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The Future of Artificial Intelligence in Africa: Risks and Opportunities

Governments have the responsibility to harness the power of AI and ML to help communities grow and prosper. This technology should never be used to spy or prey on citizens, or to enforce the position of dystopic tyrants; it must always be employed to serve the good of humanity first and foremost.

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to be the most revolutionary technology that humanity ever experienced, and many developed countries have already started implementing it in its earliest forms. The African continent is lagging behind, and many challenges, including inadequate knowledge, infrastructure, and research capacities, must be overcome to harness its potential fully. If Africa won’t find a solution to harness AI’s full potential quickly enough, the digital divide will be exacerbated, further widening the gap between this continent and the rest of the world.

However, things are not so simple. Social media platforms have already been exploited by many ruthless governments to distort reality and spy on people, and it’s no secret that China is among those countries behind these dystopian scenarios. Many African countries are increasingly reliant on Beijing’s Big Brother technologies to monitor their citizens’ communication, and the Chinese giants are, in turn, using data drawn from these partnerships to feed their AI.

Why are the most unethical uses of AI used, such as mass surveillance and social control, being exported to developing countries? What does the future of AI technology hold for Africans? Is there any way to keep up with the new global technology race without being involved in the current rivalries between China, Russia, Europe, and the United States?

The full range of opportunities opened by AI is simply immense. The latest advancements in machine learning (ML)-based technologies are affecting literally every field of human knowledge and every aspect of human society. AI is so revolutionary that is a disruptive and sustaining technology at the same time, with applications ranging from architecture to education, security, data collection, agriculture, industry, communication, and even the world’s economy.

Keeping up with the current AI revolution is critical for Africa because this technology has the potential to have as much global impact as the discovery of America, the invention of gunpowder, or the Industrial Revolution.

One of the most controversial uses of AI and ML is augmented analytics to understand human behaviour. Drawing from the immense amount of big data collected in the last few years by data analysts across the world, modern AI development is being used to improve all kind of enterprise needs – from marketing to sales, customer services and human resources (HR). The new predictive models of human behaviour are becoming more refined, and new sciences, such as social physics, are emerging to help us understand an entire society.

Keeping up with the current AI revolution is critical for Africa because this technology has the potential to have as much global impact as the discovery of America, the invention of gunpowder, or the Industrial Revolution. AI will be able to influence human society so deeply that it will open up a unique opportunity to improve the lives of wealthy and poor people equally. On the other hand, failing to adopt it as quickly as possible may exacerbate global inequalities even more, forcing Africa to lose any ground it may have gained over the rest of the world. Moreover, rushing its development may expose many countries to the interests of unscrupulous giant corporations (and foreign governments) who may want to expropriate their digital sovereignty.

The current state of AI in Africa

Healthy development of AI in Africa is a central topic of discussion today. A central point brought up during the latest UNESCO Forum on Artificial Intelligence in Africa that took place in Morocco on 12 and 13 December 2018 was that the proper use of local human resources is the best approach to harness the full potential of AI. Start-ups across the world are identical in one aspect: they’re always driven forward by the enthusiasm of the people who founded them. This energetic ecosystem of AI start-ups is just as lively in Africa as in other richer countries and represents a powerful force that can make the difference.

There are many examples, such as Clevva, a Stellenbosch-based company founded in 2011 that implemented AI in agriculture. Their virtual advisor helps sales and technical consultants by providing them with fundamental information about the products that are used to make optimised and accurate decisions. Their platform is so efficient and flexible that it was later used even by financial services and petroleum companies. Or Hubs.ng, a Nigerian company that recently launched an AI-based digital assistant and customer care agent named Emily that earned the start-up the 2018 Digital Africa Start-Pitch prize.

The enormous potential of the thriving African digital environment has attracted the attention of many venture capitalists, who invested $560 million in 2017 in this continent. And the future seems to be even brighter for AI in Africa, as none other than the biggest technology giant of the world – Google – decided to make substantial investments, After supporting and advising more than 60 start-ups through the Launchpad Accelerator Africa project, Google pushed forward its AI efforts in Africa by opening its first AI laboratory in Ghana’s capital city, Accra. According to the Senegalese lead research scientist Moustapha Cisse, its goal is to provide local developers with the necessary means needed to build products that can address the many problems faced by African countries every day. For example, its algorithm deployed on phones to diagnose crop diseases will be published as an open-source code for everybody to access.

Things are, however, rarely that simple, and AI is evolving at an amazingly fast pace. Many challenges still need to be overcome if Africa wants to keep pace with the rest of the world.

Barriers against the implementation of AI in Africa

Just like its entire technology infrastructure, the development of AI in Africa is still in a very immature stage. Much like a valuable crop, AI requires a suitable environment to eventually bear fruit and become productive. Extremely inconsistent IT infrastructure represents a major challenge that needs to be addressed by various African governments, mostly because AI requires robust networks, immense computing power, and stable connections.

And diversities do matter for AI – quite a lot, in fact. If the data fed to AI is full of bias, the machines will see that bias as “normality” and react accordingly. The vast majority of ML experts are in North America, Europe, and Asia and they’re inadvertently building discrimination inside their products.

Machines have their own way of learning. Machine Learning (ML) can be compared to a child – it needs to be “educated” in the appropriate way before it can grow into a fully functional adult. However, deep learning models must be fed with lots of data to train them, a resource that is currently scarce in Africa. Other than lacking the raw amount of big data that the other highly developed countries collected in the last few years, even the data that is currently available is often largely irrelevant. Much like Europe, the African continent is a mixed bag of complex and varied cultures, languages, and identities, with substantial diversities between the political and legal frameworks that characterise each country and region.

