Sitting in front of a ring light and a phone affixed to a tripod, Bright Ofosu Amoabeng prepared to once again host a live weekly discussion on Instagram. Amoabeng’s show, which he streams from his home in Accra, Ghana, focuses on debunking disinformation about the LGBTQ+ community and sharing resources.
The topic on a recent day in April: What does courage mean for queer and trans persons of faith?
For Amoabeng, the livestream was its own act of courage. Social media has become a crucial safe space in a country where homophobic sentiment is on the rise. In 2021, the newly opened office of the local LGBTQ+ organization that Amoabeng volunteers for, LGBT+ Rights Ghana, was swiftly raided by the police and closed down. “Right now, it is unsafe, the environment is very hostile, so you cannot do advocacy in person and physically,” Amoabeng said.
Now, his online safe space is also facing its own threat: A new proposed law would not only make it illegal to identify as LGBTQ+ or as an ally, but would also prohibit using social media to positively discuss LGBTQ+ life or advocate for the community. The bill, which is expected to pass Parliament — albeit in some modified form — would punish violators with prison sentences between five and 10 years.
The bill would also make social media platforms liable for posts by their users — and that’s not the only problem tech companies face if this law passes. American tech giants including Twitter and Google have set up shop in the capital Accra in recent years. Now, LGBTQ+ advocates in Ghana are calling on those companies to use their global clout to kill the bill.
Their calls are being met with silence.
Google and Twitter did not respond to questions about whether they planned to oppose the bill, and a Twitter spokesperson told Protocol that “there are no changes to our plans in Ghana at this time.” Meta, which doesn’t have a physical presence in Ghana but would be subject to the law if it passes, also wouldn’t say whether it opposes the bill. Adaora Ikenze, Facebook’s head of Public Policy in Anglophone West Africa said, “We want the millions of people in Ghana and around the world who use our services to be able to connect, share and express themselves freely and safely, and will continue to protect their ability to do that on our platforms.”
For local activists, it’s not enough. “They have some influence, so we were expecting them to leverage this influence to argue against the bill,” said Danny Bediako, executive director of Rightify Ghana, a local LGBTQ+ organization. “This is a bill that mentions Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We were hoping that they would do more than just keeping quiet.”
Ghana as a base
Ghana has rigorously marketed itself as a safe destination for investment and tourism. It is an English-speaking country that has achieved relative political and economic stability compared to its neighbors. In recent years, it has leveraged its historical connections to the trans-Atlantic slave trade to court Black Americans to visit, invest and establish residency.
Tech companies have also been drawn to the country as they look to expand in West Africa and the continent at large. Google set up its Africa AI center in Accra in 2018, and GE opened an office there in 2014. In April 2021, Twitter announced that it would set up its first Africa office in Ghana, saying, “As a champion for democracy, Ghana is a supporter of free speech, online freedom, and the Open Internet, of which Twitter is also an advocate.” The move came after co-founder Jack Dorsey visited the country on a tour of the continent in 2019.
A woman makes copies at the Google Artificial Intelligence office in Accra, Ghana. Photo: Cristina Aldehuela/AFP via Getty Images
To activists like Bediako, who uses a pseudonym to protect his identity, that statement sounded naive. It came weeks after the office of an LGBTQ+ organization was shut down, and 21 queer activists were arrested at a human rights training conference soon after. Now, Bediako’s organization, as well as U.S.-based organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are pressuring social media companies, particularly those with a presence in the country, to scuttle the bill before it goes any further.
There’s good reason to believe they would have leverage. Twitter’s decision to put down roots in Ghana was championed from the highest levels of the government, with Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo saying at the time, “This is the start of a beautiful partnership between Twitter and Ghana, which is critical for the development of Ghana’s hugely important tech sector.”
And while specific numbers are hard to come by for the recent tech investment in Ghana, last year, Google announced that it would be investing $1 billion in its Africa operations over the next five years.
The proposed law runs counter to tech companies’ professed belief in free speech, but Bediako argues it’s not just a matter of principle: It’s also about protecting local employees. “Do they think that their staff will be safe in Ghana?” Bediako said.
The calls for a more public stance from Big Tech are also being echoed by the EFF. “I do think that these entities need to come out and say exactly what their position is on this legislation, and what they are going to do to protect users,” said Dave Maass, director of Investigations at EFF.
The Ghanaian bill adds to the growing list of restrictive online speech bills that tech giants are facing around the world. From Russia to India, they often require companies to censor and take down posts prohibited by governments. Tech companies that have attempted to oppose local laws have faced office raids and threats of jail time for their employees. Often, they choose to comply. Even in the U.S., tech giants have recently been reluctant to make overt statements about Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
"Right now, it is unsafe, the environment is very hostile, so you cannot do advocacy in person and physically,” Amoabeng said. Photo: Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu/Protocol
And yet, tech companies do sometimes make moral judgements when it comes to where they do business. Facebook, Twitter and Google do not operate in China because of censorship concerns, and in the past, companies including Google, Apple and PayPal have been vocal in their opposition to anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in North Carolina.
In the case of Ghana, they have an opportunity to push back before it’s too late.
Whatever happens with the law, Amoabeng said not even the threat of a long prison term will deter him from using social media for advocacy. “I have come to a point in my self-acceptance and development stage that I feel I cannot go back to using burner accounts,” he said. “We are the rainbow community, we are relentless. We are willing to give in the fight.”
The question is whether the platforms he relies on will allow his voice to be heard — or whether they’ll use their own voices to ensure it can be.
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.