…Says govt can’t keep track of 108 million users

By Charles Kumolu, Deputy Editor

A techpreneur and developer of Rate Your Leader App, Mr. Joel Popoola, in this interview, outlines the implications of plans to regulate social media, warning that it would be counterproductive.

The digital democracy campaigner also speaks on how government officials could convert criticisms on social media into vehicles for good governance.

In the wake of #EndSARS protest, Federal Government is proposing to regulate social media. Northern governors even supported the calls recently…

I do not think it is possible to regulate social media, let alone desirable. Those proposing social media regulation need to ask themselves three questions.

First, do you think police can really keep track of 44 million Nigerian Facebook accounts? And 24 million WhatsApp accounts? And 40 million Twitter accounts? And do it 24 hours a day 365 days a year? If you do, you’re wrong.

Second, do you think protestors will stop protesting simply because they can no longer tweet their grievances? If you do, you’re wrong.

Third, do you think really  that protestors will not just come up with a new way of communicating and co-coordinating? If you do, you’re wrong.

The #EndSARS protest has revealed a generation of protestors that is ingenious and digitally savvy. Don’t think they won’t outwit you.

Nigerian leaders are used to being able to shut down protests or criticism. In the digital age, it just isn’t possible. If we continue down this path it is to see a sequence of events in which a likable, credible young Nigerian from a good family ends up in prison for liking a tweet by mistake. Can you imagine the international condemnation and national humiliation we would be bringing on ourselves?

The answer instead is taking advantage of social media to communicate and engage better and to build trust between people and politicians.

With your experience, would you say the usage of social media tools during the protests, in some ways, constituted any form of threat?

Some leaders seem to believe that these protests would not have happened without social media. They are wrong. These protests would not have happened if they had paid attention to the growing frustration of Nigeria’s youths being voiced on social media.

For years, young Nigerians have used social media to document their rising frustration at a political class they believe to be wholly lacking in accountability, transparency and responsiveness.

Social media could and should have been the tool our leaders used to identify these issues and take action to engage, address and resolve. The chance was there to make connections, build trust, and share ideas for a better Nigeria. This chance was not taken. Instead it has become the tool protesters use to communicate, coordinate, and achieve international attention to their cause.

READ ALSO: Understanding the destructive and constructive capacities of our youths

The #EndSARS protests have been a masterclass in misunderstanding that in the digital age, the rules of governance have changed. The real threat is not appreciating that.

Could it have been possible for social media giants like Twitter and Facebook to censor some of the contents on their platforms during the protests?

There was something like 28 million tweets using the #EndSARS hashtag. Could every one of them have been checked for accuracy? I very much doubt it.

One of the most interesting things about social media and the #EndSARS protests is the protestors themselves flagging inaccurate online information, even when it supports their cause. They realised that the most important thing was that the information associated with them was credible. This is something the establishment really has to learn from.

If eventually there is a consensus on the regulation of social media, what steps do you think government can take without infringing on people’s right to free speech?

Attempts at regulating social media are likely to prove as effective as curing an itchy foot by cutting off your leg. You might solve one problem, but it will create so many more and you’ll look pretty silly while you’re doing it.

Government should instead, concentrate on building or rebuilding trust. And they can do that using social media.

Think about how you personally use social media. You use it to communicate with friends and family. Instead of pursuing an antagonistic social media strategy, they need to try and become those friends and family.

And social media doesn’t just expose our leaders’ wrongdoing. It gives them the platform to demonstrate both their virtues and their values. And to make closer connections with the people they serve.

Since social media is sometimes abused through the dissemination of fake news, how best can the spread of fake news be checkmated by governments, social media giants and even app developers?

Nigeria has a fake news problem like no other nation. Which other nation has been so ready to believe stories about a cloned president?

What is worse, as we have seen in recent protests, the systems deployed by the major social media platforms to combat fake news have on occasion ended up accidentally censoring the truth while allowing lies to spread.

The major social media platforms seem to be incompatible with meaningful and productive democratic engagement. That is why we need to consider using other platforms for that purpose.

At the digital democracy campaign, I lead we think the most important question is that of where people get their information from. We believe it is people they trust, so we set up a free app called Rate Your Leader which allows voters to contact their local representatives directly, person to person, and start the dialogue that leads to trust as well as allowing them to hold on to their own networks that they think the information they have received is honest and truthful. We think this is key to better governance and better democratic engagement.

In terms of fake news, do you think Twitter, Facebook and others have done much in preventing or curtailing its prevalence?

If they had, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Protests like #EndSARS have proven that they are completely unsuited to communication and collaboration between government and governed. Everything you read on them, truth or lie, has to be viewed with the same skepticism, which discredits any information you see on them.

We need to accept that the major social media platforms were not designed to deal with situations like this, and they are not capable of dealing with them. This is why the digital democracy campaign I lead is interested in creating new platforms like Rate Your Leader which are specifically designed to.” Rate Your Leader is a Nigerian invention to the world, a soft landing for the elected representatives, and the government should embrace it to foil the spread of fake news.

It will invariably confer the status of influencers on all the politicians even if they are suffering from ‘influenza’

If  government goes ahead to regulate social media, what are the likely implications for the country’s young demographic with a huge social media presence?

It is not so much the implications for Nigeria’s young people as the implications for our democracy. Our leaders already look out of touch, unresponsive, unaccountable, and disinterested in transparency. Attempts at shutting down debate will make this worse, no better.

We are a young country, where most of the population has grown up in the digital age. They work, socialise, bank, date and learn almost exclusively online. Our leaders must recognise that and adapt.



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