And diversities do matter for AI – quite a lot, in fact. If the data fed to AI is full of bias, the machines will see that bias as “normality” and react accordingly. The vast majority of ML experts are in North America, Europe, and Asia and they’re inadvertently building discrimination inside their products. A tragically comic but outrageous episode occurred in 2015 when the facial recognition software of the Google Photos app tagged images of black people as “gorillas” because that was the data the algorithm has been fed with. The samples used to gather data must be diverse enough to provide an accurate representation of reality. But the humans and the experts that gather this data must be diverse as well – or else they will inevitably transfer their bias inside the algorithms.

African engineers and AI researchers are very limited in number, mostly because the education system is often insufficient to provide African talent with the necessary degree of specialisation. The most brilliant minds have no choice but to complete their academic studies overseas and are, therefore, lost to competition in the never-ending technology race. There’s no network of African institutes of artificial intelligence available to coordinate the efforts made by the various African countries, which still need to depend on external aid. This overreliance on help from outside is a serious liability, and, once again, represents a vulnerability that endangers the ability of most African governments to retain their sovereignty.

A unique opportunity or the theatre of an upcoming digital war?

AI is neither good nor bad. It can be used to improve the lives of people or to manipulate their opinions and create “fake news” – it depends on how it is used. Nevertheless, the rapid evolution of AI is not devoid of dangers. Undeniably, some of the global players saw in this emerging technology an opportunity to encroach on human rights. (We already talked a lot about the serious threat represented by those external forces which are currently influencing Internet freedom in Africa.)

China is planning to become the world leader in the field of AI and ML, and it is fueling its plans for domination by using the developing world as a giant laboratory. Many African governments are strictly dependent on Chinese companies for their telecom and digital services, which are used to improve the newest surveillance technologies and facial-recognition algorithms.

Companies like Google say that they have ensured that all privacy concerns are addressed and that their algorithms are transparent enough, but it’s still too early to know if they will keep their word. In the meantime, the power of AI has already been used more or less secretly by governments and organisations to influence society and to push their agenda.

China is planning to become the world leader in the field of AI and ML, and it is fueling its plans for domination by using the developing world as a giant laboratory. Many African governments are strictly dependent on Chinese companies for their telecom and digital services, which are used to improve the newest surveillance technologies and facial-recognition algorithms. It is no coincidence that most of these technologies are used by the most ruthless regimes to monitor their citizens constantly.

But digital sovereignty is not a problem that affects Africa alone. After Edward Snowden blew the whistle for the first time back in 2013, many industrialised countries felt that the privacy of their citizens was endangered by the unstoppable power of tech behemoths. Digital paranoia is spreading everywhere. In Europe, in November 2018, the French government announced that it will to ditch Google as the default search engine for their devices in favour of the privacy-focused Qwant. The United States, Australia, and New Zealand have all banned Huawei 5G gear on the grounds that the Chinese equipment poses a threat to their national security. With so many global interests at stake, every choice made by African governments about the future (or the present) of AI technologies is inevitably going to have many repercussions – even from a strictly political point of view.

And despite efforts made by continental forces in Europe and North America to set ethical guidelines for the implementation of AI, the threat represented by its most nefarious uses is always present. Africa must establish a solid legal and ethical framework to ensure that the digital journey of AI leads to positive outcomes.

Governments have the responsibility to harness the power of AI and ML to help communities grow and prosper. This technology should never be used to spy or prey on citizens, or to enforce the position of dystopic tyrants; it must always be employed to serve the good of humanity first and foremost.

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Dr. Claudio Butticè, Pharm.D., has written on topics such as medicine, technology, world poverty and science. Many of his articles have been published in magazines such as Cracked, Techopedia, Digital Journal and Business Insider. Dr. Butticè has also published pharmacology and psychology papers in several clinical journals, and works as a medical consultant and advisor for many companies across the globe.

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The Tech War between America and China and its Impact on Africa

The United States’ ban on American companies from using Huawei technology has resulted in a global tech war that will have an impact of African countries, which are heavily dependent on Chinese telecommunications technology. Could African countries use this tech war to their advantage?

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The Tech War between America and China and its Impact on Africa
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Over the past few weeks, the trade war between the United States and China rapidly escalated when President Donald Trump’s administration took an extreme and unprecedented step against Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant. The US government declared a national emergency and issued an executive order banning American companies from using any technology that can pose a threat of espionage. The first foreign company that was included in this blacklist was Huawei, which was accused of acting on behalf of the Chinese government to undermine US national security.

Shortly after that, the American tech behemoth Google announced its decision to withhold its Android software from Huawei to prevent the Chinese company from exploiting vulnerabilities that could expose customers to serious cybersecurity and privacy risks. Other than just directly damaging Huawei’s smartphone business, this move set in motion the beginning of a technology Cold War that is quickly ramping up.

How is this global quarrel going to affect Africa?

Huawei is the largest cellphone provider in many African countries, such as South Africa, and has built at least 50 per cent of Africa’s 4G network, in addition to being a critical partner in many “smart city” projects. On the one hand, it’s in the best interest of African governments to maintain a good relationship with Google since this company is investing huge capital in developing Africa’s future artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. On the other hand, though, African countries’ dependence on China goes far beyond just telecommunications technology – today nearly 20 per cent of African governments’ external debt is owed to China, making this country the largest single creditor nation.

Huawei is the largest cellphone provider in many African countries, such as South Africa, and has built at least 50 per cent of Africa’s 4G network, in addition to being a critical partner in many “smart city” projects.

What does the future hold for Africa? Will this ongoing tech war force Africa to choose between the United States and China, or may it present an opportunity for this continent to play a relevant role in the global political scenario?

Trump’s trade war and the “national security threat” posed by Huawei

Why is Donald Trump barring US companies from engaging in telecommunications trade with Huawei and other foreign companies accused of jeopardising national security? And why did a global digital giant such as Google follow up by taking an even stronger position? There are a lot of reasons why the American president made such a bold and risky move, including curbing China’s apparently unstoppable technological advancement (especially in the AI field).

