Internet shutdowns have emerged as an extreme, but recurring, practice to control online communications. In Africa, both autocratic and democratic governments have increasingly resorted to shutdowns in response to concerns about electoral disinformation or the potential of online hate speech to incite violence. However, partial or nationwide network disruptions have also occurred on occasions where no threat seemed imminent, including peaceful demonstrations and national exams.
Internet shutdowns seem disproportionate and abusive, especially from the perspective of citizens and end users denied opportunities by a power both arrogant and insecure or incompetent. When leaders long past their time in office, such as Cameroon’s Paul Biya or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, assert their need and right to enforce repressive measures to guarantee peaceful elections or prevent the threat of outside interference, we see aging, despotic men holding on at power. But are all their claims illegal, just cover-ups to maintain control? What if these – and similar – arguments did not come from them, but from more respected sources?
What if it was a respected leader like Thomas Sankara who argued the need for this kind of response? Sankara was a revolutionary and Pan-Africanist who led Burkina Faso from 1983 until his assassination in 1987. Nigerian literary scholar Abiola Irele wrote that Sankara was “a leader with the genuine interest of the people at heart”, who led “a revolution in the true sense of the word.” His stature and dedication was recognized not only by his admirers, but also by his rivals, who saw how his leadership style and commitment to socialism served as an inspiration to others on the continent. As a US embassy cable acknowledged, following his “example of simplicity, austerity and honesty,” Burkina Faso had become “highly regarded for the lack of corruption in government.”
Examining internet shutdowns through Sankara’s life and thoughts illuminates an often overlooked aspect of these communication blocks: how these measures are a response to the overwhelming power of for-profit social media companies to enable unprecedented forms of interference in national politics—without taking responsibility for it.
This imbalance has been evident in whistleblower leaks and disclosures, adding to a growing body of evidence demonstrating Big Tech’s negligence and bias. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has referred to the strategy and behavior of her former employer as hypocritical, expanding into new markets under the banner of “building community” and “bringing the world closer together.” In practice, social media companies have avoided taking responsibility and acting when interactions between their platforms and local politics sowed and strengthened division and contradictions. