NAIROBI — More African governments are increasingly clamping down on the Chinese-owned video platform TikTok over concerns it is being used to spread and promote hateful messages, explicit content, and politically malicious material.
Last week, Kenya’s President William Ruto held a virtual meeting with TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew over concerns that explicit content had taken over the platform and was eroding cultural values. The presidency reported that Chew had “committed to ensuring that content is moderated to fit community standards.” It said he also agreed to set up a Kenyan office to coordinate its operations in the continent, adding that it would create more job opportunities for Kenyans.
Earlier this month, Senegal announced the app’s suspension, alleging that the platform was “preferred by ill-intentioned people to disseminate hateful and subversive messages threatening the stability of the country.” The statement came amid weeks-long anti-government protests that rocked the country following the imprisonment of an opposition figure.
Authorities in Somalia issued an order to shut down the video platform on Aug. 20 on security grounds, stating that “terrorists and immoral groups use it to spread horrific content and misinformation to the public.”
In a survey of news consumers by the Reuters Institute, Kenya had the third highest proportion of news consumers who use TikTok as a news service. The use of TikTok increased by 14% last year during the election season, with political actors using the app to target younger voters. The report said TikTok “has played a role in spreading both information and misinformation in recent elections in Kenya.”
TikTok’s director of government relations and public policy in Sub-Saharan Africa, Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, said in a statement the company is “constantly evolving our policies in response to emerging trends” to address inappropriate content on the platform and protect user privacy.
The TikTok CEO faced a much more hostile U.S. Congress in March when there was much talk of banning the app in its most valuable market, but other than removing it from government phones, talk of an outright ban seems to have quietened down.
Calls to ban TikTok in Kenya over reports of inappropriate content and hate speech on the platform have grown louder in the past few weeks, with a private citizen petitioning the country’s parliament.
The call to set up an office and employ more Kenyans may score political points for the president who has repeatedly promised to create more job opportunities for the citizens. However, the quality of jobs offered by social media platforms in Kenya has been controversial, particularly around content moderation. Both TikTok and Meta have struggled with this issue here.
But it’s also worth noting that TikTok has not only been used to socialize and share ideas but also organize political groups and lead anti-government protests which is of concern to some governments like Senegal’s. It was certainly the case here with Kenya after the general election last August. This would perhaps be a more pertinent explanation for more urgency by various government agencies to attempt to control the platform.
In a statement to Semafor Africa, Communications Authority of Kenya – the country’s body that regulates the communications sector – said it was “working with social media companies in the country to ensure consumer rights are not violated.”
Room for Disagreement
“Banning TikTok is not the solution to privacy issues and concerns about explicit materials,” Mugambi Laibuta, internet law expert and an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, told Semafor Africa. He added that instead of limiting freedom of expression by suspending the social media app, concerned government agencies need to put renewed efforts into content moderation beyond material in English and Kiswahili, which are official languages in Kenya. “The greater challenge in part is the content distributed in local languages, and measures to cover that scope should be implemented,” he added.
The View From NIGERIA
Social media companies with over 1 million users in Nigeria are required to be incorporated and have a physical address in the country. But a year after the directive was issued last September, no major social media company — or “large service platform” as the Nigerian government categorized them — is known to have set up shop, besides Meta which opened an office in Lagos in 2021 before the directive. NITDA, the technology sector’s main regulator, did not respond to a request for comment.
The requirement followed a seven-month ban on Twitter from June 2021 after the platform deleted a tweet by the official account of then president Muhammadu Buhari that was deemed offensive. Months of back and forth between the government and the company produced a resolution that Twitter, which opened its first Africa office in Ghana in 2021 while it was owned by co-founder Jack Dorsey, would incorporate in Nigeria. Twitter (now called X) remains available in the country but without an office.