As Western societies, and America in particular, are facing a seemingly unstoppable cultural and political decline, it comes as no surprise that the global power balance is shifting in favour of the Russia/China axis. Many of the promises made by President Trump hold no substance so far, and many European forces see him as a threat to democracy and planetary stability. Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, even went as far as comparing Trump’s language to that of “the fascists of the 20th century” just before the US president’s state visit to the United Kingdom. As the American giant is slowly crumbling under its own weight, Trump’s need for a new (real or perceived) enemy came in the form of a trade war against China, the only superpower that now threatens the US position as a global hegemon.

It all started in early 2018 when a team of government hackers from the Australian Signals Directorate had to evaluate the harmful potential of 5G. A powerful technology, 5G is able to allow users to move data up to 100 times faster than on current networks. It is a cornerstone of the upcoming Web 3.0 evolution that will integrate different devices, such as smart home appliance, driverless cars, and augmented reality (AR) devices.

However, all this new interconnectivity comes at a price: as the number of entry points in the network increases, the easier it is for a malicious group to gain access and conduct cyber warfare. Armed with all the offensive cyber tools they needed, the Australian cybersecurity forces had to test the damage they could inflict to a hypothetical target nation if they had access to malware and tools installed in the 5G network. The result was scary and unsurprising at the same time: exploiting 5G could expose the entire infrastructure of a country, providing a potential cybercriminal with countless opportunities for sabotage and espionage.

It all started in early 2018 when a team of government hackers from the Australian Signals Directorate had to evaluate the harmful potential of 5G. A powerful technology, 5G is able to allow users to move data up to 100 times faster than on current networks.

The former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shared this intelligence as well as his worries about the vulnerabilities of the 5G network with his country’s Five Eyes partners – New Zealand, the UK, Canada, and, obviously, the US. Among the members of this group, only the US one took this warning seriously enough, and decided to restrict the access the Chinese company Huawei, a world leader in 5G tech, had into their mobile networks. But President Trump took additional steps – at first, his administration threatened to withhold intelligence from any allied nation that allowed Huawei in. Later, on 15 May, the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted the Chinese telecommunications giant and other international firms. Now American companies need official permission before engaging in trade with them.

The consequences of the embargo and the beginning of the tech Cold War

After the sanctions were announced, Google responded by stopping all business activities with Huawei that involved the transfer of proprietary software, hardware, and services. The American digital company blocked Huawei’s access to Android, its Play Store, and other functions such as Maps, Search, and Gmail. Then Intel announced that it could no longer provide processors for Huawei laptops and for Qualcomm, the company that manufactures the wireless modems used in smartphones. Finally, it was the turn of ARM, a British chip designer that provides 95 per cent of the processors used in mobile devices in the world, who had to adhere to the embargo since it had many subsidiary companies based in the US.

It’s easy to understand how all these actions look and feel like a boycott that targets Huawei’s smartphone and laptop businesses directly rather than the alleged “national security risk” since 5G is completely irrelevant here. What’s the real game then? Global commercial dominance may be the reason behind these moves, since Huawei is one of the few global companies that have the numbers to compete, and even win, the technology race against the American hegemons Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. Boycotting it now may serve a simple purpose: to save the planetary dominance of the US hyperpower by crushing its sole rival before it grows too strong. One way or the other, Google-less Huawei smartphones now represent the symbol of the new technology war between the two world giants – America and China.

Huawei replied that “restricting Huawei from doing business in the U.S. will not make the U.S. more secure or stronger”, explaining that this move is only forcing “customers in the U.S. to [purchase] inferior and more expensive alternatives.” The Chinese company had anticipated it could be the target of American whiplash and built up massive stocks of components. They also plan to launch a new operating system that is going to substitute Android before spring 2020 – the (allegedly) faster and more efficient Hongmeng. The new system will be fully compatible with all Android apps and functions, which were already banned in China.

Meanwhile, it is a known fact that the Chinese 5G giant is backed by Beijing, and Trump’s ban will not come without consequences. When Australia enforced a similar ban last year, its coal exports to China experienced all kind of disruption, including unnecessary delays at Chinese customs. And right now, the situation is especially delicate, as the trade war caused by the increased tariffs imposed by Trump on Chinese imports is just escalating. The tension is growing even among members of the Five Eyes, since the UK government doesn’t seem keen to removing Huawei from its networks. On the other hand, America’s choice to ban Huawei for national security reasons rather than admitting that it’s a commercial move to put China’s economy under pressure is a diplomatically dishonest move that damages the United States’ credibility with its peers. And while these nations are busy with their own in-fighting, a new global threat is emerging in the form of a Cold War that is fought with apps and smartphones rather than with soldiers and bombs.

How the tech war will impact Africa

The relationship between Huawei and the West is strained at best for reasons other than just commercial competition or superpower rivalries. And the conflict started before Trump’s trade war against China. The US Justice Department has been investigating links between Huawei and Iran that involved none else than Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of Huawei’s founder and the company’s chief financial officer at least since 2012. In January this year, US officials requested the Canadian government to detain and extradite Wanzhou for a variety of crimes ranging from bank and wire fraud to stealing trade secrets, and conspiracy to defraud the US.

