Banning Social Media Platforms is a Feel Good Solution that Gets us Nowhere
Globally, social media has become a dominant factor in socio-economic, political and cultural processes, with platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tik Tok, WhatsApp and Instagram increasingly having a tremendous influence on the creation, dissemination and consumption of information by citizens around the world. In Kenya, the population of social media users has quadrupled in the last 10 years from 3 million in 2014 to about 12 million currently. Kenyans use the platforms for acquisition of information, entertainment, earning a livelihood and for social interactions.
The choice of what to access and consume on these social media platforms is oftentimes less of a personal decision and more of algorithmic recommendations and curation. Social media platforms collect and collate large amounts of data from their users, oftentimes without consent or transparency in the handling, protection or use of the data. This data is manipulated algorithmically, often privileging and amplifying sensational news including mis/disinformation, hate speech, polarizing and extremist content. Platforms are often criticized for not doing enough to address the prevalence of these online harms and for lacking transparency in how their algorithms function. The recent report by Fumbua on online health scams targeting women in Kenya released in August 2023 is an example of how harmful products are openly sold and promoted on social media platforms with little regard for the users’ safety or even adherence to platforms own safety guidelines. This deliberate lack of care by platforms is especially disconcerting as they make money out of these harmful products through online advertisements.
The proliferation of nefarious activities online is increasingly causing concern among Kenyans who feel that exposure to under-moderated online content poses a variety of risks including health, safety and emotional challenges to the users and society at large. As a result, there is a rising demand for better content moderation and regulation of the social media space from government regulators, in the face of the platforms’ failure to self-regulate. In a national public opinion poll conducted by TIFA in 2022, 59% of Kenyans felt that the government should regulate platforms (but without overreach). When asked what their preference was to make the internet safer, it wasn’t to ban any particular platform, but rather, to put restrictions on social media companies. When TIFA asked Kenyans again in 2023, 74% of respondents said that social media should be more regulated than was currently happening (which is 4% higher than 2022).
While the recent call to ban TikTok can be understood against the need to reign in the unregulated and ungoverned online space, discussions about platforms’ accountability should not be based on a binary choice – to ban or not to ban any platform operating in Kenya. Rather, the solutions must be measured and based on open and inclusive multi-stakeholder dialogues with relevant sections of Kenyan society including academia, civil society, tech companies, government, and the media. The resultant actions to enhance platform accountability and safety among the Kenyan users must be informed by a human rights- and user-centric approach in line with the Kenyan Constitution and international human rights standards to ensure the protection of citizens’ fundamental rights while addressing legitimate concerns surrounding social media use. Actions taken should include efforts at enhancing platforms’ self-regulation, external regulation by state agencies and/or co-regulation by both state and platforms. However, any regulatory action must lead to sustainable ways of platform accountability. Critical actions should include;
All actions taken should ensure sustainable ways of platform accountability and user protection. This must be done in concert with Kenyan stakeholders, both state and non-state not just because it is a constitutional requirement but also to take account of the social, cultural and linguistic nuances of the Kenyan market.
When all has been said and done however, the real test of sustainability lies in fidelity to implementation and enforcement of regulation, first by the platforms themselves and next by the state regulatory agencies. This can be achieved through regular monitoring mechanisms that bring together the tripartite actors including civil society, state and platform representatives. Well-meaning bodies like the Council for Responsible Social Media should play a critical role of improving platforms’ governance by ensuring continuous participation and feedback from users and the public at large on platforms’ services and applications while also providing thought leadership on online safety and accountability. .
Convener- Council for Responsible Social Media