Somaliland is blocking social media to keep its election free of “fake news”

Vulnerable to fake news?
Vulnerable to fake news?
Image: Reuters/Mohamed Guled
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Somaliland, the self-declared republic in northwestern Somalia, has announced it will restrict access to social media sites during its upcoming presidential elections.

The electoral commission has asked phone companies to block more than a dozen social media outlets in order to limit hate speech and “fake news”. It includes Facebook, Twitter,WhatsApp, Snapchat, Viber, Flickr, Instagram, LinkedIn, Duo, Google Plus, among others.

The commission blamed what it called “external forces” for spreading “inciteful and tribalistic” information (in Somali) and decried its inability to control the proliferation of these messages. As a result, the sites will be down starting from when voting ends on Nov. 13 up until the results are declared.

“As the election commission, we have given telecommunication companies an order to block social media sites and they have agreed to it,” spokesman Said Ali Muse said. Muse also allayed fears that there would be a complete internet shutdown during the vote, saying they had received concerns from citizens and private business owners.

Internet shutdowns have become much more frequent in Africa since 2015, with governments either totally cutting off the internet or blocking access to platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter. In 2016 alone, 11 countries disrupted internet communications before crucial elections in Uganda, during national exams in Algeria, and anti-government protests in Ethiopia. In 2017, Cameroon instituted a 93-day blackout in its English-speaking regions, and Togo shut down the internet to stifle protests against president Faure Gnassingbé.

The decision to limit access is partly incongruous with Somaliland’s stature as a small, but stable region of about 3.5 million people, with strong institutions that conduct free and open elections. After seceding from Somalia in 1991, the region has held successive elections where the defeated have always conceded and peacefully transferred power.

The recent electioneering period even kicked off with a presidential debate, with the three candidates vying to replace president Ahmed Mohamed Silanyo presenting their policies to more than 700,000 voters on national television. The government has even used iris recognition technology to create a more efficient voter registry.

But the move to block social media is casting a shadow on all those efforts, observers and human rights organizations say, arguing that access to information was crucial for a free and fair vote. The block is also part of a continent-wide trend, where governments cut off the internet or social media before or during crucial elections or protests—affecting not only officials revenues but also longterm worker productivity and supply chains.

“The way to counter fake news or pre-empt violence is not to censor, but to ensure that those in authority disseminate accurate and credible information, including via social media and other channels,” says Angela Quintal, the Africa Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Rooble Mohamed, a communications specialist in the capital Hargeisa, tells Quartz the misinformation and propaganda circulating in these mediums has created a lot of mistrust and confusion. The fake stories include one stating that Somalia’s president Mohamed Farmaajo gave $3 million dollars to the Waddani party in Somaliland, besides a fake letter circulated online from the United Nations Somalia representative to Farmaajo regarding the region’s vote. Given these circumstances, Mohamed argues, “it makes perfect sense” for authorities to block the outlets so as to avoid unrest.

But for business owners like Deeq Mohamed, the internet and social media are an essential part of how they operate, promote, and provide services. Somaliland has a budding start-up culture and is home to the first ever Somali tech accelerator, Innovate Ventures. Mohamed, who recently launched the food delivery service Gulivery says they might use virtual private networks to avoid the blackout.

But for now, he adds, “we have to cancel the social media marketing drive we had planned for this upcoming week.”