Meanwhile, it is a known fact that the Chinese 5G giant is backed by Beijing, and Trump’s ban will not come without consequences. When Australia enforced a similar ban last year, its coal exports to China experienced all kind of disruption…

Recently, a red flag that points to how Huawei (or China for that matter) may have a darker secret agenda was raised in Ethiopia. In January 2018, the African Union found the computer systems in its headquarters in Addis Ababa compromised by a security breach that had apparently lasted for years. Investigators found that the computers, which were installed by Huawei, sent data every night from midnight to 2 in the morning to some servers in Shanghai. Both the African Union and Chinese officials denied the allegations, but many still question the reasons behind such a generous gift from the Chinese telecommunications giant. Google’s ban is going to have a very limited effect on the US market, where it holds a minor position on the mobile devices market. But in Africa, the situation is very different. Huawei’s influence in Africa is enormous, given the fact that it built at least 50 per cent of this continent’s 4G network, and it undoubtedly is the lead competitor in rolling out the upcoming 5G network.

Recently, a red flag that points to how Huawei (or China for that matter) may have a darker secret agenda was raised in Ethiopia. In January 2018, the African Union found the computer systems in its headquarters in Addis Ababa compromised by a security breach that had apparently lasted for years.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A huge proportion of the African population is currently using Huawei smartphones, and the digital company has already provided the technology used for smart city projects, autonomous vehicles development, and research partnerships. For example, together with its partner Safaricom, Huawei signed a deal with the Kenyan government in April to build a $175 million data centre at the Konza technocity. China itself has provided well over 20 per cent of the total money lent to African governments between 2000 and 2017 ($143 billion of loans), and 80 per cent of this money came from the Chinese government rather than from private investors. But the bond between Africa and China does not just involve the past, but the future as well since the Chinese government has pledged to invest another $60 billion by the end of this year.

Africa and the war between Google and Huawei

The most obvious and immediate consequence for the many African Huawei smartphone owners is that they will end up with an expensive device that has lost many of its key functions. The Chinese company is also one of the principal global partners of Android, which has substantially contributed to the development and growth of the popular operating system. If they develop a new system, the online world will be eventually split in two – a Chinese-led Internet on one side, and a non-Chinese one on the other side led by US companies. Once again, a huge technological barrier will be raised, and since Africa will stand in the middle, it’s hard to imagine that it will be able to stay neutral. The IT economy of way too many African countries requires them to work with Chinese companies and Huawei may exploit the current situation to change the game in its favour.

The African tech market is quite large, and if Huawei decides, it can be used to turn the tables against the Americans. The most likely scenario will see China and the US facing a potential battle for the control of global telecommunications. Africa can provide both of them with all the human, technological, and market resources to gain the edge they need against each other. If this wave is ridden correctly, the whole continent may attract the investments required to reduce the current digital divide.

African governments, however, must understand how to stand their grounds against the exploitation of the unsustainable burden of debt. They need to know how to exploit the added value Africa can provide to these two sides without becoming a pawn in this global war. But if the Africans play their cards correctly, this scary Cold War scenario may become a huge opportunity to bridge the gap with the Western world.

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Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech

In the aftermath of the attacks by a white supremacist on Muslim worshippers in Christchurch, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinta Ardern, led a campaign to remove hate speech from social media platforms. TRACEY NICHOLLS examines the obstacles facing the campaign and offers some solutions to tackling the “dark web”, which is increasingly becoming the incubator of racist and fascist ideologies.

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Monitoring Digital Hate: What the Christchurch Massacre Taught Us About the Limits of Free Speech
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Dateline: CHARLOTTESVILLE (VA), USA, August 11, 2017 – A gathering of self-identified “alt-right” protestors marches through a park in this small college city waving white supremacist and Nazi-affiliated flags, chanting slogans identified with “white power” movements and so-called “Great Replacement” beliefs put forth by Islamophobes (“you will not replace us”) and slogans identified with Nazi ideology (“blood and soil”). In the name of (white) American history, they are protesting the planned removal of a statue of the general who led the army of the Confederate States of America, the Southern separatist movement that took up arms against the American government in the country’s 19th century Civil War (1861-1865). Subsequent protests result in beatings of counter-protestors and one death. Days later, the President of the United States, Donald Trump, notoriously defends the white supremacists by observing that there were “very fine people on both sides.” The organiser of this “Unite the Right” protest is known in Charlottesville for his sustained online harassment campaigns against city councilors who support the removal of racist monuments.

Dateline: CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand, March 15, 2019 – An Australian man living in New Zealand attacks worshippers at two different mosques in the city of Christchurch, killing 51 and wounding many others. He is a proponent of the Islamophobic, anti-immigrant views of a global “white power” network that disseminates its rhetoric of hate and its narrative of an imperiled white race online, via unregulated spaces within “the dark web” and via encrypted social media apps. His attack on Muslim New Zealanders is met with shock and grief within the country, an outpouring of solidarity that is expressed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her immediate response: “They were New Zealanders. They are us.” Of the shooter, whom she consistently refuses to identify by name, she says, “He is a terrorist. He is a criminal. He is an extremist…He may have sought notoriety, but we in New Zealand will give him nothing. Not even his name.” After the attacks, it becomes clear that he had been announcing his intentions in online forums and had been livestreaming the attack through a Facebook link. New Zealand moved swiftly to criminalise the viewing or sharing of the video of the attack.

Dateline: PARIS, France, May 15, 2019 – Two months after the Christchurch attack, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern stands at a lectern in a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron to announce a non-binding agreement dubbed “The Christchurch Call to Action.” The agreement has as its goal the global regulation of violent extremism on the Internet and in social media messaging. Ardern calls upon assembled representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to lead the way towards an online world that is both free and harm-free by enforcing their existing standards and policies about violent and racist content, improving response times involved in removing such content when it is reported, removing accounts responsible for posting content that violates the platform’s standards, making transparent the algorithms that lead searchers to extremist content, and committing to verifiable and measurable reporting of their regulatory efforts. Affirming that the ability to access the Internet is a benefit for all, she also asserts that people experience serious harm when exposed to terrorist and extremist content online, and that we have a right to be shielded from violent hatred and abuse.

