In July 2019, the Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) organized the first social media influencers summit in Kano as a symposium of ideas and trend analysis on the ways in which social media platforms have taken over the communications super highway and determine what we see and get to know but also inundate us with half-truths, outright falsehood and propaganda. It was an opportunity to reflect on our own agency as active actors in this complex and vast space that has been provided. Yesterday, the second Summit was concluded in Kano. Currently, there are an estimated 108 million regular internet users in Nigeria. Clearly, Nigeria has been transformed immensely since Decree 75 of 1992 allowed for privatization and the vast expansion of telecommunication services. This the context that define the world we live in in which most of us have access to surf on the internet and access the social media.
In his opening remarks, the Executive Director of COTAD, Y. Z. Ya’u emphasised the importance of the Summit as an incubator of great ideas for democratic struggles, an opportunity to spread innovative systems that work in enterprise and social development and finally, sharing ideas on how to address the serious challenges confronting our Nation, especially rising conflicts and insecurity. This year, 65 presentations were made and two occasions for new ideas – an open mike session for people who have something they want to say that organisers have not thought of and a crazy ideas session for those ahead of the curve to bring the rest of us up to speed.
The world in which we live in is run by the internet and its key feature is that the tech companies that run it are owned by young people, the users are young and they control information flows and massive revenues accruing from the sector. There is a huge disequilibrium however as both in the United States and in Nigeria, the political class in charge is old, in their seventies and totally at variance with the wishes, aspirations and concerns with the youth. It is important to resolve this especially as we live in a world in which we think the social media has given us all great platforms to express ourselves and show our images. This is true but the reality is that the contemporary has been transformed into a surveillance society in which about five companies that run the internet have files on all of us, what we like and what we hate, our passions, our political views and a list of what and those we hate. One of them called Facebook gets 129 million of us to provide them free intelligence daily – 90 million on WhatsApp, 30 million directly on Facebook itself while nine million use Instagram. On twitter, we are only 40 million providing them the free intelligence in spite of President Buhari’s ban showing how weak political power is relative to the vast powers of the social media. Yours truly is guilty as charged as I use these platforms for many hours daily.
Yes, the infamous and all-powerful Facebook was also at the Summit, trust CITAD, they also brought in the guilty as charged. Ebuka Ogbodo, from Facebook joined the meeting online from their London Office and spoke passionately about their commitment and investments in combating and removing hate speech and fake news and particularly, disinformation from their platforms in conjunction with internal and external fact checkers. He can tell that to the marines. Over the past month, we have learnt a lot from Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, turned whistle blower who has drawn our attention to the harm they cause, using company internal documents. She has shown convincingly in testimonies to the United States Congress and British Parliament that Facebook for the sake of enhancing profits deliberately does harm to the vulnerable by amplifying disinformation and promoting division. They knowingly spread hate speech, pushing people to fight and kill each other and destroying the self-esteem of vulnerable people thereby enhancing harmful outcomes for society. She concludes that while on the formal level, Facebook claims to be fighting disinformation and harm to society. In practice, they do exactly the opposite and that their claims to fighting disinformation is merely a public relations gimmick.
The summit was in Kano, the world headquarters of Kannywood so that was certainly on the agenda, especially, the creeping control of the internet companies on all arenas of culture. One issue that arose was the extensive control and censorship of Kannywood films by government. One example that emerged was that the basic social problem in Kano today is widespread knife attacks on people in the streets by young drugged persons seizing phones from people to sell. Government does not allow depiction of violent gangs so the stories cannot be told. More generally, since its emergence, Kannywood has been characterised by a strong moral and religious form of policing, formal and informal, that limit content. When the 14th Emir of Kano, Mohammed Sanusi II, suggested establishment of a film village to improve content and business prospects, he was shut down. Today, the internet has opened huge new vistas for Kannywood. The industry is rapidly flying above control by government and clergy by going directly to YouTube as Kannywood films are today attracting millions of downloads. For the first time, film makers are now making money through massive internet downloads and advert payments and escaping controls. The positive aspect is that to be competitive, they are being forced to improve content, recruit quality scriptwriters and generally improve the cinematography. So far, it is a good story as the definition of “acceptable” film is changing from what government and clergy accepts to what the viewers want to watch. Even the singing and dancing borrowed from the Indian scenario is fading out as more original scripts emerge. Today, Kano State government is reflecting on how it can control YouTube, fat chance!!!
For a country like Nigeria, you need crazy ideas to take the country forward. Bulama Mustapha, the Trust cartoonist who led the discussion on crazy ideas emphasized the importance of provoking people to think deeply by presenting complex and multiple ideas in images presented in a soft manner. That is why he uses cartoons in his work in Daily Trust, deliberately pushing people to confront multiple interpretations and confront the reality of critical thinking. Chioma Agwuegbo made the case that to come up with crazy ideas, one must have knowledge and be able to think outside the box. Great reform movements have been advanced by the crazy including: #BringBackOurGirls, #NotTooYoungToRun and #EnoughIsEnough. They have all pushed forward the needle on social and democratic reform, usually under the leadership of young people. Let’s encourage more crazy ideas.
The spirit of the Summit was that the social media has the potentials to contribute to transforming society just as it can be used to undermine it. In Nigeria, as in the rest of the world, we have seen elements of both. While its use is increasing, few have approached this from a strategic point such that they can benefit positively from its uses. The Summit provided an opportunity to bring out successful stories of using the social media for good so that such uses could be amplified and replicated.
Yes, the top tech companies – Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon have all developed algorithms that that push extreme stories, hate speech and fake news to go viral because it generates more revenue inflows for them. In that sense, they are the real influencers and the impact of their influence is negative on society. They have developed a system of surveillance capitalism and aggregated vast data on all of us – our ideological and political tendencies, religious views, likes and dislikes to know what to push to us. They have become the big brother watching us. Nonetheless, there is still room for social justice and democracy struggles on their platforms and we all need to learn how best to choose and use opportunities on their platforms to promote just causes.