Last week, Ghana, widely acknowledged as one of Africa’s role models for best democratic practice, caught democracy watchdogs off guard when the country’s police chief announced the government intends to shut down social media on voting day in November. The shutdown is to take place from 5 am to 7 pm “to ensure social media are not used to send misleading information that could destabilize the country.”
While it is a surprise Ghana is making this move, it has become more common for several other African countries who haven’t been as courteous as to give voters notice before curtailing the use of social media and the right to free speech around elections.
Deji Olukotun of Internet freedom advocacy group Access Now, notes Ghana “was clearly looking to what other countries have done.” Citizens in Ethiopia, Congo, Chad, Uganda, and elsewhere have found elections are a particularly popular time to crack down on social media.
Consider Uganda, which experienced its second social media shut down in three months in the days before president Yoweri Museveni was sworn in for his controversial fifth term. The previous time Ugandans faced a social media shutdown was on election day in February. People resorted to using virtual private networks to get round the restrictions to use Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp.
While social media may seem frivolous to those in the West, these platforms have become a critical part of political mobilization in Africa. According to analysis, Twitter accounts from Africa tweet more about politics than accounts from other continents.
It’s also widely recognized that the #BringBackOurGirls movement attracted unprecedented international attention and mobilized support throughout Nigeria and beyond to recognize the Boko Haram crisis in the country’s north east.
Less well publicized is the role social media and the #NigeriaDecides hashtag played in helping the country to stage free and fair elections last year. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) encouraged citizens to use the hashtag to report on voting conditions across the country, to “provide a check on the legitimacy of the … elections.” The 10,000 election observers across the country not only engaged in their traditional monitoring responsibilities, but also followed the social media posts to identify and address problems at polling stations. A report by Demos found that more than 12 million tweets about the Nigerian election were posted.
Like in Kenya and South Africa, social media has continued to play an important role in Nigeria’s political landscape, where users express their support, outrage, and confusion over daily events and detail developments in the country. The frontlines in the fight to preserve free speech and promote democracy may just be the smartphones in the pockets of African voters.
Leaders of other African countries seem to fear what they see as the destabilizing potential of this technology—and have sought to limit it. This attempt to stymie communication is hardly novel—traditional media outlets have long been subject to government censorship and control.
In Uganda, for example, radio is the primary source of news for an estimated 90% of Ugandans and “a large number of radio stations … are owned by either government or local political leaders, who often simply threaten to fire journalists who step out of line.” Controlling the flow of information is an authoritarian tactic; while the stifling of social media may seem petty, it is a clear extension of an age-old pattern of repression into a new technological sphere.
Countries that have limited social media have typically justified their suppression by citing ‘security concerns.’ Uganda’s recent blackout was justified on the grounds that visiting heads of state for the swearing in provided the opportunity for terrorist attacks, despite this threat being relatively limited and generally unconnected to the availability of social media. Similar logic was behind the temporary shutdown of telecommunications and the internet the day before the Congo-Brazzaville’s March presidential elections, for “reasons of security and national safety.” Ethiopia’s vast internet surveillance program and aggressive persecution is justified under the auspices of a counter-terrorism bill enacted in 2009.
Couching the suppression of free speech in the language of national security not only makes it easier to imprison and intimidate activists, it also makes it more difficult for the international community to apply pressure for reform. In fact, in some circles, the seeming commitment to countering terrorist groups and bolstering national security makes these increasingly autocratic countries seem like valuable strategic partners on the sub-continent.
Globally, governments and activists are grappling with the enormous opportunities that new media outlets present and are struggling to articulate what role these technologies should play in the political landscape. Access Now’s Olukotun notes that these sorts of crackdowns have tangible economic ramifications; he asserts that they’re “a blunt instrument that hurts everyone.”
By tracing the decline in mobile money transactions—popular across Sub-Saharan Africa—Access Now estimates that Uganda lost $25 million on election day. Olukotun underlines that this is just the baseline economic impact, emphasizing that $25 million is just a “ballpark figure—it’s not even looking at the knock on effects of shutting down communication.” Though this debate is ongoing, complex, and contentious, it is critical that we not allow autocratic governments to curtail the right to free speech on these platforms — citing amorphous security concerns without evidence of a tangible threat cannot be tolerated.