Why is this call different from all other calls? 

What action can we expect in the wake of this call? And what consequences might plausibly flow from that action?

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”, the encrypted social messaging platforms that Ardern identifies as in need of regulation. (I put the word “community” in quotes here because the meaning derived from the word’s Latin root [munis/muneris: the word for gift] makes it a darkly ironic way to describe these bands of people: if community is a gift we share with each other, their gift of poisonous hate is one that damages all those with whom it is shared.

Recognising the danger of these groups, as Ardern does, and seeking to neutralise their effects on our online and in-person worlds is important, even urgent. As Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips observes: “It’s not that one of our systems is broken; it’s not even that all of our systems are broken…It’s that all of our systems are working…towards the spread of polluted information and the undermining of democratic participation.”

The Internet as a site of racist hate speech and vicious verbal abuse is not a revelation; in recent years, many culture-watchers and technology journalists have documented an increasingly bold and increasingly globalised “community” of white supremacists whose initial – sometimes accidental – radicalisation is reinforced in the echo chambers of this so-called “dark web”…

The consequences of the way these systems are working are now as clear to New Zealanders in the wake of the Christchurch attacks as they have been to Americans, to Kenyans, to Pakistanis, and to Sri Lankans in the wake of their respective experiences of hate-fuelled terrorism. American Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt reminds us that acts of violent hatred always begin with words, words that normalise and seek to justify the genocides, pogroms, and terror attacks to come. If we do not speak out against those words, she notes, we embolden the speakers in their drive to turn defamatory words into deadly actions.

So the action called for at Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit is warranted. Will it happen? Will the nations who have the ability to exert moral pressure on the companies that created and profit from these online platforms actually force a change in how white supremacist rhetoric is dealt with? Karen Kornbluh, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, who is quoted in Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief, thinks that “the best case scenario [for] the Call to Action provides the political pressure and support for platforms to increase vigilance in enforcing their terms of service against violent white supremacist networks.”

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users. Back in 2015, for instance, Germany’s then Federal Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection, Heiko Maas, filed a written complaint with Facebook about its practice of ignoring its own stated standards and policies for dealing with racist posts. Maas pointed out the speed with which Facebook removes photographs (like those posted by breast cancer and mastectomy survivors who seek to destigmatise their bodies) as violations of the platform’s community standards, and the corresponding inattention to user complaints about racist hate speech. A Foreign Policy analysis of Maas’s complaint letter reports that it led to an agreement between German officials and representatives of Facebook, Google, and Twitter – the very same companies who sent representatives to Ardern and Macron’s Christchurch summit –on a voluntary code of conduct that included a commitment to more timely removal of hate-filled content. That was in 2015; in Maas’s view, Facebook has subsequently failed to honour the agreement.

The problem with reliance on political pressure to change cultural policies driven by economic incentives and reinforced by jurisdictional divides is that when the pressure fades, the behaviour we want changed re-emerges. This has certainly been the case in prior efforts to alter Facebook’s inconsistent oversight of its users.

Even at the international/multi-national level at which Ardern’s call is framed, it is not clear how much capability there is to reform the discursive violence inflicted on us by white supremacist digital hate cultures. Audrey Wilson’s May 15 Foreign Policy Morning Brief reports that in the wake of his own visit to the Christchurch mosques that were the scene of white supremacist terror, UN Secretary-General António Guterres committed himself to combatting hate speech.

However, in a talk at the United Nations University in Shibuya (Tokyo) on March 26, 2019, Mike Smith, former Executive Director of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, was pessimistic about the possibilities for monitoring sites on which people like the Christchurch killer engage in their mutual radicalisation. One could argue with some plausibility that the “soft power” of moral authority, widely acknowledged as one of the UN’s key strengths, should be used to speak out against hate and terror lest its silence on the matter foster a sense of impotence on the part of the international community. However, as Smith made clear, that level of monitoring on the part of international institutions (or national ones for that matter) is not feasible, even assuming there is no other claim on the resources that would be required. The only workable way to implement monitoring of online hate groups is for the tech companies to be doing it themselves and, as Ardern asked for in her Christchurch Call, to be reporting regularly on their efforts to international and national agencies.

What could possibly go wrong?

In considering the question of whether the Christchurch Call does, or can, mark the moment when the world begins to take white supremacist hate speech seriously, we need to consider what we are dealing with in that speech, in that “community”. One American think-piece published in the days following the Christchurch attacks observed that “[r]acism is America’s native form of fascism”, and I think it might be instructive to take that claim seriously. Frequently a carelessly-used and controversial epithet, fascism has been broadly defined as a political worldview in which some of a nation’s people have been given status as persons, as citizens, as lives that matter in a moral hierarchy, and others have had that status denied to them.

Seeing racism as a variant of fascism gives us the resources to understand why online white supremacist hate speech is such an intractable problem. Essayist Natasha Lennard, a theorist of the Occupy movement that erupted in the United States in 2011, insists that “fascism is not a position that is reasoned into; it is a set of perverted desires and tendencies that cannot be broken with reason alone.” Instead, she argues that fascism—which she defines as “far-right, racist nationalism”—must be fought militantly: white supremacists must be exposed, and the inadequately regulated online spaces where their views are promulgated must be shut down. A similar no-tolerance approach to the more mainstream sympathiser sites where these views are legitimised is also warranted as part of anti-fascist (antifa) organising, she thinks. The goal of those who oppose fascism, racism, and white supremacy must be to vociferously reject these views as utterly unacceptable.

The kind of intransigent approach Lennard advocates is precisely the posture that the companies providing these online platforms are so ill-equipped and unwilling to adopt. As Foreign Policy writers Christina Larson and Bharath Ganesh both make clear, social media platforms like Facebook have long cloaked themselves in a rhetoric of utopian connectedness and free speech. Absence of regulation has been pitched to users as the precondition of popular empowerment.

