E.H. Carr considered three forms of political power in the international sphere: military power, economic power, and a third form, less often cited: power over opinion1 . As broadband internet access begins to take hold in Africa, the issue of power over public opinion should not be overlooked. What is interesting in this point of view is that Carr considers the power "over" public opinion, and not the power "of" public opinion: for a nation, it is essential to identify the entities - in particular the foreign entities - who are  trying to gain some power over its public opinion.

If the media have often blamed the interference of Evgueny Prigozhin's conglomerate and its Russian trolls, for example during the American elections or in the Central African Republic, they remain relatively silent about the power of the American Big Tech. And yet, social media has received significant media coverage, especially since Donald Trump's presidency.

Donald Trump, whose relationship with the press or with the truth has often been complicated, was one of the first world leaders to use social media intensively. The chaotic unfolding of the 2020 presidential election led Democrats and the US press to criticise social media for letting the outgoing president use their services to express views they deemed unacceptable. In August 2020, Facebook censored a Donald Trump clip claiming that children were almost immune to Covid-19, and Twitter blocked its campaign account by requesting the removal of this clip. In early January 2021 Facebook, Instagram and Twitter suspended Donald Trump's account in the aftermath of the Capitol events.

Typically, the Associated Press relayed Jennifer Grygiel's comment: for  this scholar specialising in communication and social media, the events on Capitol Hill are an attempted coup resulting from Donald Trump's use of social media as a vector of propaganda and disinformation, and these social media should therefore be held accountable for their inaction.2 .

The US media did not question whether the censorship of a president - or of a simple citizen - should not rather be decided by a judge. The European media did not do better. If the US Democrats deem that a US Big Tech like Facebook must censor a candidate before any court decision, this stays a domestic issue. On the other hand, the European media could have wondered whether a possible censorship of a European politician by a US corporation would be legitimate.

In France in particular, this issue should have been considered since when Directive 2000/31 EC was transposed into French law, French MPs considered that services providers were legally responsible for the content posted by Internet users, and therefore had to censor this content before any court decision. This particular interpretation of European law was the result of an intense lobbying from the music and film industries who saw it as a simple means of prohibiting the downloading of films or music. The French associations opposed to the bill recalled that any censorship should only result from a court decision, but the few French MPs who participated in the debates did not take this into account.

Africa, where US social media are widely used, is therefore faced with three problems: first, US commercial corporations deem they have the right to censor users, who can be ordinary citizens, but also journalists, or even a president, as was the case in Nigeria.

From the point of view of Cindynics, which define the power of actors by their ability to impose their prosepctives, the dramatic growth of Big Tech power, who commercially exploit the exchanges of ideas and information between billions of individuals, generates major risks that go well beyond current thinking on the responsibility of these services providers.

These companies have the power to manipulate public opinion, for example during an election period, which could flip elections. Asked about this during a videoconference, Kako Nubukpo, the former Togolese Minister of Foresight and specialist in the issue of the CFA franc, considered that this was a digital sovereignty issue which, like monetary sovereignty, participates in African sovereignties.

Moreover, Big Tech corporations supersede African justice, which deprives African citizens of their right to a fair trial which should be protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, the de facto acceptance of a US private justice operating inside African intangible territories weakens the role of African judicial institutions, whereas the UN 2030 agenda for sustainable development aims in particular to strengthen institutions and access to justice for all.

Three major risks are thus highlighted: a risk of interference, manipulation and destabilisation, which could lead to civil wars, a democratic risk arising from the denial of the right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial tribunal, and a risk of weakening judicial institutions in Africa.

 

1 CARR, Edward Hallett. The twenty years’ crisis, 1919-1939, Reissued with a new preface from Michael Cox. London, United Kingdom : Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. ISBN 978-1-349-95075-1.
2 Jennifer Grygiel, a Syracuse University communications professor and an expert on social media, said Wednesday’s events in Washington, D.C. are a direct result of Trump’s use of social media to spread propaganda and disinformation, and that the platforms should bear some responsibility for their inaction. “This is what happens,” said Grygiel. “We didn’t just see a breach at the Capitol. Social media platforms have been breached by the president repeatedly. This is disinformation. This was a coup attempt in the United States.”
Twitter, Facebook muzzle Trump amid Capitol violence. AP January 7, 2021