An expert's point of view on a current event.
June 3, 2021, 5:47 a.m.
In April, Twitter announced the opening of an African headquarters in Ghana's capital, Accra – more than a year after founder Jack Dorsey mentioned his personal plans to move to the continent.
The decision was received with mixed reactions in the African tech community. While many were enthusiastic, others were not happy with the choice of Ghana as Twitter's Africa headquarters. It has been viewed by many Nigerians as a snub to Africa's largest economy, Nigeria, which is popular with the African start-up community for its fast-growing technology hub in Lagos. Ironically, most of the content and curator roles advertised by Twitter in Accra were created with an emphasis on Nigeria.
In choosing its headquarters in Africa, the San Francisco-based tech giant said, "Ghana is an advocate of free speech, online freedom and the open internet." There is no doubt that the unfavorable business environment in Nigeria – and a growing wave of insecurity, kidnappings and violence – led Twitter to choose Ghana.
Even with a new office in Accra, the chances that Twitter's presence on the continent will have a significant impact on the daily realities of people living under authoritarian regimes are slim. Digital authoritarianism continues to threaten fundamental freedoms and rights in many African countries.
For more than two decades, various governments have taken a plethora of measures to cut off people's ability to organize, express opinions, and participate in governance online. The most common measures used are digital surveillance, disinformation, the introduction of laws restricting digital rights, and arrests for online speech. Countries have used national security as a justification to enact vague laws against incitement to “public order” and persuade sites like Facebook and Google to remove content they consider objectionable.
These governments will not hesitate to do whatever they have to when they see an organization pushing its boundaries or affecting citizens in a way that they believe is detrimental to their interests. Given Africa's large market and the economic opportunities the continent offers foreign investors, companies like Twitter will try to stay in the good books of these governments to avoid losing their investments.
Africa has a checkered history of free speech and online freedom. Although most governments are considered democratic, many act like dictatorships and increasingly seem to be taking control of the digital space.
In 2007, Guinea was the first African country to turn off the Internet during protests against former President Lansana Conté. Since then, digital blackouts have become the norm in Africa during political upheavals or in times of uncertainty. The most recent case of internet censorship occurred in Uganda earlier this year. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni turned off the internet for almost five days and blocked access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram and YouTube two days before the presidential elections in January.
The internet blackout was undeniably a deliberate attempt by the government to keep citizens and the rest of the world in the dark during the electoral process. Other African countries that have seen internet shutdowns and taxes on blogging and social media use include Tanzania, Ethiopia, Burundi, Cameroon, Togo, Zimbabwe, Chad and Benin.
A number of these tech giants have spoken out and criticized the actions of African governments to block access to social media and shut down the internet. In January, Twitter condemned the Ugandan government's actions before the parliamentary elections through its public policy account.
In February, Facebook spokeswoman for East Africa, Janet Kemboi, condemned the long internet and social media outages between January 2020 and February this year in Tanzania, Chad, Ethiopia and Uganda, calling it a violation of human rights in the digital age. In the fight against internet censorship, however, there is little that these tech giants can do if they want to stay in the favor of governments.
In many African countries, internet censorship and raids on social media are used as instruments of political intimidation and repressive laws are passed to pursue and neutralize political opposition on the internet or on social media.
The efforts of technology companies have largely been focused on attracting large numbers of new users. Technology companies have always talked about offering their services to offline users. about 700 million of these 3 billion people in Africa. Most of the new efforts are focused on getting more people online.
In 2019, Google announced Equiano, a new private submarine cable designed to transport high-speed data between Africa and Europe. The Equiano cable will begin in Western Europe and run along the west coast of Africa between Portugal and South Africa, with branches along the way that can be used to extend connectivity to more African countries.
In 2020, Facebook also announced plans to build a $ 1 billion submarine internet cable to connect 23 countries in Africa, Europe and the Middle East. The wired connection will bring faster internet connectivity to the continent by providing almost three times the total network capacity of all submarine cables serving Africa today.
Facebook strives to have stronger monthly active user growth in countries with lower average revenue per user than the US, Europe, and Canada – and Africa makes up a large portion of that market.
According to Internet World Stats, Africa has a population of nearly 1.4 billion people, but an Internet penetration rate of only 39 percent compared to a global average of 59 percent. Facebook hopes to build an internet infrastructure for developing countries and thereby become synonymous with what the internet is for many first-time users.
According to Twitter, Ghana's recent appointment to host the African Continental Free Trade Association (AfCFTA) secretariat is in line with its overall goal of building a presence in the region that supports its efforts to improve and customize its services across Africa. The AfCFTA is expected to lower tariff barriers, boost billions in trade and facilitate easier business transactions between more than 50 African countries. This further confirms the notion that switching from Twitter is largely a business decision.
Although Twitter, which is establishing its presence in Africa, has been received with great enthusiasm, it is unlikely to be of much help in the fight against internet censorship and raids on social media. Although Facebook and Google established themselves on the continent much earlier, they did not contribute significantly to the fight for freedom of expression, nor did they take any action against the shutdown of the Internet.
Facebook opened its first Africa office in Johannesburg with a focus on growing markets in Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa. In 2008, Google began expanding its presence in Africa with its headquarters in Kenya and simultaneously to other countries including Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria and Senegal. But the number of Internet shutdowns on the continents has only increased in the last ten years.
Social media, once viewed as a deeply democratic technology, is increasingly enabling authoritarians and their allies. It's easier to spread fake news on social media than it is to correct it and fan the flames of social divisions faster than it is to fix it.
The way citizens interact with Facebook and other social media platforms is now helping authoritarian leaders weaken the very foundations of democratic systems. It is therefore crucial to ensure that technology companies do not bend their own standards and become an agent of autocratic governments in their search for lucrative new markets.