The cost of social media surveillance
ACCORDING to Wiki.com, social media refers to ‘interaction among people in which they create, share and/or exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and network.’ The various social media platforms include Facebook, whatsapp, instagram, Tweeter and Pinterest, among others. New data, based on research, revealed that Facebook remains a popular choice for Nigerians as 16 million people in Africa’s most populous country visit the social media platform every month. Nigeria is still Facebook’s biggest market on the continent. While Twitter takes the lead in information source of breaking news and activism. The benefits of social media platforms cannot not be overemphasised: the employment of thousands, discovery of talents and potentials among the youths, easy flow of e-business transaction across the country.
However, we must admit that many are abusing the social media platform. They do not abide by the international cyber practices and laws that guide online media. Many crimes have been recorded ever since the emergence of social media networks in Nigeria, some resulting in murder cases. And the most rampant is the cyber fraud among Nigerian youths, a hard nut to crack among the intelligence circles. Among the ills of the social media platform is cyber bullying, which could be identified as the major reason why the Nigerian military has called for social media surveillance. According to whatis.techtarget.com: cyber bullying is the use of cell phones, instant messaging, email, chat room or social networking sites to harass, threaten or intimidate someone. It can include such acts as making threats, surfing provocative insults or social or racial or ethnic slurs. Ever since the Nigerian military announced that social media activities would be under surveillance to tackle hate speech, anti-government and anti-security information, there have been mixed feelings. Many see it as a welcome development while many perceive the move as a way to muzzle government’s critics.
It will be recalled that cyber bullying became rampant during the last presidential campaign in Nigeria. In fact, the online battle was so fierce that you saw funny pictures, videos, news from the supporters of both sides. These were targeted at political, religious and ethnic dimensions. And till today, this cyber behaviour has never ceased. The opposition has adopted the social media as the most effective weapon to rubbish various policies of the current administration. Nigeria is not the first to consider hate speech as a punishable offence.
Britain, not long ago, adopted the Public Order Act which makes it a punishable offence to use threatening or abusive language with the intention of causing ‘alarm or distress’’ to an individual or anybody else who hears it. It is a criminal offence to use language or publish written material intended to incite ‘racial hatred.’’ It is a criminal offence to incite ‘’religious hatred’’ or ‘‘hatred’’ against individuals on the ground of s3xual orientation. Also, there have been reports of the United States of America covertly monitoring the activities of its citizens on phone calls and emails after the September 11 terrorist attack. A former AT&T engineer, Mark Klein, in an interview, revealed that in 2002 when US was hysteria over the 9/11 attacks was at its peak, the Pentagon’s attempt to implement what is called the ‘’Total Information Awareness’’ programme (TIA) sparked so much public controversy that it had to be officially scrapped. In 2010, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates banned the use of Blackberrry phones because some communications were inaccessible to government intelligence agencies and that could not be tolerated. Though Saudi Arabia and UAE are not practising democracy, the point here is the threat the social media platform and the emergence of phones could pose to the security of a nation.
However, in Nigeria’s case, many questions call for answers. Is monitoring people’s activities on the social media healthy for a democratic setting like Nigeria? Would this not be a costly expenditure for the Federal Government at these trying times? We should be alert enough to realise this could lead to cyber warfare whereby terrorist groups, political or ideological extremist groups, pseudonymous blogs and hacktivists take over the cyber space to test Nigeria’s military might. And what does the military aim to achieve when it openly declared its intention when the surveillance could be done covertly in the national interest?
There have been many cases of crime unraveled through phone conversations, but do the security operatives need to inform the public that all our phone conversations are under surveillance? I believe that creating awareness on the issue of surveillance is psychologically disturbing to social media users. I condemn hate speech, anti-government and anti-security information in strong terms. But on the other hand, we need to consider the negative effects of the open declaration by the military. A 2016 study conducted in the United States showed that when people were reminded that the government was watching their activities, they began to suppress opinion about event that they felt to be controversial or believed could lead to government scrutinising them. When it comes to creativity and freedom of expression, a survey conducted by PEN America in 2013 found that one in every six writers avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance. The possibility of being monitored radically changes individual and collective behaviour, leading to fear and conformity. Mass surveillance is the hallmark of a tyrannical political culture. And as a result, constructive criticism which would have helped moved the country forward would be silenced.
This is a rather dangerous trend. The democratic setting has core values such as freedom of political affiliation, freedom of association, freedom of expression and right to privacy. Evidence has shown that mass surveillance erodes intellectual freedom and damages the social fabric of affected societies. It also threatens the privacy of individuals. Let’s envisage a scenario whereby profiling of over 17 million social media users is in the hand of a few. What if those in charge carelessly or deliberately give out such information to a person with criminal intention? Definitely, this would be catastrophic to the social media users. And what about a situation whereby the security operatives in charge find it difficult to access information on a potential suspect (s) ? They would have no choice but to hack into such profiles.