ANALYSIS: How Twitter Failed Africa

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By Torinmo Salau I

In April 2021, more than a decade after Twitter launched on the continent, the company announced it would open its first Africa office in Ghana. Then-Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted with an emoji of the Ghanaian flag and name-checked the country’s president: “Twitter is now present on the continent. Thank you, Ghana and Nana Akufo-Addo.”

According to Twitter, its decision to establish its regional headquarters in Ghana was a result of African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) negotiations, which covers internet access and free speech policy. The AfCFTA agreement is set to create the world’s largest free trade area, connecting 1.3 billion people across 55 countries with a combined GDP valued at $3.4 trillion. It also represents a great opportunity for countries to boost growth, reduce poverty, and broaden economic inclusion.

Ghana’s economy has improved over the years, becoming one of the fastest growing economies in the world with an average GDP growth of about 6 percent.

“As a champion for democracy, Ghana is a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet, of which Twitter is also an advocate,” Dorsey wrote.

However, it became obvious that Twitter’s presence there is pedestrian rather than high level. Most of the job openings listed by Twitter in Accra, Ghana, were largely engineering, advertising, and communications. Similar to Facebook and Google, the decision to set up shop does not involve helping Africans fight ethnocentric disinformation and propaganda stirred by authoritarian governments. Rather, the headquarters seem to be geared toward funneling data and revenue from the continent.

Tech giants like Twitter and their indifference toward Africa have created a toxic corner of the internet where fake news is spreading like wildfire, abuse is rife, and terrorists are weaponizing social media. In 2018, Dorsey acknowledged his company’s failures via a Twitter thread and invited users and experts to help the company identify how to measure its “health.”

“We have witnessed abuse, harassment, troll armies, manipulation through bots and human-coordination, misinformation campaigns, and increasingly divisive echo chambers,” Dorsey tweeted. “We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough. We’ve focused most of our efforts on removing content against our terms, instead of building a systemic framework to help encourage more healthy debate, conversations, and critical thinking. This is the approach we now need.”

Reassurance was short lived. In September 2017, Twitter released a statement on its plans to take actions on bots and Russian trolls that manipulated voters during the 2016 U.S. election. It also announced additional transparency for political and issue-based ads a month later. In December 2017, Twitter introduced restrictions “to curb the spread of terrorist content online,” including a partnership with other tech companies and nongovernmental organizations in Europe and the United States, but there wasn’t any mention of efforts in Africa regarding the Boko Haram and al-Shabab insurgencies.

In 2013, during the Westgate terrorist attack in Kenya, al-Shabab used Twitter to claim responsibility for—and live tweet throughout—the attack. In 2014, 276 Chibok schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Since then, these Islamist terrorist groups have weaponized social media as a propaganda tool to publicize their claims and alleged victories.

It is also important to note that Africa is home to 2,144 languages and almost 1.4 billion people. Twitter boasts it has millions of users on the continent, but currently, its language support does not include any major spoken African language aside from Arabic. Other commonly spoken languages—such as Swahili, Hausa, Amharic, Zulu, and Yoruba—are conspicuously missing from the list. This dangerous oversight proves Africa is once again treated like a single country by Big Tech instead of a crucial, diverse, and complex continent. While it will undeniably help social media companies reach a larger global market with their products, it will also improve the user experience on these platforms. Users will not only be able to tweet in their local languages but equally receive support.

In 2020, hundreds of protesters thronged the streets across Nigeria demanding the dissolution of SARS, a special anti-robbery unit of the Nigeria Police Force that was responsible for indiscriminate arrests, extortion, and extrajudicial killings. Although it cannot be denied that Dorsey helped champion the End SARS protests by tweeting to raise awareness and galvanize donations toward the cause, the social media company was nonetheless lackadaisical toward flagging or banning several scams and misleading claims about the End SARS protests.

In June 2021, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari banned Twitter in the country for deleting his tweets, which violated the platform’s policy on abusive behavior. The deleted tweets issued by the president threatened Nigeria’s southeastern people, especially the Igbo people, with a potential repeat of the Nigerian Civil War due to the ongoing insurgency in the region.

However, Garba Shehu, Buhari’s spokesperson, claimed the temporary suspension of Twitter was not solely in response to Twitter removing the president’s post but rather a reaction to a spell of ongoing problems, including the rapid spread of disinformation without accountability.

Twitter is undeniably a minefield of divisive messaging during elections in Africa. In 2017, during South Africa’s African National Congress leadership contest, there was a spike in bot activity flooding Twitter timelines. The bots mainly promoted partisan messaging, with each candidate trying to sway party delegates to one side.

In Kenya, the same script played out during its presidential elections in 2017. The two main political parties actively deployed bots to push propaganda, influence voters, and smear their opponents. During Nigeria’s 2015 elections, Twitter became a bitter sparring field of ethnically charged hate among supporters of the two major candidates: Goodluck Jonathan and Buhari. The 2019 elections were no different. In fact, Reporters Without Borders was disturbed by the level of disinformation and propaganda displayed during the election campaign and called for the nation’s authorities to defend journalists.

In November 2021, Twitter announced it had suspended “Trends” in Ethiopia to further curtail the spread of disinformation. “We’re monitoring the situation in Ethiopia and are focused on protecting the safety of the conversation on Twitter. Inciting violence or dehumanizing people is against our rules.”

Trends is a feature on Twitter that highlights popular topics and amplifies conversations surrounding those topics based on an algorithm that prioritizes content based on user engagement. Twitter Trends have played a divisive role in the conflict since it started in November 2020. Although the main language in Ethiopia is Amharic, English-language tweets about the war have frequently trended in the country. Groups from across the political spectrum created click-to-tweet campaigns to ensure hashtags such as #TigrayGenocide and #NoMore trended, primarily targeting users in the diaspora.

Suspending Trends in Ethiopia will help reduce the deluge of disinformation on the platform, but Twitter still needs to create an Africa-focused moderation team to pay attention to its Trends feature and edit out malicious content from its trending topics.

Despite Twitter’s supposed focus on investing in African users, it has hardly acknowledged that countries other than the United States (and some in Europe) are experiencing the same challenges with disinformation. It’s time that it did.

Indeed, two reports by the Mozilla Foundation discovered coordinated campaigns on the platform that were intended to sway public opinion. One of the reports revealed a shadowy “disinformation-for-hire” industry of Twitter influencers in Kenya who were paid to promote a plan for constitutional change. Much later, Twitter suspended hundreds of accounts that participated in the disinformation campaigns.

Twitter needs to establish partnerships with civil society organizations on the continent to help solve local safety and trust problems. Engaging with these organizations is key because they defend collective interests and increase accountability while promoting participation and influencing decision-making. This is where Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s new CEO, could play an important role.

Agrawal needs to ensure Twitter upholds its own community standards and prioritizes content moderation in Africa and other parts of the world in a wider variety of languages. The social media company cannot continue its aloofness toward the issues affecting the communities it operates in. The safety of the platform to its users in the developing world should not be an afterthought that is only given serious consideration during elections or when a country is in crisis.

Torinmo Salau is a writer and journalist based in Lagos, Nigeria. Her work has been published in QuartzAl JazeeraRoads and Kingdoms, the Guardian, and elsewhere.