Thursday, February 22, 2024

Should Social Media be Regulated?


Chanda Mfula
Chanda Mfula

By Chanda Mfula, University of Sussex, United Kingdom

In this article, I leave aside – perhaps for another day – my considered argument that by worrying too much about how citizens are using social media, the Zambian government seems to have gotten its regulatory vectors wrong, and that it should rather be more worried about how social media companies, particularly Facebook, are, as Roger McNamee observed at the beginning of 2018, fostering psychological addiction and how they can actually work to undermine democracy.

Instead, I argue that while social media has become a habitat for both petty and serious offences as well as outright crimes, state-controlled regulation may harm its virtues in the process of taking out its vices, chiefly because of the way politicians in power tend to blur the lines between self-interest and public interest. I also suggest that perhaps the government must invest more in educating rather than regulating social media users.

Minister of Transport and Communication Brian Mushimba was quoted in February as saying the government wanted to regulate social media to stop ‘the ongoing abuse of the internet which was manifested in cyber bullying, posting of fake news, fraud and the creation of fake accounts.’ On the face of it this looks like a reasonable decision, particularly when one considers the flurry of undesirable activities online in which many innocent people are targeted for abuse especially by those who choose to hide in cyberspace under the comfort of anonymity. Nonetheless, history is replete with reminders that state-controlled regulation is rarely used for its publicly stated aims. Instead, it becomes a mechanism for protecting the interests of those who control the state by abridging the rights of citizens which such regulation is supposed to aerate.

Even if the regulation of social media does eventually manage to weed out abuse, the challenge is that such regulation is usually ambiguous enough to also be used to turn citizens’ rights into the ‘noblesse oblige’ of the state. Governments generally have shown that they cannot be trusted with the ability (or even sincerity) to draw a line between liberties and their abuse. Those in control of government have their own political self-interest to protect, and they often see this self-interest as under constant threat, not so much from those abusing social media as from those with legitimate interest in political power, particularly opposition political parties, as well as other groups with a stake in the affairs of the country, including the media, civil society and the general citizenry. Social media has, in more ways than one, given such groups an untrammelled platform on which they are rediscovering their voices which had petered out on account of government’s preponderant and at many times repressive control of the mainstream media space. Thus, social media is going some way towards reworking the balance of power in the definition of reality, which until now has favoured the party in government. To many people, government is, therefore, anxious to restore their monopoly over the national political narrative by extending their stranglehold on newspapers, radio and television to social media.

We can thus know a thing or two about what to expect of government regulation of social media by looking at the way they have regulated mainstream media. To begin with, the tight regulation of what is otherwise supposed to be public media has resulted in the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), Times of Zambia and Zambia Daily Mail projecting the political interests of those who hold power over and above public interest. It is this supplanting of public interest with political self-interest, enabled by a lack of clean separation between government and regulatory agencies, which makes it hard for many citizens to be confident about any chance of fair regulation of social media use.

A simple content analysis of public media coverage of the 2016 elections would reveal the blatant blackout of opposition voices at a time when all political players deserved to be heard equitably as one way in which citizens can be helped to make informed choices when they vote. There have even been times when the abuse of public media has shamefully exceeded all proportions, as was the case in 2011 when ZNBC incessantly ran documentaries under the banner ‘Stand Up for Zambia’, which contained outrageous personal attacks aimed at denigrating then opposition leader Michael Sata in a futile bid to contain his surging popularity at the time.

Furthermore, we can also look at the way independently owned media have been regulated in Zambia. Attempts by independent media to be critical of the state have often been met with ruthless clampdowns by state agencies ostensibly operating as regulators. A more recent example was the suspension of broadcasting licences of Muvi TV and two radio stations, namely Komboni and Itezhi-tezhi, in August 2016 under section 29 (1) (J) of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act, which empowers the state-controlled IBA to suspend a licence ‘in the interest of public safety, security, peace, welfare or good order’. The ambiguity in the interpretation of a section of an act worded this way creates a risk and proclivity for it to be used for purposes other than public interest. As a result, and perhaps rightly so, there were many people that interpreted the action against the three media outlets as borne out of the fact that these outlets often broadcast content which appeared critical of the ruling party during the rat race that was the 2016 elections.

These sad chapters in the recent history of media regulation in Zambia are, but only a few examples out of several, including worse, acts of repression to which the media in Zambia is subjected in the name of the law. Public media are made to parrot the agenda of the government of the day while independent media are punished for any attempt to be robustly critical of government.