Ganesh points out that there is a real disparity of treatment in the ways online platforms deal with extremist speech: where German minister Heiko Maas charged that Facebook censors photographs involving nudity and leaves hate speech to flourish, Ganesh qualifies that only some speech is left unregulated. Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked. “There is a widespread consensus that the free speech implications of such shutdowns are dwarfed by the need to keep jihadi ideology out of the public sphere,” Ganesh explains. But, “right-wing extremism, white supremacy, and white nationalism…are defended on free speech grounds.”

In part, this is precisely because of the existence of more mainstream sympathiser sites (such as Breitbart, Fox, InfoWars) that ally themselves with right-wing politicians and voters, and defend white supremacists through “dog whistles” (key words and phrases that are meaningful to members of an in-group and innocuous to those on the outside), such that, as Ganesh puts it, this particular “digital hate culture…now exists in a gray area between legitimacy and extremism”. Fearing backlashes, howls of protest about censorship, and reduced revenue streams if users migrate out of their platforms, social media companies have consistently chosen to prioritise these users over the less powerful, less mobilised minority cultures who are undermined by digital hate.

Extremist white supremacist hate speech is routinely ignored or approached with caution and with charitable concern for the poster’s rights of expression, but extremist jihadi speech is monitored, removed, and blocked.

In light of this self-serving refusal to apply their own community standards even-handedly, what we are likely to see from social media platforms in response to the Christchurch Call is more legitimising of white supremacy rhetoric that is increasingly entering the mainstream of American discourse, and more policing of already marginalized viewpoints and voices. The most likely result is of their caretaking of this current situation is proliferation of the inconsistent censorship Ganesh identifies, and extension of that censorship to the very groups and users who might be calling out white supremacy. One example of this censorship of anti-racism predating the Christchurch Call involved a group of feminist activists calling themselves “Resisters,” who created an event page on Facebook to promote a 2018 anti-racism rally they planned for the anniversary of the Unite the Right hate rally in Charlottesville. Facebook removed the page on the grounds that it bore a resemblance to fake accounts they believed to be part of Russian disinformation efforts aimed at influencing the 2018 US mid-term elections.

What then must we do? 

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?” That question is also posed in the Christchurch Call, and in abstraction it is a difficult one. People committed to freedom and to flourishing social worlds want both the right to express themselves and protections against the violence and dehumanisation that hate speech enacts.

Practically speaking, however, we often can draw lines that delineate hate speech from speech that needs to be protected by guarantees of right of expression (often, views from marginalised communities). Ganesh cites Section 130 of the German Criminal Code as an example: in free, democratic Germany, it is nonetheless a criminal offense to engage in anti-Semitic hate speech and Holocaust denial. The point of this legal prohibition is to disrupt efforts to attack the dignity of marginalised individuals and cultures, which is, Ganesh contends, “what digital hate culture is designed to do.” If our legal remedies begin – as the Christchurch Call asks all remedies to – with basic human rights and basic human dignity as their central concerns, they will not, he thinks, contravene our entitlement to express ourselves.

“The real problem is how to police digital hate culture as a whole and to develop the political consensus needed to disrupt it,” Ganesh tells us. In his view, the central question of this debate about online hate is: “Does the entitlement to free speech outweigh the harms that hateful speech and extreme ideologies cause on their targets?”

Those who fear that any attempt to delineate speech undeserving of protection will slide down a slippery slope into censorship often turn for support to nineteenth-century British philosopher John Stewart Mill’s impassioned argument for the necessity of robustly free speech in his 1859 work On Liberty. However, Mill’s motivation for that argument was his belief that freedom of expression is a key component of human dignity. Free speech does have limits, even for Mill; he articulates those limits in arguably his most famous contribution to Western political theory: the harm principle, which says that limits on an individual’s freedom are only justified to the extent that they prevent harm to others.

Recognising that words have the capacity to trigger action, Mill acknowledges that a society cannot tolerate as protected speech a polemic to an angry mob outside the house of a corn dealer in which one charges the corn dealer with profiteering at the expense of hungry children and calls for death to corn dealers. Building on this view that incitement to reasonably foreseeable harm or violence warrants restrictions on speech, even the United States, with its expansive constitutional protections for speech, has enshrined limitations. (One cannot yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, for instance.)

While laws – and responsible oversight by social media platforms, if ever that can be mandated in ways they will adhere to – can structure the playing field, they cannot determine the actions of the players. For that necessary change, we must look to our own behaviours and attitudes and how each of us might play our role in reinforcing social norms. In a post-Christchurch attacks interview, American anti-racist educator Tim Wise advises people: “Pick a side. Make sure that every person in your life knows what side that is. Make sure your neighbors know. Make sure the other parents where your kids go to school know what side you are on. Make sure your classmates know. Make sure that your family knows what side you are on. Come out and make it clear that fighting racism and fascism are central to everything that you believe.”

We must, I think, resist the temptation of the easy neoliberal “solution,” the fiction that small numbers of committed individuals can neutralise a normalised culture of hate. But there is a germ of insight in Wise’s prescription. Yes, we need a better legal climate, one that levies real penalties on social media platforms that fail to monitor the content they make available in our lives; yes, we need more responsible social media companies and Internet site moderators; and we also need to all do what we can to make sure that the people who are listening to each of us are hearing messages that contribute to a healthy and caring social world.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” (the campaign of invective and abuse organised against women in the video game industry) was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate. Another thing I learned was that many of the casual reproducers of that organised hate are not fully culpable actors; they have been drawn into something they think they understand but when they can be made to see how harmful it is, they will renounce it. I do think Natasha Lennard is right about the futility of trying to appeal to people who have chosen hate or fascism, but there are many others on the fringes who can be influenced away from those ideas. They need to be surrounded by people in their (online and offline) lives who are speaking the language of anti-racism, feminism, multicultural inclusion, and the equal right to dignity of all human beings.

