A decision by Ghana’s security agencies to shut down social media platforms on election day to safeguard national security and stability has triggered ferocious public debate following concerns that early warning signs of conflict merited total blackout.
The Ghana Police Service early this year said it was weighing the option of blocking social media services on election day because new media technologies were being abused and used to foment tension.
“Social media is used to churn out untruths and half-baked truths and finally lies, we, as the police, will not sit down for this to happen, we shall recommend that social media be banned for the seven or eight hours that the election will take place, after all, it is nothing but Ghana first,” John Kudalor, inspector general of police (IGP), was quoted saying.
International relations and security analyst, Ibrahim Irbard said on Wednesday that early warning signs were enough for Ghana to consider regulating social media on polling day to curb “deliberate false reportage” and sheer preponderance of abuse and misuse of the technological tool used to fuel violence.
“The critical nature of this election being a last ditch attempt or shot at the presidency for Nana Addo and Dramani Mahama are indicative of the fact that 2016 may be ominous for us if online threats, insults and other excesses are replicated in reality.
“Because Ghana is still a conservative nation that only senses tangible and palpable events that could precipitate instability,” he said, adding online or virtual bullying and social media aggression could spill over onto the streets of the capital, Accra, at some point.
“Freedom of expression and free speech are international values that cannot be violated, but the increasing use of social media to fabricate lies, photoshop and incite could lead to violent mobilisation on election day.”
Irbard, also a peace ambassador to Ghana’s 2016 elections, was speaking at a public debate on: “banning social media in general elections 2016: Security implication versus legal justification.”
The “level of incendiary political rhetoric” has been used by security agencies and experts as the main barometer to gauge early warning conflict signs, which they say mostly made the country cringe in apprehension.
The United Nations had said it would not endorse the ban, but Irbard, said the only thing the world body could do in the event of outbreak of conflict would be to provide humanitarian aid like food and blankets.
He said many young Ghanaians access news from Facebook rather than traditional media websites and a glance of headlines without clicking to read full stories.”Online miscreants and deviants have mastered the art of cloning credible websites to accompany such false and sensational political headlines”, he said.
Traditional election reportage has been done by licensed radio and TV stations, newspapers and online portals.
Irbard believes Ghana’s Communication Authority and Media Commission would be in a better position to know and trace the traditional media and hold them accountable for any deliberate false reportage.
Ghana’s security agencies and government departments are said to be deficient in information technology and supervise weak websites that are rarely updated and poorly managed.
“So if the IGP has conferred with the IT Department of the Ghana Police Service and they sense an IT deficit that could be exploited for violent political mobilisation and false electoral reportage, then it is not out of the ordinary to mull over a temporary blackout to safeguard the stability of the nation,” Irbard.
But, Kwame Ahiabenu II, the executive director of PenPlusByte, said the government and security agencies do not have the physical and technological ability shutdown social media.
Though, he conceded that social media platforms could be abused and used to create fear and panic, a total blackout was a critical issue that needed deeper interrogation, since new media could be used to educate voters on polling day.
“The IGP cannot arbitrarily ban social media on election day unless there is an order from the court, the ban must be backed with evidence of threat,” Jerry Ross Akuettey, a private legal practitioner, said.
Many believe that outright ban could lead to substantial revenue loss to businesses and make Ghana a notorious country, as it will join a league of social media banning countries, which could lower investors’ confidence in the economy.
In the last seven months, Uganda, Congo, Chad, Burundi, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia, have blocked access to WhatsApp, Twitter or Facebook for reasons ranging from security to allowing students to prepare examinations.