Within various regions on the African continent, there has been something of proliferation in the spate of social media regulations with a number of governments putting in place measures to curb the influence and usage of the medium in recent times. Earlier this month, WeeTracker reported that the Ugandan government had implemented a law mandating that a daily levy of USD 0.05 be paid by all social media users in the country, in a move that the government hopes will “curb online gossip” and raise funds for “dealing with the consequences of online gossip.”
The implementation of the new social media tax law came in the wake of an earlier approval by the Ugandan Parliament, following a significant push from Yoweri Museveni, the country’s president – who has been particularly vocal on the subject of regulating social media. Last week, it was announced by the country’s State Minister of Finance, David Bahati, that as much as USD 1.8 Mn had been raised in tax since the implementation of the law which also affects users of mobile money platforms, albeit to a slightly reduced extent. It has also been reported that following a review which resulted in the slashing of the mobile money tax, the country’s executive council has opted to uphold the original social media tax law in spite of the backlash, uproar, and protests from some sections of the country’s populace who have described the law as an infringement on their rights to freedom of expression and freedom to access information.
And there is more. The Egyptian government seems to have hopped on the bandwagon too as the country’s parliament is reported to have recently approved and passed a bill that will see social media accounts with more than 5,000 followers be regulated and treated like media outlets. The new law is said to be motivated by the need to monitor and regulate social media accounts that allegedly create, publish and distribute fake news. While these developments may have been heralded as necessary in some quarters, it has been described as disturbing and greeted with cynicism and skepticism in others. And like an African proverb points out; “When two elephants do battle, it is the ground that suffers.”
The world has evolved into something of an intricately-connected nexus of fiber-optic internet cables. Like it or not, we now live in a world that is run by a maze of satellites and a labyrinth of vital cables that may be thought of as the world’s very own blood vessels. The proliferation of modern technology and the internet invasion has been all-encompassing. Go back in time to the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and it can be deduced that the warning signs have always been there.
The whole world now seems like a vehicle that is fuelled by a combination of cutting-edge technology and the power of the internet. And no one has remained entirely immune to this revolution. One way or another, even for people in the remotest parts of the world, the internet has proved itself a useful tool. Ever thought what it would be like if the global internet went AWOL for a whole day? Communications will be down, governments will be running blind, and it would appear the world is literally at a standstill. How about how worked up and apprehensive you get when network reception goes MIA for only half an hour? Give that some thought, and it becomes clearer just how important a role it now plays in our daily lives.
Now, moving on to the crux of the matter. While the advancements in modern technology and the advent of the internet as we have now come to know it may be thought of as a blessing to mankind in many circles, there yet exists an aspect of these developments that seems to divide and unite opinions in an almost equal measure. And that would have to be social media. Touted as one of the revelations of the modern era in some schools of thought, it is still currently regarded by some groups as something akin to the bane of humanity’s existence. And whether or not the premise for holding such a view about the subject is justified seems a matter of perspective.
In its strictest sense, social media encompasses computer-mediated technologies that facilitate the creation and sharing of information, ideas, career interests, and other forms of information via virtual communities and networks. Since becoming prominent and gaining traction in the early 2000s, it is in the area of sharing information that social media has truly been utilized to telling effect. And this perhaps explains the motive that has informed some of the policies formulated by a number of world governments, particularly in Africa, to crack down on the feature, or to regulate it at the very least.
Currently, the global population of social media users is found to be somewhere around 2.5 billion worldwide, with such platforms as Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, and Skype seeing a lot of use and gaining significant reach in recent times. And according to Statista, it is envisaged that this figure which rose from 2.46 billion in 2017 will reach an astonishing 2.77 billion in 2019. With virtually non-existent regulation and guaranteed wanton access, it is little wonder why social media affords such a veritable tool for almost unlimited reach.
In Africa and the Middle East, current figures from Statista reveal a considerable 350.5 million social media users spread across the region. And a number of governments have been quick to cite the volatile political climate in parts of these regions as the motivation behind some of the embargoes placed on social media usage in recent times – leaving legitimate enterprises that thrive on the leverage afforded by the platform to bear the brunt.
Restrictions on social media access and usage are becoming something of a trend in the African setup. In June 2018, it was reported on WeeTracker that the Kenyan Film Classification Board (KFCB) had announced that every Kenyan would need a filming license to post a video for public viewing and failure to comply with the new directive could attract as much as USD 1 K in fines or up to 5 years of incarceration. In a similar move which took place about the same period, their East African neighbors, Tanzania, were also reported by WeeTracker as having ordered unregistered bloggers and online forums to pull down their websites. In a regulation which was initially passed in March this year, the government had asked that all such platforms, including YouTube channels, be registered by paying as much as USD 900.00, which is quite interesting given that the country’s per capita income is below that mark.
And that is just for starters. The list of African countries that have blocked access to social media during elections and other politically-sensitive periods is burgeoning. In recent times, Cameroon, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Gambia, the Republic of Congo, and Uganda, are amongst African countries that have popped up on the radar. More so, in countries like Ethiopia, Madagascar, and Tanzania, there has been an introduction of cybercrime legislation which is thought to jeopardize freedom of expression in some quarters.
Some of the motives guiding the formulation of these regulations may indeed be noble, especially when the need to regulate social media accounts that allegedly create, publish and distribute falsified information that can potentially cause considerable damage is played up. The role played by incendiary text messages in the violence that surrounded Kenya’s 2007 elections, for example, is often cited as a case in point when underlining the dangers of unregulated mass communication. A similar narrative is obtainable from South Sudan, where it is reported that the ongoing conflict has been somewhat fueled by online rumours and hate speech. Fingers have also pointed to a particular inciting ‘false’ Facebook post as being responsible for the death of over 150 persons. All these give some credence to the notion that social media can actually be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. There is a lot of following on the platform; perhaps even too much power wielded by a select few, and with unchecked influence, there is always the possibility of inciting unrest or fomenting trouble with fake news and falsified posts. This has informed recent moves on the part of the government to check that influence.
While some of these moves may have been described as antisocial, oppressive, borne-out-of-bad-faith, and even voyeuristic amongst a disgruntled many, there is no denying that the biggest casualties from the fallout are the legitimate employers of the medium. The people who have come off worse from the whole saga are the small-time African entrepreneurs who are leveraging social media and harnessing its potentials to grow their businesses. What makes social media such a powerful tool are its reach and access, and the same details have proved its undoing time and again.
By virtue of its ease of access and usage, just about anyone can use the platform and at very little cost. Social media makes for an affordable medium for information dissemination, promotion, and advertisement, and a number of African entrepreneurs have been keen to cash in on these benefits. With regulatory bodies coming down heavy and cracking down on social media, these smaller businesses may feel the heat and be slowly taken out of business. And it does not help that the traditional medium of going about business promotion and information dissemination is rather expensive and not readily available. This calls for a return to the drawing board and a reform of policies. While it might be true that regulations on social media are necessary to keep some of the world’s more troubled states at peace, some consideration ought to be given to legitimate African businessmen and women who, in spite of the odds, are looking to create value and contribute their own quota towards the economic emancipation of the region through the use of social media.
Image Source: CastleCraig