The identity matrix: Platform regulation of online threats to expression in Africa

 

Members of the Mother's Savings Club, Nigeria. Image by Karen Kasmauski/USAID in Africa via United States government work, public domain.

Conflicts centered on identity online can turn ugly — and potentially dangerous. 

Across Africa, attacks on language, culture, gender, religion, and ethnic identity are increasingly prevalent on social media platforms. These attacks tend to coincide with politically charged periods and contexts. 

Meanwhile, technology firms and platforms have yet to build robust regulation and moderation capacity for most African countries and languages. They struggle to keep up with the mis- and disinformation, ethnic hate speech and misogyny that increasingly disrupts or silences marginalized and minority online voices — especially in languages other than English.

To make matters worse, this type of harmful content and behavior — from cyberbullying to doxing, stalking to trolling — often go under-reported and unchecked due to a lack of state laws and social will to track, target and hold perpetrators accountable for identity-driven hate speech online. 

Still, the ability to speak freely online is crucial for civic participation.

In May 2020, Global Voices’ sub-Saharan Africa and North Africa team, as part of its Advox program, featured a series of seven analytical stories that examine identity-driven hate speech as it manifests in digital spaces. These stories cover seven African countries: Algeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda, and Sudan, and specifically explore:

  1. Identity-driven harmful content that interferes with online discourse, users’ freedom of expression and access to information rights; 
  2. Online campaigns that target independent media, journalists, protesters and activists and 
  3. Tech companies’ policies and measures related to harmful content.

This project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). 

Algeria 

In Algeria, Amazigh activists and protesters from the Kabylie region, active in the Hirak movement, are targeted in online campaigns. They are often associated with France, Algeria's former colonial power. 

Racial slurs online accuse this group of being separatists who threaten “national unity.”

While rooted in a political battle, these comments specifically target Kabyle activists with racist overtones. Racism directed at Kabyle activists and citizens is not new, but the strength of this rhetoric intensified in 2019, when Algerians took to the streets to demand political reforms. 

Layli Faroudi reports. 

Tunisia

In 2011, an uprising in Tunisia toppled the 23-year-rule of autocratic president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. Since then, the Tunisian digital space has witnessed unprecedented, heated debates about politics and society.

This highly politically charged period — shaped largely by social media — has fueled tense online discussions that include harmful content, hate speech and verbal attacks against women activists, journalists, and politicians in particular. 

Yosr Jouini reports. 

Cameroon

In Cameroon, the Francophone government's crackdown on protests in the English-majority speaking northwest and southwest regions led to a three-year separatist war — largely driven by identity and language politics — known as the Anglophone crisis. 

Journalists in Cameroon have to be very careful about reporting on atrocities related to the separatist conflict. Appearing to side with separatists or the government can lead to online attacks. 

Daniel Ekonde reports. 

Ethiopia

Unity Park aimed to tell the story of all Ethiopians and celebrate the country’s diversity. But social media revealed politicized, nationalistic reactions along ethnic lines: Amhara and Oromo. 

This is a recurring pattern.

Usually, a government official, opposition leader, journalist or prominent celebrity opines about a historical figure’s significance on popular social media platforms. Within minutes, social media platforms are swarmed by hundreds of supportive or scathing responses. These culturally-charged exchanges reinforce an atmosphere of resentment across numerous online spaces among different Ethiopian ethnic groups — or more accurately, their elites. These jabs entrench the feeling that one’s ethnic group is threatened with extinction as the object of another’s aggression. 

Endalkachew Chala reports.

Nigeria

In Nigeria, the political advocacy sphere is a caustic landmine. Politics and advocacy usually get filtered through a religious and ethnocentric prism. Advocates with a strong social media presence — especially on Twitter — have to develop a tough skin to deal with the avalanche of gbas gbos (Nigerian Pidgin for “throwing punches”) in digital spaces. Nigerian female advocates — in addition to weathering this identity-driven harmful content — also face the added reality of gender-driven attacks.  

Two online social media movements in Nigeria lend powerful insights into the experiences of advocacy and gender: The #BringBackOurGirls movement, led by Dr. Oby Ezekwesili; and #ArewaMeToo, led by Fakhriyyah Hashim, both experienced gendered political hatred that greatly affected the integrity of their messages.  

Nwachukwu Egbunike reports. 

Uganda

Women journalists in Uganda carry the double burden of gender-based abuse online and potential threats related to political reporting. These threats have led women journalists to withdraw from public discourse. 

Women journalists who experience abuse online rarely see justice and often struggle to have their complaints taken seriously and properly investigated.

Sandra Aceng reports.

 

 

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