A huge debate on the regulation of social media has come up recently, following recent chaos that came after the #ENDSARS protest. Once more, people are arguing whether social media spaces should remain avenues of free expression or whether it’s time for the government to step into this space. However, many have overlooked the more important question of why we need social media even in political turmoil.
For a movement which pulled as much weight as that of #ENDSARS, mainstream media was mostly ineffective in following it leading to social media being at the forefront of covering the movement. This raises the question of how important social media and freedom of expression have become to individual liberty.
From a hashtag on Twitter, the movement grew with young people around the country sharing their stories of police brutality which led to the realization of the enormity of the problem and then to a call to action. While mainstream media was slowly catching up to the magnitude of this movement, social media users made it trend and also ensured it attracted an audience both locally and internationally, drawing attention to the plight of young Nigerians.
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The human rights abuses against protesters were mostly documented by private individuals and shared on social media. Many of these events were not covered by mainstream media. The live video of the Lekki Massacre which was watched by over 150,000 people serves as infallible proof of the event which has otherwise been consistently denied. Despite the fact that the chaos that ensued cannot be directly blamed on social media interactions, social media has become the scapegoat in Nigerians’ quest for a return to sanity and safety.
This important help social media provided comes barely a year after the uproar surrounding the social media bill and reaffirms why the bill had to be resisted and why any attempt to bring it up again must be vociferously challenged. The question of whether the movement would have gathered as much traction as it did or whether the human rights violations committed during this period would have been covered up if social media was being regulated by the government now has a clear answer.
The government’s obvious attempts at covering up these events—the denials, terming it fake news, the persecution of protesters—freezing of their bank accounts, terming them threats to the nation and the fact that many of the key figures in the protests have had to flee the country for their lives is proof that we can’t trust this same government with control over what we can and cannot share on social media.
One may be tempted to acquiesce to some sort of regulation to prevent fake news or hate speech especially in these volatile times, however, a clampdown on free speech doesn’t always end at the extremities regulators claim they’re trying to prevent. A good example is the cancel culture that’s slowly growing around the world and on social media. At first, it started with hate and violent speech but has moved on to target conspiracy theories and speech deemed politically and socially incorrect or offensive.
The media has always been at the forefront of the struggle for liberty in whatever form it has taken over the years. There is no doubt that social media is a new and powerful tool for advocating freedom and if we are to diligently guard our liberty, we must also diligently guard freedom of expression and in particular, our freedom to use social media even for those whose words we dislike. We mustn’t forget so soon after, the role social media has played in exposing the failures of the government.
Even though things might be scary in these times, Nigerians should be careful of making the very common mistake of trading safety for freedom. While the government taking charge might give a facade of calm and sanity, greater dangers to liberty and even safety can arise from there.
Ogechukwu Egwuatu is a writing fellow at African Liberty, studying French and German at University of Nigeria, Nsukka.