The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I have over one million followers on Twitter. But I’m ready to quit.

(Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg News)

Larry Madowo is a Kenyan broadcast journalist and writer. 

What’s happening? Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey seems to have finally accepted that his platform has become a raging dumpster fire. But if Twitter looks like a corrosive, hate-filled deluge of filth in the West, it’s even worse in my part of the world.

I am a relatively prominent journalist in Kenya with more than a million followers on Twitter. My experience on the platform has been the most degrading experience of my career. I am constantly considering deleting my account for good. If nothing changes soon, I will have no choice but to deactivate it and walk away from the vile, toxic mess it is for heavy users with strong opinions like me. Hate and abuse are now synonymous with tweeting, but Twitter’s indifference (or inability) to deal with it has been particularly damaging. I’ve reported multiple accounts that directly threatened me or whose abuse crossed a line — yet there is almost always no response from Twitter — especially if the offending tweets are in local languages. In the most egregious instances, offenders just registered new accounts to continue their hateful campaigns after I blocked them.

“We aren’t proud of how people have taken advantage of our service, or our inability to address it fast enough,” Dorsey tweeted last week. But his road map for measuring the health of the engagement on Twitter favors its users from the United States, while continuing to ignore the massively growing audience from the global south.

Twitter has 262 million monthly active users internationally, almost four times more than its base in the United States. Its most recent Letter to Shareholders trumpeting growth in daily active users does not contain numbers of African users; it doesn’t even mention the continent besides a passive nod to “improvement” in some EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) markets.

Last September, Twitter promised to deal with bots and Russian trolls that manipulated voters during the 2016 U.S. election, then announced more transparency for political and issue-based ads a month later. In December, Twitter introduced restrictions “to curb the spread of terrorist content online,” including a partnership with other tech companies and nonprofits in Europe and the United States but didn’t mention any efforts in Africa where Boko Haram and al-Shabab operate. “We are committed to ensuring that Twitter is safe and secure for all users and serves to advance healthy civic discussion and engagement,” it said in January but focused on plans for the midterm elections only in the United States.

Columnist Christine Emba says Twitter needs more than a female empowerment ad to stop the misogynist, racist trolls it's empowered. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

Africa, home to an impressive 2,144 languages, does not have a Twitter office. 

On the language support front, I have tweeted nearly 60,000 times in English, Swahili, French, Luo and Kikuyu. That breaks down to an average of 19 tweets every day (making it impossible for me to convince anybody that I have a life, but I promise I do!). I get abuse in all five languages, but I can only get support in the two Western ones — French and English. Swahili alone is spoken by approximately one-tenth of the continent’s 1 billion people — but Twitter incorrectly identifies tweets sent in Swahili as Indonesian.

Twitter is making deliberate steps to combat bots in the United States and Europe partly because of strong regulators. But bots have also poisoned the discourse in Africa, where the firm pays little to no attention. Before South Africa’s African National Congress chose its new leader in December, bots rained down on timelines with partisan messaging leaving citizens shocked. In Kenya’s two presidential elections in 2017, the two main parties actively used bots to sway voters, spread propaganda and smear their opponents. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s team has even hired the British psychographics firm Cambridge Analytica, which brags on its website that it “uses data to change audience behavior,” to win the past two elections. 

The service seems to only want to be a safe space for highly influential New York media types, the Silicon Valley crowd and the Washington establishment. In Europe, it is actively trying to assuage vigilant European Union regulators, by launching campaigns to promote civility, but it has not done the same for the rest of us in the developing world.

African governments and regulators are making very little effort to demand higher standards of global Internet companies such as Twitter. In most cases, there are barely any regulatory frameworks for the Internet to start with. When European and American regulators are applying strict controls to major tech firms such as Microsoft and Google, their African counterparts are falling over themselves to attract them to their respective countries, compounding the problem.

Twitter is still a force for good, even in this forgotten part of the world where it is used to hold public officials accountable, amplify important causes in society and to connect people across borders. “This service needs to survive,” one user responded to Dorsey. “There’s value here, it’s just obscured by all the nonsense.” I don’t have all the answers about how Twitter will measure what counts as healthy debate or how it will regulate violations of its hateful-conduct policy without limiting free speech, but it is hopelessly broken and often tone-deaf.

As a global platform, Twitter must do better. And to do so, it must start by seeing all of us.