How social media giants are failing African users

Two young Fulani men sell mobile phones in Niamey

Two young Fulani men sell mobile phones in Niamey Image: REUTERS/Joe Penney

Larry Madowo
Correspondent, CNN Worldwide
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When a Kenyan history Facebook group posted a greyscale picture of half-naked Bagisu women in traditional dress from a century ago, the social network blocked it for contravening its “community standards”. The group started a petition “to urge Facebook to consider that its community standards are not inclusive”, pointing out that “Africans … are also a community”, and did not see nudity as indecent or sexual until colonization. Facebook reinstated the image and an executive apologized on Twitter, but this is not the first time the company has applied a western standard to African bodies.

In December, protesters took to the streets of Johannesburg asking Facebook and YouTube to respect African culture, after the sites repeatedly removed bare-breasted pictures. Many pointed out the double standard in censoring African women, considering the frequent commercialized nudity of US celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, which is often considered “art”. Google eventually removed the “age-restricted” classification on related YouTube videos after the outrage.

But the erasure of African stories by social networks goes much deeper than that.

Twitter boasts that it has “over 35 offices around the world, and each one reflects the regional and cultural spirit of the cities they're in”. But it has no presence in Africa, home to over a billion people, millions of Twitter users and no fewer than 2,144 languages. Instead, the social network has an “exclusive ad sales partner”, to bring in advertising from the continent. There has been no response from the San Francisco-based firm after I wrote about that glaring snub for the Washington Post.

Social media companies ignore Africa – so terrorists weaponized it
Global figures for use of social media as a news source, May 2016.
Global figures for use of social media as a news source, May 2016. Image: Global Web Index

The two presidential elections in Kenya in 2017 saw an upsurge in fake news as the two main parties turned to misinformation and propaganda to influence voters. While messaging service WhatsApp was the single biggest avenue for spreading false content, some invariably found its way to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where much of it remains to date. Facebook took out full page ads in the US and UK to apologize after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal but provided no mea culpa in Africa where users' personal information could also have been compromised.

There was also a much more sinister, dangerous presence online during the election season. A 16-month long study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that “extremists of all types increase their activity during election periods, exploiting and sometimes co-opting the political process”. It revealed that Facebook was the platform most favoured by extremists and violent Islamist groups, followed by YouTube and then Twitter.

“During the research timeframe,” the report states, “we identified more than 20 extremist-related/sympathizer pages and groups on Facebook, with a combined following of more than 28,000 individuals. On YouTube, five Islamist-related/sympathizer channels were identified, with more than 1,000 subscribers and 300 videos in total. On Twitter, a mere eight accounts were found, with a significantly smaller follower base.”

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The Somalia-based militant group Al Shabaab has a long history of using social media to spread its message, as it did during the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi in 2013, for which it took credit in a series of live tweets. Africa’s other biggest terror threat, the West Africa-focused Boko Haram, is also stepping up its use of social media to get its message out and attract followers.

These extremist organizations have virtual carte blanche online, because African regulators are still far behind their US and European counterparts in enforcing reasonable controls and punishing violations. More often than not, African states are still competing to attract the western tech giants with major concessions in exchange for jobs and technical support. That is why Facebook’s Free Basics programme hit a brick wall in India for net neutrality violations, but is thriving in Africa. Project Loon, a project by Google to provide internet access to remote areas using balloons, is also taking off in the continent.

By my reckoning, most African countries are still at least a decade away from a landmark privacy law like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or even the right to be forgotten”. A January 2018 report by the non-profit Internet Without Borders on digital rights in sub-Saharan Africa showed how multinationals flout their own standards on privacy and freedom of expression via their subsidiaries in the continent. “Our study demonstrates that Orange Senegal and Safaricom (majority owned by Vodafone) do not meet international standards, or even national ones, in the protection of freedom of expression online and user privacy,’ it concluded. There had been no national sanctions, because regulators let them get away with it, and few users report bad practices. Telecommunications firms and social media companies fall under the same overwhelmed, under-resourced and sometimes clueless industry regulators in most African countries.

The Westgate mall attack – which Al Shabaab live-tweeted.
The Westgate mall attack – which Al Shabaab live-tweeted. Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

While Facebook banned the far-right group Britain First and some of its leaders after they “repeatedly posted content designed to incite animosity and hatred against minority groups”, similar behaviour is rampant and completely unchecked across Africa. Politicians who fan the flames of ethnic divisions and post hateful rhetoric quickly amass large followings on Facebook and Twitter without any restrictions from the social networks, and the law lets them get away with it. If you tweet in Swahili, a major language spoken by around 100 million people, it is impossible to get support as Twitter identifies it as Indonesian.

Twitter and other social networks are doing Africa a huge disservice, leaving its users with a toxic corner of the internet where hate and abuse is commonplace and terrorists roam free but African culture is not welcome. It is unconscionable that such services are happy to receive advertising dollars from an entire continent but do not bother to weed out extremists, fake news or harmful messaging. A marketplace of ideas and discussion must be fair and representative of all its participants, irrespective of where they are in the world or the colour of their skin. If attention is only paid to an influential, outspoken segment of society because of their proximity to the centres of global power or the severity of possible sanctions, the rest of the world must call it out for what it is: racism.

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