There is little reason to argue against suspicions that the government wants to regulate social media for the same reasons for which they regulate mainstream media. After all, social media can and does serve the same political and democratic purposes as traditional media. In fact, the more popular view in media studies appears to be that people’s voices are amplified on social media, where citizens are no longer just audiences or users but are also producers of content. The implication, therefore, is that whereas with mainstream media government has mainly targeted its regulation at media organisations as producers of content, they will target individual citizens when it comes to regulating social media.

The accounts above make regulation look like such a bad thing, simply because it has been umpired by an interested player rather than by a neutral referee. Regulation is beneficial to citizens and the country if it is done purely in public interest. Majority of the citizens want social media to be safe space for their democratic citizenry and other genuine uses. They do not want cyberbullying, fake news and other vices. This is not just a Zambian, but a global concern. Questions about regulating social media have been raised elsewhere including in the United Kingdom.

Ordinarily, the IBA, whose name is really a misnomer, and the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) (under whose ambit social media has been assigned), as well as other regulators, are supposed to be independent of government if any form of regulation is to be carried out purely in public interest. Such independence, at least in theory, is best guaranteed by insulating the board and management of regulatory authorities against political interference. In countries where this has worked, such insulation is achieved through avoiding a direct appointment of the board and top management by government. An independent appointments committee can be set up to nominate board appointees using transparent criteria, and then subjecting the appointees to parliamentary scrutiny and ratification. A board so constituted can then have the authority to hire qualified professionals into top management positions. This is the model the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) has fought so hard without success to impress upon government in relation to the structures of the IBA and ZNBC.

Independent regulation achieved in form and substance is likely to quieten the anxiety in many citizens that their rights are about to be truncated by the impending regulation of social media, which, as Zeynep Tufekci observed in the summer of 2015 with regards to Facebook in Turkey, ‘is among the few spaces outside of government control’ and which ‘challenge governmental control over the censored mass media sphere.’

Questions can also be asked whether existing laws are not sufficient to cover the online offences the government has been talking about. For instance, the same laws that apply to defamation and fraud offline can be used to address these offences online. In fact, as an example, over three years ago in the UK, the chairperson of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, Lord Richard Best made a similar suggestion in his report with regards to his country and sounded this warning: ‘We need to be careful: we need to balance people’s right to freedom of expression with implementing the criminal law, whether the offences are committed online or offline.’ No doubt the law may need a second look and possible strengthening in parts to conform with the dynamics of the newer technologies but enacting sweeping legislation may be going overboard, potentially leading to rights violations.

It is also possible to shift focus from regulation to education or to balance one with the other. How about educating citizens about using social media the right way? I have found this very persuasive, particularly in thinking about how it can be incorporated in the curricula in schools. In the words of Lord Best, ‘Educating the next generation about how they should behave in the technological world is as important as teaching them the rights and wrongs of how to behave in person.’

The main argument here can be restated for avoidance of doubt, and that is, many citizens probably share some of the concerns raised by the government about social media abuse. There is quite some consensus against cyberbullying, fake news, hoaxes, fraud, defamation, and the lot. What many do not agree is that regulation, especially under the current regulatory framework which is yoked to the state, can address these vices without destroying the democratic virtues of social media. And there is a good reason for this disquiet: state-controlled regulators have a tendency of being used as prefects on duty for those who control the state rather than for public interest. A clear separation in form and substance between the state and the regulators need to be achieved before any regulation is contemplated. In addition, the government may wish to think about whether existing laws, maybe with a little rejigging, can be sufficient to cover online offences. Lastly, the answer may well lie in educating rather than regulating citizens.

Chanda Mfula is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, UK. His research interests currently focus on the use of social media in the performance of the democratic roles of journalism, particularly where this involves (or results from) circumvention strategies against restrictions imposed on mainstream media.

He is also an alumnus of the University of Leicester, UK, where he obtained an MA in Communications, Media and Public Relations and is former One-World Broadcasting fellow.


  1. The dic head Chanda Mfula if you need help with home ask you mother or father than boring us. Since you have brought it out already, try and summarize your work.

    • Even being in class will bore you son. A lot of Zambians find knowledge boring. So you decide to be angry with the boy because he has written something you can’t understand? I don’t get it

  2. What is the significance of putting your university and photo? I don’t get this type of narcissism, you never see journalists in the Nytimes or guardian plastering their faces and credentials in such a cringe worthy way. This is very common back home with people, its best a chest beating exercise to show off credentials among africans. Maybe I should put all my credentials including my munali secondary school certificate.

