OPINION: Digital colonialism on the African continent

Photo: Bloomberg

Photo: Bloomberg

Published Oct 16, 2018


In this article, three writers - Silas L Marker, Mads Vestergaard and Vincent F Hendricks - from the Centre for Information and Bubble Studies (CIBS) at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark explore what the digital age is poised to inflict on Africa if Africa fails to wake up, especially if African statisticians fail to bring this matter to the attention of politicians. On our part as African statisticians, through the Libreville resolution on data revolution, we raised this matter with our policymakers and will continue to do so. Pali Lehohla invited the CIBS in his column to discuss what the implications of the digital age are for Africa.

JOHANNESBURG – Earlier colonialists came by boats to "the new world" and expanded their empires by building railroads, farms and infrastructure. Today's colonialists are digital; they implement communication infrastructures such as social media in order to harvest data and turn it into money. This threatens the upcoming democracies in Africa, as they experience explosions of fake news and misinformation with tribal violence and democratic unrest as dire consequences.

What is digital colonialism?

“Digital colonialism” designates the decentralised extraction of data from citizens without their explicit consent through communication networks developed and owned by Western tech companies. This structure has four primary actors:

- The tech companies providing the technology and infrastructure for the data extraction, ad targeting and ad distribution.

- The advertising and consultancy firms which use the technology provided by (1) to target different groups with highly personalised ads and messages.

- The local companies, parties and organisations who pay (2) to help them impose their different agendas for the respective countries.

- The citizens who play both the role as data sources for (1) and target groups for (2) and (3).

For the tech companies, the citizens’ data are just like natural resources: they may be extracted and sold as commodities to commercial and political interests who need to know their target groups, so that they are able to push political messages, agendas or sell products to citizens.

The very core of the business model is already well known from the West: the tech companies provide seemingly free communication services and search engines, track the user around the platforms (and almost everywhere else on the internet - eg via the "social plug-ins") in order to enable advertisers to target consumers and voters with personal ads based on their behavioural patterns.

Social networks like Facebook, which is getting more and more widespread on the African continent, are key tools to reach the public and set the agenda, eg in elections. But what is going viral is not always true.

In Kenya, the fake news webpage FP News falsely reported that the opposition leader Raila Odinga orchestrated attacks on white-owned ranches. According to experts, fake news and misinformation like this might have been the cause of widespread tribal violence in the last two Keynan elections, where thousands of Kenyans died and thousands got displaced.

Misinformation is not only a problem in Kenya. In February 2018, a fake report of herdsmen attacking and killing people along the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway in the Ogun State in Nigeria went viral on Nigerian social media. And in June, fake pictures started to circulate on the Nigerian social media, falsely claiming to show new tribal violence, though the pictures were two to seven years old.

The social and political consequences of these unfortunate eventualities concern citizens and pose threats to their self-determination and security. However, to the tech giants and consultancy firms providing and using the communication technology to harvest data and target audiences, it is just business.

This year, executives from Cambridge Analytica (CA) were caught on tape bragging about how they ran “about every element of his (President Kenyatta’s) campaign” in Kenya. “We’d stage the whole thing,” the managing director of CA’s political division, Mark Turnbull, says in the video.

Countries such as Kenya and Nigeria have no or very limited data protection laws, which makes citizen data a veritable (and profitable) buffet for the digital colonisers. It is easy to harvest data and to use it for targeting the right groups with the messages that feed the strongest mobilising emotions: fear, anger and hate.

As Lucy Pardon, Privacy International policy officer, notes: The potential data-gathering could be extremely intrusive, including sensitive personal data, such as a person's ethnicity.

In other words, digital colonialism is threatening to turn young, developing democracies post-factual (https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-00813-0) with more data-driven misinformation and manipulation resulting in more tribal violence and instability.

The new digital colonial actors who feed, monetise and profit from diversion and polarisation may only be effectively resisted by a united front of actors working together for political self-determination, democracy and development of the African continent on its own terms.

A unity of forces to avoid that a continent in which citizens historically have been forced into cast-iron chains risks a future in invisible chains consisting of 0s and 1s.

The views and expressions are not necessarily that of Independent Media.


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