File picture: Pexels
File picture: Pexels

How African leaders use the power of social media

By Crispin Adriaanse Time of article published Apr 18, 2021

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Cape Town – Internet shutdowns across Africa have become more prevalent in recent years as usage of social media platforms increases.

In all cases, these blackouts are implemented at the hand of leaders of national governments, particularly during times of social unrest or political contestation, highlighting the power social media users and these platforms possess.

The term internet shutdown commonly refers to a multitude of internet restrictions. Access Now, a non-profit founded in 2009 to defend global digital rights, defines an internet shutdown as an “intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information”.

Usually, the internet in its entirety and all tools which use the internet, such as apps, become useless in these circumstances. In some instances, only specific websites such as Facebook or Twitter, or internet-based apps such as WhatsApp, are blocked, or website speeds are throttled.

Irrespective, it is done by African leaders with the intention of stopping communication and access to information between civil society in a specific area.

People’s reliance on digital communication in 2020 during national Covid-19 lockdowns was unprecedented, yet there were still 29 countries that intentionally imposed 155 partial, slowed or complete internet shutdowns.

Ethiopia tops the list with four instances of internet restrictions. There were also two instances each in Chad, Guinea, Kenya, Sudan and Togo. And there was one instance of intentional internet restrictions each in Algeria, Burundi, Egypt, Mali, Tanzania and Uganda.

On the eve of Uganda’s national election in January 2021, which was uncommonly hotly contested between 76-year-old President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, and his 38-year-old main opposition Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, the internet was shut down for four days, beginning with social media platforms, reported the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), which monitors global internet censorship.

The impact of the government’s action was significant, as digital campaigning was one of the only ways political parties could canvass for votes after physical campaigns were banned due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Ethiopia in July 2020, when the assassination of popular musician and activist Hachalu Hundessa sparked civil unrest, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed implemented a total internet shutdown that was only fully restored after 23 days, Quartz Africa reported at the time.

Once more, in November 2020, when the Ethiopian government launched a military offensive in Tigray in response to an attack on a federal military base in the restive northern region, the internet was shut down in this region.

Global internet watchdog Netblocks believes these actions severely restricted news coverage and transparency on the events in Tigray, and evidence is only now surfacing of potential crimes against humanity committed by multiple actors during this military offensive.

According to the BBC, activists for digital freedom argue that internet shutdowns constitute censorship, whereas governments argue that shutdowns are justified in the interests of national security.

Non-profit media outlet The Conversation states that internet shutdowns in Africa are a threat to both democracy and development on the continent, highlighting the link between access to information and development.

The power of control over information cannot be denied and is perfectly illustrated in the media’s role in prolonging and inciting the 1994 Rwandan genocide by continuously disseminating specific information to its listeners, according to the Mail & Guardian.

Closer to home, in South Africa in 2015, the use of social media to communicate and mobilise supporters during the #FeesMustFall nationwide protests encapsulates how activism on the ground was organised in the digital space.

However, the power of social media can be measured only by the people who use it and their intentions.

Former US diplomat and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst Yaël Eisenstat, during a TED Talk, explained how social media platforms such as Facebook are “manipulating and radicalising so many of us”.

Eisenstat went on to say that “social media companies like Facebook profit off of segmenting us and feeding us personalised content that both validates and exploits our biases”.

African News Agency (ANA)

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