legal actions against those who breached it, Nigerians continued to engage on the platform, leveraging virtual private networks (VPNs) to preserve their economic and social interactions, and to voice their dissent against the ban.

Implications of the ban on  freedom of speech and expression

Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have played a pivotal role in shaping Nigeria's political activism, dissent, and civic engagement landscape, effectively bridging online discussions with offline actions. Notably, the #EndSARS protests of 2020 exemplified the profound impact of Twitter in mobilizing and coordinating protesters, amplifying their voices, securing financial support, and garnering international attention for the cause. The Twitter ban deprived Nigerian citizens of a potent platform through which they could voice their opinions, disseminate information, and engage in global public discourse.

In a recent telephone interview with Global Voices, Ihueze Nwobilor, a senior programs officer at Paradigm Initiative, told Global Voices that “The ban displayed the autocratic nature of the Nigerian government and use of power for their excesses, undermining the rights of the people.”

This abuse of power becomes more evident in the breach of data privacy concerning Nigerians who actively participated in the #EndSARS movement. Numerous protestors had their bank accounts subjected to restrictions and their phone conversations intercepted, and allegations of GPS tracking surfaced. These practices not only undermine the basic principles of privacy but also infringe upon the civil liberties of citizens engaging in lawful and peaceful demonstrations.

The restrictive measures imposed on the digital sphere not only erode democratic ideals but also infringe upon the fundamental right of citizens to freely express themselves. By curbing online spaces that foster open discussions, the government undermines the very essence of democratic discourse and creates a chilling effect that stifles public engagement. This is a disheartening reminder that the protection of free speech and the right to dissent are critical cornerstones of a democratic society, and their erosion signifies a troubling regression in the country's commitment to upholding these principles.

Socio-political and economic consequences

According to Nwobilor, the Twitter ban resulted in a negative perception of Nigeria within the global community. He further said that, with Twitter’s suspension, Nigerian entrepreneurs and companies struggled to reach their target audiences and participate in the global digital economy.  For instance, Paradigm Initiative,  which relied heavily on Twitter to communicate with stakeholders and community members, had to find ways to circumvent the ban. Small businesses that rely heavily on social media marketing suffered reduced visibility, which hindered their growth and profitability. Precious Okeme, a caterer who actively uses Twitter to promote her business, shared her business struggles with Daily Trust: “Since the ban on [T]witter, I can rate my customer outreach as 3 out of 10, before it was a 7 out of 10. It’s hard reaching out to customers as people barely visit the platform anymore.” Additionally, the ban exacerbated existing social and political tensions by curtailing open dialogue and silencing critical voices, especially those from marginalized communities, increasing feelings of alienation and exclusion.

International reaction and impact

Nigeria’s Twitter ban did not go unnoticed by the international community. Several human rights organizations, foreign governments, and tech companies condemned the action, considering it as violating free speech principles and digital rights. They argued that governments should address concerns regarding misinformation and incitement through more proportionate and less restrictive means rather than resorting to outright bans. The ban also raised concerns about the precedent it has set for other countries grappling with similar issues, potentially inspiring further restrictions on internet freedom worldwide. Moreover, the ban hit the Nigerian economy, which lost about NGN 500 billion (USD 26.1 billion)  within 200 days, and also impacted foreign investments and collaborations.

Evaluating alternatives and solutions

While governments have a legitimate interest in addressing the spread of misinformation and promoting online safety, there may be more effective solutions than outright bans on social media platforms. Nwobilor proposed some solutions saying, “There is a need to sensitize users on the ethics and etiquettes of handling the dissemination of information. If this is done effectively, it will lead to self-regulation, and users will be more aware of the content allowed on different platforms.”

He further said, “Government policies must have a clear definition of terms. Governments should ensure they don’t infringe people’s right to information and freedom of speech, laws should be made using a multi-stakeholder approach, such as engaging with tech companies, civil society organizations, digital rights organizations, etc., to develop transparent content moderation policies. Twitter, for instance, could collaborate with Nigerian authorities to strike a balance between upholding freedom of expression and addressing concerns about harmful content, which would provide a balanced view of what digital rights law or policy to be put out.”

Also, fostering media literacy programs could be pivotal to educating citizens about responsible internet usage. By equipping users with critical thinking skills, they can better identify and navigate through misinformation and disinformation. Furthermore, creating avenues for dialogue between government representatives, tech companies, and civil society is essential. These platforms enable constructive discussions about online content regulation, allowing policymakers to make informed decisions that respect citizens’ rights while safeguarding national interests.

The Nigerian Twitter ban presented a critical moment in the struggle to safeguard freedom of speech and expression in this digital age. As Nigeria navigates the complexities of internet governance, finding solutions that balance preserving national security with upholding citizens’ fundamental rights is essential. Open dialogue, inclusivity, and a commitment to democratic principles should guide the formulation of policies that govern online spaces, ensuring that Nigeria and other nations can harness the internet’s power while respecting their citizens’ rights. Only through collaborative efforts and a commitment to digital rights can we build a world where the boundaries of free speech are navigated with sensitivity and wisdom. By learning from Nigeria’s Twitter ban lessons, we can strive to create an internet landscape that fosters free expression, inclusivity, and global connectivity.