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Lessons from social media outage

By Editorial Board
31 October 2021   |   3:55 am
The ripples generated by the October 4, 2021 social media outage are unlikely to be forgotten so soon. On that day, Facebook and other social media in its fold experienced massive outage, which affected WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger apps.

The ripples generated by the October 4, 2021 social media outage are unlikely to be forgotten so soon. On that day, Facebook and other social media in its fold experienced massive outage, which affected WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger apps. And a few days later, specifically on October 9, 2021, Mobile network provider, MTN Nigeria experienced a nationwide outage that left the subscribers unable to make calls or access data-enabled services for about six hours. The company announced in a statement that the nationwide service outage was a result of a disruption in its core network. The South African-owned company is the largest telecoms provider in Nigeria with about 71m subscribers, as at 2020. The MTN was to later apologise and compensate its subscribers with some refunds.

Speaking for the Silicon Facebook, Santosh Janadhan, Vice President in charge of Infrastructure said, “configuration changes,” or routers that coordinate network traffic between data centres was responsible for the outage. Some analysts have advanced some conspiracy theories, while others concentrated on the loss sustained by the Silicon Valley giant and businesses dependent on its services.

However, the anxiety generated worldwide by the outage underlies the powers wielded by non-state actors on the information super highway engendered by the internet. That is why they are feared and reviled by governments all over the world. Recall the brushes with powerful leaders in America, Nigeria, China, North Korea, among other nations. Former President Donald Trump had his accounts suspended by Twitter, while Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari also suffered the same fate, to the consternation of these powerful presidents. Nigeria reacted by suspending the operations of Twitter in Nigeria. Trump huffed and pointed to the abridgement of his fundamental human rights. Rather, than seek to ban the operation of social media, a more comprehensive and robust response is needed. Such response can be located in investing in the infrastructure that can rival the social media giants. In this way, lessons would have been learnt from the outage and the general activities going on in the cyberspace.

As recent experiences have shown, it is pointless to wish away the social media—warts and all. Social media have come to democratise information sharing and have disrupted the existing order irreversibly. In a situation like that, the best option is to explore ways to live with it, harness its potential and minimise any perceived negative impacts.

Nigeria should seek more creative ways to engage with the social media, rather, than the hostile perception as seen in the utterances of top government officials like the Minister of Information and Culture. Instead, government should fund research into alternative platforms that can meet the expectations of the people of Nigeria, while not jeopardising the socio-cultural template that may not be respected by foreign platforms. To carry Nigerians along in this journey, openness and good governance must be seen in the affairs of governments at all levels. At present, there is a wide disconnection between the aspirations of the people of Nigeria and the performance of governments at all levels.

What governments are doing in more cohesive polities is to develop a robust response to the challenges of the social media, rather, than seeking merely to legislate them out of existence. In China, there is Wechat, a platform that attracts over one billion monthly active users. Other alternatives to Facebook are strewn all over the cybersphere. Mewe has over eight million registered users. Mastodon, a platform similar to Twitter attracts over 1.2 million active users. Diaspora is home to 800,000 users, while Minds has about 1.2m users. There are many other lesser-known platforms put together by individuals and corporate bodies. Nigeria with the advantage of population can quickly outperform these platforms if properly configured and implemented.

The abundance of technology-savvy Nigerians waiting for a proper environment to blossom will enhance the success of such homegrown alternatives. But what do we normally have in such situations? Government officials will see the project as an opportunity to make money by earning estacodes. They will prefer to collaborate with foreign partners to fleece the country and deliver a shoddy job. Nigeria’s attempt at satellite technology acquisition illustrates this sad situation. How can a nation develop when its critical infrastructure and database are superintended by foreigners?

We call on governments and local technology companies to work in synergy to deliver the country’s local solutions to global challenges in all fields. It is also time to call out our government agencies saddled with the responsibility to provide these alternative platforms to shape up or ship out. They must justify their budget allocations. Among others, there is the National Information Technology Agency (NITDA). NITDA Act (2007) mandates it, “to create a framework for the planning, research, development, standardisation, application, coordination, monitoring, evaluation and regulation of Information Technology practices, activities and systems in Nigeria.” More than, a decade after, neither NITDA nor related agencies have delivered on their mandates.

Until Nigeria puts her house in order through homegrown solutions, attempts to harness the potential of the new media and minimise its harmful effects will come to naught.