    • Because any writing that is based on someone’s academic or expert knowledge need to be qualified as such by one stating their academic or professional credentials. Now, you Mr slumdog appears to be in the UK like me and the author and you want to use Guardian and NY Times as examples, which you obviously don’t read because similar columns in those papers are qualified as such. Do not sound knowledgeable while unwittingly parading your ignorance. Come to Leeds I teach you a thing or two about academia.

    • Leeds, the home of polytechnics and faux academians who are in later years but still professional students, it explains why you see this waffling essay as academic. You remind me many of the africans in the diaspora that have degree’s and are eloquent ramblers. They are good at writing essays which have no meat on the bones. Obviously to people like you pretending to be academics this rambling is mind boggling. To me this issue is very simple regulation and jurisdiction, something this chap is failing to reconcile because frankly its beyond his expertise. I don’t want to bore you because but to simplify social media cannot be regulated, its that simple. Take for instance I am in England and If I was to say something defamatory to someone in lusaka , what court would they sue me in?…

    • Slum dog, literally… you are barking and in the wilderness. In England where you and I are, they are talking about social media regulation. Not that I expect you to know. Clearly, you don’t read. In Zambia five or six bills are going to parliament to regulate social media. Would you know? I doubt it. You spit colloquial things picked up here and there without adding substance to your argument. Why in the world are you talking down Africans at every spit you spew? And you can say crap about Leeds? Well, you know nothing about us mate. Whatever you are doing in England it must hurt so much you have to insult those who are in academia because you sound like the dropout you really are. Sorry mate!

    • That comment about polytechnics cut you deep didn’t it? Maybe the comment about Leeds and academia can scare people back home not me, Russell Group Alumni is all I will say. I know about those useless universities in that town that dish out useless qualifications to people like you to feign self importance. Going back to my point you cannot regulate social media simple as. The fact that bills are going through Zambia parliament is a moot point and means nothing. If you are really smart tell me how when it becomes law how it will be enforced. Let me dumb it down for a non legal head like you. You cannot regulate something that is not based in your jurisdiction. The reason they are talking about in England because they have failed to regulate it. I can go into detail but I would probably…

    • Here again I see a BLACK problem I’ve seen here in the UK all my life. I’ve lots of black friends from Africa to the Carribbean who have made the UK their home and it’s amazing how much they look down on each other and attack each other on the basis of who among them doesn’t behave closer to the white norm enough!

      Being a media person with great interest in Africa, when I was alerted to this article expected to find some interesting debate from Zambians but no, I found Zambians who left their country to come and cal each other names in the UK! You are your worst enemies. Do you surely believe the author should be behaving more like the WHITE writers at the Guardian or New York Times or shuoud that even be the debate? So his picture or lack of it should be more important than…

    • So his picture or lack of it should be more important than what’s about to happen in Zambia in relation to freedom of expression??

      And then there is the ill-informed argument by a lawyer boasting about having gone to Russell group college (which means nothing to us British people if you ask me). For what’s it’s worth, let me tell you how lopsided your ‘legal’ view is. You’re focusing on regulation targeted at those in the diaspora. Have you thought about the people in your country who use social media and who are the majority? Doesn’t this then show that your (mis)use of ‘moot’ is embarrassing because the question of jurisdiction may apply to you but not to the majority who still live in Zambia. Amazing how you have made this about you and those living outside Zambia. Even…

    • My main point, though, is that try being a bit more about your country and less about copying white behaviour because to be honest, we are not your model but just different! And if Russell group produced a lawyer failing to argue rationally they should be embarrassed. I have lawyer friends from unranked universities in Asia and Africa and they are more brilliant 😉

  3. This is a very good piece. Truly inspiring that we have people who can discuss the issue of social media regulation in a balanced way

    • The boy is not a very good researcher. He should have brought the issue of China where social media is highly regulated or watched into the equation, and then we would have known what his assessment is.

