Weekend edition—Political internet shutdowns, vaccine ethics, Marvel’s new vision

Uganda president Yoweri Museveni election posters in Kampala, Jan. 12, 2021.
Uganda president Yoweri Museveni election posters in Kampala, Jan. 12, 2021.
Image: Reuters/Baz Ratner

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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 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 that 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 nor 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 many are equally uncomfortable 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. —Yinka Adegoke

Five things from Quartz we especially liked

Web of controversy. Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump started a chain reaction that ended with trouble for Parler and a familiar debate over the role of web infrastructure companies. Lila MacLellan argues the actions taken this month by AWS and other internet gatekeepers suggest their neutrality is a false notion, and that we urgently need better rules about “how and when it’s appropriate for private firms to use their power to control the flow of information and ideas.” —Heather Landy, executive editor

A shadow is lurking over India’s vaccine. When a participant in the clinical trials for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine reported an adverse reaction in October, trials were halted in the US and UK. In India, clinical trials for a vaccine made by Bharat Biotech and the Indian National Council for Medical Research weren’t halted even after the death of a participant on Dec. 21. While reading Manavi Kapur’s look at the ethical allegations plaguing India’s homegrown vaccine candidate, I was struck for the millionth time in this pandemic by the importance of transparency to public health. —Kira Bindrim, executive editor

Could America’s SPAC boom cross the Atlantic? Special purpose acquisition companies are the trendiest way for companies to go public in the US. But John Detrixhe reports that Europe would need to make regulatory and tax changes to see a similar spike in SPACs—and in the meantime, institutional investors are likely to keep missing out on promising tech start-ups. The outlook may be different for the post-Brexit UK, which is currently reviewing ways to encourage more IPOs. —Sarah Todd, senior reporter, Quartz at Work

These are the cases in your neighborhood. The spread of Covid-19 in the US is off the charts, literally. As Katie Palmer reports, the original scales and categories created to assess infection rates did not foresee where the US is today. That didn’t stop her, however, from explaining how to think about safety from infection. Additionally, this story is dynamic: Whether you read it today or next month, the figures she cites and the places she references will remain up to date, automatically. —David Yanofsky, Things editor

Disney has a lot riding on Marvel’s weird new show. WandaVision marks the dawn of a new era of superhero content, which encompasses both blockbuster movies and TV shows streaming on Disney+. Adam Epstein explains how crucial these shows will be for Disney’s bottom line, now that theatrical releases and theme park attendance have flatlined. Appropriately, because of a pandemic-induced scheduling snafu, it all begins with a show that’s about as experimental as superhero fare can be. —Nicolás Rivero, reporter

One membership thing that made us 🥺

The pet industrial complex. Dog sweaters, premium cat food, mentally stimulating toys—if you have a furry companion, chances are you’re not afraid to spend a little money on them. That’s because, as our pets have come into our homes and become our de facto children, an entire industry has sprung up around catering to their needs. Check out Oliver Staley’s deep dive into the past, present, and future of spending on pets, though honestly the whole guide is a delight. —Alex Ossola, deputy membership editor

✦ Who’s been a good boy or girl and deserves a special treat? Try a Quartz membership free for seven days.

A brief history of AK-47s

The world’s deadliest weapon. Since the development of the first prototype by Mikhail Timofeyevich Kalashnikov, a Soviet weapons specialist, the design of the AK-47 has been replicated widely, with dozens of knock-off versions manufactured around the world. It has been the weapon of choice for combatants ranging from the Viet Cong to the Taliban. It was used to assassinate Anwar Sadat in 1981 and by ISIS supporters at the Bataclan theater in Paris in 2015. Since World War II, no weapon has killed as many. Take a closer look with the Quartz Weekly Obsession.

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Five things from elsewhere that made us smarter

The dream job doesn’t exist. It’s no surprise that rewarding careers—whether you’re a lighthouse keeper, park ranger, or deep-ocean researcher—come with a lot of work. But doing what you “love” obscures how these jobs often mean low pay, long hours, and little agency. As Clio Chang writes in The New Republic, no matter how much you love what you do, at the end of the day a job is still a job. Perhaps our focus shouldn’t just be about finding meaningful work, but also making sure it’s a decent job that allows us to lead a decent life. —Michelle Cheng, reporter, Quartz at Work

A coup by any other name. Some Americans can’t imagine their democracy could be disrupted from within. Last week’s violent seizure of the Capitol by a mob at the behest of Donald Trump should end these illusions. For Politico, Fiona Hill, a historian of authoritarian regimes and national security official who testified in Trump’s first impeachment, explains clearly how the president’s efforts to overturn the election results and illegally maintain power was in fact a coup attempt. —Tim Fernholz, senior reporter

Delivering more than just packages. The simplistic narratives around business founders can often hide more confusing or questionable aspects of their success. Case in point: the origin story of Tatyana Bakalchuk, the enigmatic founder of Russian retailer Wildberries, who has become the richest woman in the country. For Rest of World, Irina Pankratova and Howard Amos critically examine the path to that Amazon-like achievement while also giving a great explanation of Russia’s complicated e-commerce sector and its political ties. —Karen K. Ho, global finance and economics reporter

The audacity of youth. When Ted Hui, a former Hong Kong politician and pro-democracy activist, became anxious about his future under China’s new draconian security law, he dropped a hint to two young Danish friends that he’d like to visit Copenhagen for an official trip. He didn’t mention his plan to enter self-exile, but he didn’t have to. Sure enough, as Jillian Kay Melchior reports for the Wall Street Journal, a climate crisis “conference” materialized, hastily concocted by the 20-something Danes. —Lila MacLellan, senior reporter, Quartz at Work

What do music rights, whiskey, and insect farms have in common? They’re some of the alternative investments Bloomberg’s Edward Robinson and Charlie Wells came up with for getting through 2021, a year that’s already beset with rock-bottom interest rates and a bubbly stock market. The best part: You don’t have to be super rich to get in on these ideas, which also include restoring wilderness areas. —John Detrixhe, Future of Finance reporter

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, cozy dog sweaters, and insect farm investment schemes to hi@qz.com. Get the most out of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was brought to you by Yinka Adegoke and Liz Webber.