In Africa, dictators cling to power through social media

In early 2021, Facebook (Meta) disabled more than 20 accounts linked to the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Soon after, Twitter also followed suit, shutting down 11% of some 3,500 accounts around the world that allegedly disseminated pro-government propaganda. Thus, in total, nearly 440 Ugandan social media accounts close to the Ugandan government have so far been blocked by social media networks in the East African country.

Twitter and Facebook accuse the Ugandan government of using social media as a tool to manipulate public opinion, spread disinformation and intimidate the opposition. Facebook also said that as part of its strategy, the Information Ministry was using “fake and duplicate accounts” for propaganda purposes.

A new favorite tool used by autocratic rulers

When Facebook intervened, President Museveni’s press secretary Don Wanyama, whose Facebook and Instagram accounts were also suspended, accused Facebook of trying to influence Uganda’s 2021 elections: “Shame on foreign powers that think they can impose a puppet government on Uganda by disabling the online accounts of NRM supporters, ”Wanyama wrote on Twitter at the time. Twitter, however, said in a statement that “(i) in most cases accounts have been suspended for various violations of our platform manipulation and spam policies.”

According to an analysis by the Oxford Internet Institute, the spread of disinformation induced by political organizations on social media has increased sharply in recent years. The report states that in 2017 disinformation campaigns were carried out in 28 countries. Three years later, that figure had risen to 81 countries. “The spread of fake news is a real problem,” Ugandan human rights activist Nicholas Opiyo said in an DW interview. “This method is gaining ground in countries whose leaders are desperately struggling to maintain their image and reputation on social media.” According to Opiyo, this involves the use of bots and trolls, computer programs and paid users who use fake accounts to flood social media with messages favorable to the government.

Bans across Africa

In Tanzania, Uganda’s neighbor, Twitter took similar action, suppressing 268 accounts for spreading “malicious reports” directed against members and supporters of the Tanzanian human rights organization Fichua Tanzania and its founder. Meanwhile, similar reports are also surfacing in West Africa: In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari “criticized #EndSARS activists in June and called for action against them. However, Twitter dropped the call, and in response, Buhari’s post the government banned Nigerians from accessing the micro-blogging site, ”said Franziska Ulm-Düsterhöft, Africa expert at Amnesty International in Germany. DW.

The #EndSARS movement was started by social media-savvy young Nigerians, who sought to pressure the government to abolish Nigeria’s controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit. The campaign also called for better global governance in West Africa’s largest democracy.

Restrictions on social networks: “overreaction” of elites

Back in Uganda, the government in the capital Kampala also tried to make it harder for Ugandans to get independent information online by imposing mobile data taxes. The government is also not shy about temporarily shutting down social media, as it did in the run-up to the presidential election a year ago.

At the time, Ugandan Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa initially justified the move by saying that Facebook and Twitter had shut down government accounts, passing off the social media blackout as a retaliatory measure. However, after the January 16 election, Kutesa said the shutdown was “a necessary step to stop the biting language and incitement to violence.”

Ugandan political consultant and journalist Angelo Izama describes the move more as an “overreaction” rooted in deeply held patriarchal beliefs. Izama says that “(the) political leadership, especially here in sub-Saharan Africa, comes from a generation where society has been structured so that the child does not contradict the father.”

“If he did, he was punished. And that is the relationship between the state and the citizen,” said Izama. DW. But he says society is changing, he says, leaving these political elites in the dust. Young people in particular, he points out, are now able, thanks to the Internet, to react immediately to laws and prohibitions, and to make their views known about the performance of government or private institutions.

Social media monitoring

In 2021, social media shutdowns also took place in Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Senegal, Congo, Zambia, Chad, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Sudan. Again, the reasons were mostly political, with protests, elections and political unrest leading to information shutdowns across the continent with no end in sight: “It will take some time for those in power understand that young people today expect them to sit down and talk to them, “said political consultant Angelo Izama.” It will also take time for those in power to stop using surveillance and control as a means of countering criticism. “

Meanwhile, some governments go even further and directly target their citizens by exploiting their affinity with the Internet: “Spyware is bought by governments and installed specifically on smartphones,” said Ulm-Düsterhöft, an Amnesty expert. DW. “We documented this last year for Togo and Rwanda, for example. First, apps are downloaded via email attachments, then software installs and accesses microphones, cameras and social media.” Ulm-Düsterhöft warns users not to download unfamiliar apps, take a close look at questionable social media accounts, and contact app operators when in doubt.

Risks and Opportunities

According to a report released by the South African Institute of International Affairs, the shutdown of the internet and the arrest of government critics voicing their views on social media are signs that several governments in sub-Saharan Africa are becoming increasingly in addition autocratic. In Uganda, author Kakwenza Rukirabashaija posted comments critical of the government on social media, which led to his detention, during which he was allegedly tortured by security agents.

Human rights activist Opiyo says that with reports like these, it becomes clear that the earlier view of social media as “a liberating force for democracy” is fading: “(N) now we see the dangers associated with it, and how social media can be used to undermine democratic processes. Social media is becoming another tool of oppression. Opiyo believes this is why social media regulation is becoming necessary. But it also calls on users to act responsibly and remember that not everything on social media is true.

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