On June 4, the Nigerian government announced that it had suspended Twitter’s operations in the country. The announcement came two days after the social media company removed a tweet by President Muhammadu Buhari, in which Buhari issued a thinly veiled threat against secessionist groups in the southeast “to treat them in the language they understand.”
Since announcing the ban, the government has issued directives to federal prosecutors to arrest anyone still using Twitter — and ordered Internet providers to block access to the platform. After some initial confusion as to whether Twitter remained accessible, it appears as of mid-June that most Nigerians can no longer access the platform.
The Twitter ban is only the latest example of governments using their control over the Internet and other digital technologies to surveil, censor and suppress their people. But the ban hasn’t stopped Nigerians from trying to hold the government accountable both on and offline. Here are three things the Twitter ban shows us about the push and pull between governments, activists and social media giants.
1. Activists are still using social media to hold government accountable
While governments may have grown more aggressive in their efforts to thwart online speech, research shows that social media remains an important tool for activists to mobilize support for and coordinate their activities. In Nigeria, opponents to the Buhari regime are finding creative ways to evade the Twitter ban and promote accountability.
Many openly mocked the fact that the government announced the Twitter ban on Twitter. Others pointed out the hypocrisy of Buhari’s All Progressives Congress party, as the social media platform was instrumental in bringing members to power. A sense of humor persisted:
Following the ban of Twitter in Nigeria, my account is now being handled by the remote team in the US. Views are still mine.
— Oluyomi Ojo (@OluyomiOjo) June 6, 2021
To access Twitter and advocate against the ban, Nigerians turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) along with other clever workarounds.
Opposition to the government’s decision has come from nearly all segments of Nigeria’s society. A church criticized the ban. Musicians are speaking out. A statement by 41 human rights organizations and religious groups condemned it. Opposition politicians also lambasted the ban. Even some ruling-party politicians expressed muted criticism.
But Nigerians are using Twitter and other social media to do more than just voice their opposition to the ban. Some put direct pressure on Internet providers to restore access to the platform. Others began using Twitter to coordinate legal services for anyone arrested for evading the Twitter ban.
Nigerians took similar measures during the #EndSARS campaign, a protest movement that gained momentum last year in opposition to the abuses of the Nigerian police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The #EndSARS movement attracted enormous support from around the globe — Twitter even unveiled a custom emoji in support of the campaign.
2. Economic “collateral damage” may make it hard to sustain the Twitter ban
The ban has drawn particular ire not only because of its implications for free expression, but also for purely economic reasons. Many Nigerians rely on Twitter to support their work. Employers, for instance, use the platform to circulate job openings. Freelancers use it to advertise and promote their services. And the country’s vibrant start-up community — Nigeria has the most start-ups in Africa — uses Twitter to attract investment.
In Nigeria, Twitter is our 911, it's our crowd funding community, e-commerce platform, our fact checker and the main CRM tool for most companies.
It is some people's source of livelihood. If the government can't give Nigerians food, they shouldn't take our plate.#KeepitOn
— Alex Oluwatobi (@alexlobaloba) June 5, 2021
Social science research can help us understand a fundamental weakness of using social media bans and Internet shutdowns to quell domestic opposition: As indiscriminate tools of repression, they are particularly hard to sustain and may even be likely to backfire.
Before the Twitter ban, Nigerians were using “#June12Protest” to get people to turn out for an anti-government protest on that date. This hashtag regained momentum after the Twitter ban — our research found many people using it alongside #TwitterBan and #KeepitOn, the two primary hashtags that emerged to protest the ban, as the figure below shows.
It’s unclear how long the Buhari government will be willing to keep the ban in place. The day after the government announced the “indefinite suspension” of Twitter’s operations, officials clarified that the ban was intended to be temporary. On Friday, the attorney general and minister of justice, Abubakar Malami, also appeared to back off from prosecuting Nigerians who continue to use Twitter. Instead, he said the initial directive given to federal prosecutors was only intended to target people or groups that are helping Twitter evade the ban.
3. Governments and tech companies are locked in a tug of war
In their efforts to prevent the spread of misinformation, hateful speech and other violence-inciting content on their platforms, social media companies have become more willing to moderate the speech of politicians and government officials. Most prominently, Facebook and Twitter increasingly fact-checked and labeled posts from Donald Trump throughout the 2020 election, culminating in a permanent ban from Twitter and a two-year suspension from Facebook in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.
Both platforms have also removed posts by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, claiming these posts were sharing misinformation on covid-19. More recently, Facebook announced plans to end its policy that treated speech from politicians as inherently “newsworthy,” which had largely shielded officials from content moderation.
But governments are pushing back on platforms for these decisions — often using the same principles that the platforms use to justify their own moderation. Last year, Turkey fined several social media platforms for not following domestic laws on removing “offensive” content within 48 hours. When Twitter removed more than 7,000 fake accounts linked to the youth wing of Turkey’s ruling party, the government threatened that “we would like to remind [Twitter] of the eventual fate of a number of organisations which attempted to take similar steps in the past.”
The Nigerian government seems to be following a similar playbook. A spokesperson for Buhari, for instance, claimed the Twitter ban is not just a response to the removal of the president’s tweet. Rather, it is meant to hold the social media company accountable for its role in spreading “misinformation and fake news” that have “real world violent consequences.”
Lindsay Hundley (@ljhundley) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. Hakeem Bishi (@Hakeem23492089) is a PhD student in geography, urban and environmental studies at Concordia University in Montreal. Shelby Grossman (@shelbygrossman) is a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory.