Beyond the Twitter ban


By Hussaini Jibrin

Placing ban on access to platforms, especially social networking sites, is a measure some governments take to protect their interests, what they see as a threat to their countries’ heritage or their political existence. Several nations have, at some given times, either censored or block social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Social networking sites have over the years got unprecedented influence on information dissemination and civil agitations. This influence was first realized when a video footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution, that revealed what actually transpired at the execution ground, flooded the Internet in 2006. It brought to the public what the official narrative hid. That singular event changed how information is handled in the public sphere.

Microblogging sites grew in popularity so much so that they became tools for governments, opposition politicians and activists. They are used for making policy statements, opposition replies, refutation of claims, live updates of happenings and much more. Their popularity gave them immense power over what we have seen in recent years.

In order to curtail excesses, spread of messages of “hate”, extremism and violence, social networking platforms adopted control of what is posted on their sites. In 2020 alone, Twitter suspended or blocked permanently over 50 accounts around the globe.

The president of Federal Republic of Nigeria made a tweet on the happenings in the southeast of the nation. In the tweet, he made reference to the Nigeria’s 1967 to 1970 civil war and cautioned the agitators on what will befall them should they remain resolute on causing carnage and mayhem in the region. That tweet was adjudged to have violated Twitter rules and therefore deleted while placing the account on “read-only” mode for 12 hours.

Enraged by the action of Twitter, the Federal Government of Nigeria banned access to Twitter on Friday 4th June, 2021. It also made unlawful accessing Twitter through other accesses. The action by Nigeria’s government generated debate about the appropriateness of the measure. While some feel it was long overdue, others are of the opinion that their right to access to information has been violated. No matter from which angle one views it, this action by the FGN has become a topic of discussion around the world.

Nigeria isn’t the first nation to censor social media. The 2010 Arab Spring brought about a litany of bans, especially on Twitter. Twitter had to open an SMS service in some of these countries for protesters to keep on tweeting. In UAE and Saudi Arabia, certain features of WhatsApp messaging services are inaccessible to users. China censors all social media posts and has an outright ban on Twitter. At least eight other countries, which include China, Egypt and Iran, have ban placed on the use of Twitter in their countries.

Although the government cited the deletion of the President’s tweet as the reason for the ban, there seem to be a long held no love lost relationship between the government and the company. The #EndSARS protests in 2020 have been viewed by the many government officials and supporters to be fueled by the social media, particularly Twitter. There have been calls for its ban at that period.

Senator Bala Na Allah had, in 2015, introduced a bill to “Prohibit Frivolous Petitions and Other Matters Connected Therewith” which was seen as an attempt to restrict social media usage. Buhari’s government denounced the bill saying, “as a key component of democratic principles, the President acknowledged that people in democratic societies are so emotionally attached to free speech that they would defend it with all their might.” An attempt was also made to introduce a bill for the regulation of social media in 2019.

As opposition for the government grows, social media provided a platform for airing opposition messages. Officials are kept busy giving replies to attacks on government policies and decisions on the social media.

The decision to ban Twitter and the attempt to regulate over-the-top (OTT) messaging services is certainly a difficult one for the Federal Government of Nigeria. It has drawn criticisms at home and abroad. Individuals, groups, organizations and governments condemned the action and called for its reversal. What this means is, diplomatically, the country will be viewed as a no respecter of its own constitution that guarantees the right to access to information and the freedom of association and expression. Ultimately, it will have an impact on the government’s relationship with other countries.

On the other hand, the ban has afforded users to discover other avenues of getting access to information on the banned platforms. However, there have been claims of revenue loss that Twitter will incur as a result of the ban. This brings us to the question of how the ban will impact on the company’s business.

Twitter’s revenue generation is from two sources: advertisement and sale of licences. In advertisement, adverts are presented to users as promoted tweets. The promoters pay Twitter for that. On the licences side, Twitter sells licences for entities to have access to data and analytics that are drawn from tweets. With this, it clear that Twitter’s key resource is the tweets not information about users like Google or Facebook, its focus is on the content of the information sent out by users as tweets.

With over 190 million daily active users, Twitter generated about $3.7bn in 2020. Out of this amount about $3.2bn was from advertisement and $2bn of it was generated in the United States. It shows that the rest of the world contributed about $1.2bn to Twitter’s revenue in 2020.

There is no doubt that Nigeria has made a huge statement with this ban. People doubted its ability to block access to the service, feeling that it lacks the technology to achieve that. It also came as a surprise to many since the government was viewed as a puppet of the West and wouldn’t want to do things that will hurt western interests. The ban did also raise question as to the fairness in the way social media companies apply their rules. People pointed out to how Twitter left Nnamdi Kanu’s tweets on their platform despite their hate and inciting messages.

By and large, the cost of the ban on both sides is more on their reputation and relationship with partners than in revenue generation.

Hussaini Jibrin writes from Kano

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