Authoritarians have a love-hate relationship with social media

Facebook, Twitter and the battle for democratic integrity
Facebook, Twitter and the battle for democratic integrity
Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Leaders with authoritarian tendencies and social media don’t mix well. There’s evidence of this in India, and most recently in the US, when Twitter was forced to ban president Donald Trump from his favorite megaphone.

In Uganda, a parallel digital conflict is playing out in quite a different way. Rhetoric similar to that used to justify the Trump Twitter ban—that a country and its citizens must be protected from forces intent on organizing an insurrection—was used by the government to justify blocking access to social media platforms and the internet itself ahead of a contentious election. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, 76, who has ruled the East African country since 1986, has made clear he doesn’t intend to give up power, even as musician-turned-opposition-candidate Robert Kyagulanyi (a.k.a Bobi Wine) garners backing from young Ugandans.

Uganda’s elections often attract attention around the world—usually because the result is always guaranteed to be the same—but this year all eyes are on the country’s battle to control political messaging online. In the weeks leading up to the internet ban, government regulators demanded Google take down several YouTube channels carrying anti-government content (YouTube declined) and Facebook removed mostly pro-government accounts and pages, citing “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” Such defiance from the tech giants was a final straw for Museveni.

Uganda’s internet has now been down for two days, which is neither unprecedented in the country or on the continent. Election-pegged internet shutdowns have become common enough in some African nations that international democracy watchers have added some version of “internet remained stable” as a sign of an election going well.

Few would argue that government-mandated internet shutdowns are preferable to a freely accessible internet. But the events of the past few weeks have shown that neither are many comfortable with private companies or their CEOs wielding that same power over discourse online. Questions about who’s allowed to speak on social media, and whether and how the government or the companies behind these networks should intervene, are difficult. Just as difficult for a 245-year-old democracy as they are for one that’s only had multiparty elections for 25 years.

 Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech, and innovation in your inbox