Uganda’s election is a key second for Africa’s web fragmentation — Quartz Africa
On January 11, Facebook and Twitter announced that they had closed a network in Uganda, which is affiliated with the country’s Ministry of Information, from posting fake and duplicate accounts. The platforms said the fake accounts participated in “coordinated spurious behavior” to target public discourse ahead of the elections.
The Uganda Communications Commission quickly closed the internet, including all messaging apps and social media platforms, starting January 12th. This ban sheds light on how authoritarian regimes are likely to wrestle with the power of social media companies: by simply closing them out.
There is an inherent friction when authoritarian government runs parallel to an open, freely accessible internet. The initial wave of internet regulation in Africa was mostly directed against users, with laws against hate speech and misinformation and the introduction of digital taxes. The second wave of laws regulating the internet is now targeting platforms by making requirements.
Given the track record of how many African governments have regulated freedom of expression, citizens should feel uncomfortable. It is clear that communications agencies will be content to exert increasing influence over citizens through internet shutdowns as they continue to view social media from the same perspective as traditional media, even though the former are much more difficult to control.
Shutdowns aside, platforms may be asked to set up local offices in countries to meet legal content removal requirements, or to host all data about citizens in the country of origin. The situation in Uganda shows a very vivid scenario of how authoritarianism will drive the rise of a spinning internet on the African continent.
Big tech meets big government
The drama that has unfolded in Uganda since the January 14 elections is a unique escalation of tension between an African government and major US technology companies. The debate about what should and should not be on social media platforms and how content should be moderated is at the fore of the dispute.
Since 2016, Facebook has been working with a global network of independent fact checkers to identify and reduce the spread of misinformation on its platform. Unsurprisingly, these efforts conflict with authoritarian governments trying to control the message.
After Yoweri Museveni was declared the election winner, Facebook, through its fact-checking arm in Uganda, Pesacheck, incorrectly flagged a post by Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta who congratulated Museveni as a fake. Despite the withdrawal of the action, it was a critical misstep that played the Ugandan government into the hands of the supposed arrogance of social media companies.
Pesacheck’s move was important to increase the transparency of the fact check for Facebook users. Still, one problem was highlighted: Facebook has stepped up its moderation and fact-checking efforts. What if it inevitably steps on the toes of African governments, accustomed to controlling the narrative? It is a problem that is likely to create a very different Internet than the continent.
Like it or not, social media companies have amassed an enormous amount of wealth and power in Africa. You are the arbiter of truth. When they outsource tasks like moderation and fact-checking to contractors, that authority is actually shared with them. And having the power to decide what is true and what is false and what people can and cannot see is seen by many as a political weapon.
How tech companies respond
The attempts by African governments to regulate social media and the internet are a means of wrestling with this external editorial power. But it is a power that their laws can find difficult to deal with, especially since companies are barely physically present in their jurisdiction.
To that end, one can understand why the fashionable option for authoritarian governments around the world to restrict the power of privately owned platforms is to simply block access entirely. While internet services returned to Uganda on January 18, the social media ban remained in place to this day (February 10). Websites were only accessible to Ugandans through unblocked virtual private networks (VPNs). People who use VPNs face regular arrest threats. Internet shutdowns and social media bans are about reducing control.
For many who depend on these services, life has become much more difficult. However, given the economic cost of these types of shutdowns, the move comes at a cost to the Ugandan government.
The tech giants are unlikely to be able to turn to the US government as diplomatic relations with Uganda are currently poor. The Ugandan government has accused the US of meddling in its affairs and undermining the will of the people. It has also equated Facebooks with what President Museveni calls American “arrogance”.
It’s not that easy for US platforms to just walk away. Africa’s population and the growth in internet usage make it a huge market. And then there is the question of who will step in. It wouldn’t be surprising to see trade deals in the future where platforms are exchanged across other goods and services. After all, China has long figured out censorship systems that authoritarian governments have liked. In addition, Chinese cyber diplomacy is already producing results in Africa. Uganda already operates a robust surveillance system developed by Huawei, which can be used to counter dissent after protests against the government.
We should remember that social media giants are for-profit companies and cannot rely on them to push back the governments of the time. A lot of platforms will hire people who will say the right things. And fact-checking organizations and moderation companies are not devoid of political interests. Facebook has already had to deal with the political prejudices of its moderators in the USA.
It is possible that a spin internet will be the inevitable fate of the internet and that we will face a future driven by authoritarianism versus democratic ideals and exploitation versus protection.
But how the Balkanization of the Internet in Africa will take place depends on the type of content that Big Tech can distribute on its platforms as well as what is keeping it away. With more than 17 more elections in Africa this year, much more fighting like the one we saw in Uganda is on the way. How the tech giants behave today will have a huge impact on public discourse, the freedoms we care about, and the open internet as a whole. Democracy is at stake.