    • The thing with research is that the researcher picks his focus. You can’t judge how good this article is based on whether or not China has been brought into the equation, but whether or not the arguments and evidence he has chosen are convincing. And why China? He could bring in any country like he has referred to Turkey and the UK. My understanding which could be wrong is that he is taking a liberal-democratic perspective of the issue. Maybe Lusaka Times should encourage its columnists to stick around the comments to respond to questions and clarifications sought. And we also need other scholars to write. We have the likes of Eustace Nkandu and others from UNZA who can be regular writers on media issues, but they could be reluctant to write for the general public because of the hostile…

    • @Zambian intellectual
      Why Eustace won’t write is that its a hustle to get paid for writing in Zed. Publications like LT are after cheaply obtained copy so as to maximize profit. That’s why you see so much rubbish with so many errors being published

  4. Regulation is the deterrence of choice. Whether or not the State can assign the regulatory function to non State actors or not is rather confusing. The State is regulatory in nature and the authority of the State to regulate derives from public mandate as elected and legitimate government. The government of the day must govern the country, whether or not certain interest groups like it or not. Illegal conduct in cyberspace must be justiciable. Interest groups could also remain free to lobby for and advocate what they consider appropriate media legislation.

    • Regulation must be in public interest but I think the reason the Zambian government wants to regulate social media is to stop the watchdog and other blogs

    • I think it all depends on your interests. Any African who goes in government would want to control information and today much of that information which works against government is circulated on social media. On the other side, the opposition will want as much information about the government circulated especially negative information. Imagine HH in government. Would he want to allow negative information about him or his government? He would behave the same as Lungu is behaving. It’s an African problem of wanting to control how the people think and act. And you want them to act according to your interests.
      I must say this is a courageous article though. Not easy to argue assertively in the online world where people would rather insult you before they listen to you. Keep it up Chanda!

    • Collateral issues are not central to regulation. Collateral damage caused by government will be dealt with responsible government. The cyber-criminal is scared of regulation because criminal motivations hide anti-regulatory rhetoric. Cyber-crime must not go unpunished. It is all about law and order. It is all about the rule of law. It is all about respect of human rights.

    • But the problem is that instead of containing or deterring crime, state controlled regulation ends up working more to undermine liberty.

  5. The reason this article will be too long for Nostrademus and others is because they are victims of the dumbing down of journalism. The want to read about name-calling stuff and spats between politicians. Essentially that kind of journalism has really made us dull as a nation. That’s why we end up with bloggers who make abusive rather than constructive comments

  6. You mean the government wants to regulate social media?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

  7. I disagree with the author! Social media is not doing us any good in Zambia.just read the comments even here. Every day people are abusing each other. do you know how negative things you say can affect someone? Every day is to insult each other . The government must act. We should be like china where there is no nonsense. We Africans are not made for social media. Better we just listen to wailesi every day.

  8. First. For once in a very long time I get to read a refreshing, and grammatically correct piece! Words used appropriately and ideas concrete. Second. Good points raised without bias in this article. Third. There are suggestions therein that I believe should lay groundwork for discussion in comparing and contrasting places like Iran and China where the Internet is literally under someone’s thumb… Thanks, Chanda. Now, for God’s sake, next time do not show your bust or any part thereof along with your article. We will look for you if we need to.

  9. The Article is good and informative. However you should have endevoured to chronicle the history of social media in Zambia and you should have made futuristic predictions. You have not also quoted a lot about what our constitution says and what other pieces or international treatities that address the issue of social media be it usage of regulation.You should have also looked at the positive and ugly side of social media in Africa and the world over in detail.Otherwise the article is good.

    • Wouldn’t you then suggest he writes a book? Because the article is already too long for an online column and I imagine how hard it would be to summarize additional perspectives. The other alternative is that probably other authors (like you?) can identify the gaps in this write-up and write their own contribution. That’s how the body of knowledge grows!

  10. Wouldn’t you then suggest he writes a book? Because the article is already too long for an online column and I imagine how hard it would be to summarize additional perspectives. The other alternative is that probably other authors (like you?) can identify the gaps in this write-up and write their own contribution. That’s how the body of knowledge grows!

  11. As an African I feel really embarrassed by what western education has done in brainwashing us.
    Where are our values as Africans?
    Where is our culture?
    I would argue that we have more in common with the east than the west.
    The article however,tries to shove down our throats the western( minority) perspective of social media.
    In the name of human rights and liberty on social media,our culture and values are being assaulted daily.
    Who will save us from this scourge if not government?
    Honestly,how can more of the same western education be the answer to the problem it has created?
    The answer is to uneducate ourselves from the many lies and half-truths that people like Chanda are parroting.

  12. To be fair to the author, he has talked bout the downside of social media and the need for regulation except he is sceptical about state sponsored regulation, I think

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