One thing I learned from the 2014 online frenzy of misogynist hate known as “GamerGate” was that a small number of committed individuals can produce a normalised culture of hate.

If online hate has IRL (in real life) ramifications, then IRL influencing might be a way to save or reclaim some otherwise radicalised young people, and also a way to assert pressure on the social media platforms to “walk their talk” of wanting a more connected community. The Christchurch Call cannot, in and of itself, drive out the poison of white supremacist hate. But it can, perhaps, inspire us to make our communities (the gifts we share with each other) gifts worth receiving.

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Battered but Not Broken: Resurrecting the Pan-Africanist Ideal

Arguably, Pan-Africanism could only have emerged beyond the shores of Africa. The continent’s riotous diversity, comparatively as dense as its famous jungles, aided the divide-and-conquer tactics of its numerous enemies. The multitudinous nature of its languages, historical traditions, customs and ethnicities meant that Africa never learnt to speak with “one voice” as it had historically spoken with cacophonies of voices. Its diversity in all things was simply astounding.

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Battered but Not Broken: Resurrecting the Pan-Africanist Ideal
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Since the eras of Edward Blyden, W.E.B. Dubois, Chancellor Williams, George Padmore, Marcus Garvey and Kwame Nkrumah, the idea of Pan-Africanism has exercised the minds of blacks seeking to hurl off the yoke of racism and oppression. Each major advocate of the Pan-Africanist creed ended up inflecting it with different personal significations but its over-riding goal of black emancipation and unity remains intact.

Some, like Blyden, advocated a form of classism that demarcated continental Africans from diasporan blacks, with the former relegated to a lower socio-political status on account of their “lack” of modern skills and also their relative unfamiliarity with the Christian faith.

Times have since changed.

Arguably, Pan-Africanism could only have emerged beyond the shores of Africa. The continent’s riotous diversity, comparatively as dense as its famous jungles, aided the divide-and-conquer tactics of its numerous enemies. The multitudinous nature of its languages, historical traditions, customs and ethnicities meant that Africa never learnt to speak with “one voice” as it had historically spoken with cacophonies of voices. Its diversity in all things was simply astounding.

However, blacks in the diaspora – under the shared horror of slavery and plantation cruelty – were forced to unite through the creolised languages and cultures they had to develop. In essence, their shared experiences thrust them together rather than divided them. The abjection of their lives in which they were losing their original languages, cultures and spiritualities pointed in only one direction: the white oppressor. Out of those unimaginable depths of misery, their primal cries of agony struck a chord of unity. Expediency must have dictated that their collective pain could only be assuaged through the forging of unified black bonds.

Psychic freedom

Sometimes the notion of freedom within the definition of Pan-Africanism acquires metaphoric connations; freedom is not merely the release from forms of physical bondage; it can also attain subtler and deeper levels, including psychic freedom; a connection with, and an unrestrained exploration of the fact of blackness, which ultimately ends in the acquisition of more potent spiritual meaning.

The slave ship, rather than being merely a vessel of physical bondage, becomes a pilgrimage into the meaning of blackness, the eternal struggle for its recovery amid elemental oppression in which a hard-won strain of blackness is received as a prize of victory that comes at enormous cost, and which subsequently serves as a beacon for all those seeking freedom in whatever form.

Sometimes the notion of freedom within the definition of Pan-Africanism acquires metaphoric connations; freedom is not merely the release from forms of physical bondage; it can also attain subtler and deeper levels, including psychic freedom…

In this historical and precise moment, Pan-Africanism finds its essence, which it can only retain momentarily, for it must delve below to rescue numerous victims of oppression, thrusting and thirsting for the purity of its strength most often without relief. And when it descends from its enormous spiritual height, when it sheds ineffable spiritual sustenance for realpolitik, it also finds itself needy without its former spiritual glory. It must contend with the practicalities of gaining electoral votes, problems of inadequate and poor housing, chronic poverty and unemployment, teenage pregnancy and single-headed households, widespread alcohol and drug abuse; problems with severe cancerous impact on black communities.

The crisis within Pan-Africanism

Pan-Africanism needs to learn to deal with these myriad problems in order to acquire more power, the sort of power that divests it of its strain of purity and which also denudes of it of evocative power. Indeed the power of Pan-Africanism is largely evocative, which brings us to a problem within Pan-Africanism.

The problem stems from Pan-Africanism’s indecision to transit from its pure strain to its abstract identity. Undoubtedly, from the perspective of realpolitik, both the pure strain and the abstract identity are not of much practical utility. Pan-Africanism had been compelled to be an ideology as well as a religion at the same time, which led to its crisis.

In Africa and in the diaspora, slavery and colonialism left in their wake utter wreckage and chaos. The effort to re-build chaotic black communities all around the world entailed more than just the slogan of Pan-Africanism. It was akin to thrusting one’s head into a tunnel in order to cope with a multitude of practicalities. It meant, in many instances, a disavowal of the global in favour of the local, a severance from the beatitudes of the spirit for the urgent demands of the body, a re-configuration of the contest between ideological imperative and metaphysical comfort.

At the end of the day, Pan-Africanism had to recede to make way for shoring up shattered black communities; it entailed a retreat into the soul-crushing labours of the local.

And necessarily, the retreat into the local meant a diminution of the Pan-African appeal. By orientation, Pan-Africanism is global; it had sought to end the oppression of blacks in the world wherever it existed, and so it had to over-reach itself in order to gain a desirable degree of ideological purity.

