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Social Media Regulation has become a song on the lips of most African leaders.

Recently, some African leaders, have been threatening to regulate the use of social media, especially Facebook in their respective countries. While some have tried to institute laws governing its use, some are considering the introduction of social media taxes as a regulatory tool.

 

Five years ago, when the Social Media Week launched in Lagos, it was the first of its kind in Africa on that scale. At the time, social media seemed mostly a fun and useful marketing and communications platform. Social media is undoubtedly a lot of fun and many brands have established themselves with it, including personal brands.

However, the narratives on the social media platforms have given most African countries reasons to contemplate whether to regulate it or not. Some of these countries include, South Africa, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania ,etc.

The government of South Africa, for instance, is currently contemplating the regulation of social media to halt the spread of misinformation. Going by recent events, one can take misinformation to mean “information that the government does not agree with.” Officials in the federal government have said that the spread of ‘fake news’ and scam on social media is a growing problem and they see regulation as one way to curb that.

Social Media and it’s Importance in Africa.

Five years ago, it would have been a bit difficult to anticipate the importance of social media in Africa as a communication tool. With platforms like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Viber and most recently WeChat, its importance can no longer be overemphasized.

For some Africans, the newsgroups within Facebook and WhatsApp have become a primary source of news and entertainment. But in countries where the press has been weakened or compromised, having social media outlets to share news has been more important than ever. Local newspapers do great work across the continent but they also need social media to reach as many readers as possible, particularly younger ones. TV news is also still very relevant but there are fewer. Traditional TV news isn’t reaching everyone.

Meanwhile, the mobile phone already has a higher penetration and smartphones use has been more than doubled since 2014. YouTube has been a source of great entertainment but it also makes it easier to share important videos.

The Increasing Use of Social Media

According to global digital agencies, Africa has seen the fastest growth rates in internet penetration. The number of Internet users across the continent has increased by more than 20%, compared to 2017. The global annual digital report shows that over half of the world’s population is now online. The latest data reveals that nearly a quarter of a billion new users came online for the first time in 2017.

Social media users in Africa are up by more than 20%, mail increased by almost 6 times since last year January. More than 3 billion people around the world now use social media each month, with 9 in 10 of those users accessing their chosen platforms via mobile devices. Furthermore, most people, see the social media sites as a place where they can get news

Social media as a political tool and the burden of its regulation

Social media has connected people in a way never before. But what does it mean for governments, citizens and the exercise of democracy? The social media has served a way for many politicians to proclaim their policies and influence the political climate. It presents novel challenges to strategic policy and has become a managerial issue for many governments.

It also offers a free platform for public participation in government affairs. Many argue that the rise of social media technologies can give citizens and observers a better opportunity to identify pitfalls of government and their politics. As governments embrace the role of social media influence, negative or positive feedback on the success of their project, they are also using this tool to their advantage by spreading fabricated news.

Most African politicians have successfully used social media as a tool for political electioneering. It is the same politicians who are presently calling for its regulation. Some are not doing so with the intention of instilling sanity in online content, but to stifle the voices of opposition citizens. It is like trying to destroy a bridge which they crossed to get to power.     

How possible it is to successfully regulate social media in Africa?

In order to successfully regulate the social media, some African countries have considered following the lead of South Africa. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa  set up a committee to look into regulating over-the-top (OTTs) in the country. They said OTT services stimulated demand for network access. But made no direct contribution to infrastructural development.

However, they pointed out that regulation that apply to OTT services would be very difficult to enforce. This has prompted an observation on the evolution of the social market before passing any laws. Maybe other countries should also follow the path of South Africa. African governments cannot expect the citizenry to stop using these services just because views expressed do not align with those of the leaderships.

While there are valid reasons for the call for social media regulation, the implementation and enforcement of such regulations could be prohibitively expensive and problematic. Individuals need to play their part by being proactive and reporting/flagging fake news. Regulating might seem to be a good idea but it might take away the very essence of social media.

 

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