But this over-reaching tendency has had some disastrous consequences in the field of politics. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, a noted apostle of Pan-Africanism, is often criticised by Ghanaians for not paying enough attention to them. A common assumption is that there were more Nkrumahists who were non-Ghanaians than Ghanaians themselves. Arguably, the Ghanaian leader struggled to no avail to strike the appropriate balance between the local and the Pan-African.

More recently, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa has labelled himself a scion of the African Renaissance and has sought, amid great difficulties, to realise the Pan-African dream in a territory tragically rife with Afrophobia. Afrophobia (fear of other Africans) is on the rise in South Africa as the country battles chronic crime, massive unemployment and its economic “junk” status. In such a context of political and economic meltdown, Pan-Africanism would obviously be a hard sell.

At a crucial political moment, Nkrumahists were probably better off being Ghanaian citizens than were non-Ghanaians in order to perform the gruelling local work of clawing inch by inch towards the Pan-African apex. Similarly, Mbeki’s political routing at Polokwane in 2007 spelled a major setback for the Pan-African initiative in South Africa. Within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), Mbeki’s supporters were muscled out of political reckoning and hounded into submission or institutional exile. And so there was virtually no base upon which to build from the bottom up, hence the frequent violent outbreaks of Afrophobia and other officially sanctioned forms of social exclusion.

Among the generation of the so-called South African “born-frees” (born post-1994), a disconcerting form of political parochialism has taken root, encouraged by older political opportunists. Often downplayed is the fact that the anti-apartheid movement had to acquire a global appeal fostered by a robust Pan-Africanism to be truly effective. In moments of insane xenophobic rage, this history suddenly vanishes as if the South African liberation effort had occurred in total isolation from the rest of the world.

There have been innumerable international conferences organised around a basic Pan-African intent or initiative where most of the delegates appeared to be grasping at vague, illusionary cosmic straws. But the real task lies in re-modelling local institutions, politics and aspirations to align more directly with the Pan-African dream.

Among the generation of the so-called South African “born-frees” (born post-1994), a disconcerting form of political parochialism has taken root, encouraged by older political opportunists. Often downplayed is the fact that the anti-apartheid movement had to acquire a global appeal fostered by a robust Pan-Africanism to be truly effective.

There always seems to be a discernible disconnect between dream and reality and these international platforms seemed to be opportunities to indulge in the lambent mirage of the unattainable before we returned to the grim and drab realities of our everyday lives. In chasing after the dream, we get to experience the fleeting joys and headiness of spirituality and ideology all at once.

It appears Pan-Africanism would have loved to work like Zionism, which has a politically, linguisitically, culturally and spiritually unified Israel as its home base. On the other hand, blacks, dispersed as much as ever all around the world, can only claim an Africa splintered as ever by several languages, cultures, faiths, politics, ideologies and (neo)colonialisms, as a possible homeland and even more problematically, an imaginary homeland of the mind.

Embracing our ethnic others

Yet, we cannot afford to succumb to the myopia the situation encourages. The Pan-African dream is a necessary dream and not a costly one. Any appreciable knowledge of African and black diasporic history would immediately reveal this fact.

It is necessary to saddle ourselves with the labours of the local; ensuring that our communities are safe and functional, our schools and health systems work, and that our homesteads are havens of care, decency and productivity. All of this involves unquestionably hard, grinding work. But as we build according to the dictates of the local, we must also ensure that our communities provide comfort and opportunities for our ethnic “others” and black brethren from elsewhere.

The inability to recognise, empathise with, and accept our ethnic others invariably leads to the Hutu-Tutsi genocidal context of 1994 or more recently, Darfur in the 21st century.

And so the conceptual challenge is to locate the cosmopolitan potential deep within the labours of the local. The Indian community activist working assiduously in the traditional Indian settlement of Chatsworth in Durban, South Africa, might be consciously or inadvertently pursuing the Pan-African dream when she embraces racial and ethnic others in the bid to strengthen her community for the good of all.

Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian author and polymath of Yoruba culture never fails to affirm the almost boundless territorial expanse of humanity even as he energetically explores the uniqueness of the Yoruba, his ethnic group. The Yoruba – like the other great West African nationalities, such as the Ibo, Fulani, Asante, Fon, Hausa, Malinke, Wolof, Mende, among others – had been dispersed globally via the transatlantic slave trade. So their descendants can be found in Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Jamaica, Honduras, Colombia, Trinidad and Tabago, Barbados, Brazil and the United States, amongst other countries. During the course of this global dispersal, they bore with them knowledge of their spiritualities and cultures, a considerable part of which continues to thrive until today.

Due to this kind of history, Pan-Africanism ought to be viable and necessary, but the pursuit of the Pan-African dream must be done in conjunction with the labours of the local; that is, building each little community piece by piece until it links up with the next, and the next, always bearing in mind the links between the local and the global, and that in attending to the tortuous demands of the local, the Pan-African dream will only become possible through the empathetic embrace of our ethnic others.

Perhaps the much-trumpeted Southern African humanistic concept of ubuntu has a lot to offer by way of explanation here. Pan-Africanism has always been over-burdened by the imperative of a strategic vision, or the propulsive romanticism of its dream, or else, the purity of its spiritual antecedents. All of these combined largely account for its abstract identity, which is not always what is required to build communities from the bottom. Only when it attains a balance between tactical drudgery and strategic ambition can it acquire renewed significance.

Due to this kind of history, Pan-Africanism ought to be viable and necessary, but the pursuit of the Pan-African dream must be done in conjunction with the labours of the local; that is, building each little community piece by piece until it links up with the next, and the next, always bearing in mind the links between the local and the global…

It is likely that once this balance is struck, life would probably be lived without the sloganeering, braggadocio and the perhaps understandably excessive spiritualism of Pan-Africanism. Perhaps it would then be possible to attain a state of Pan-Africanist nirvana without the rabid ideologisation of Pan-Africanism.

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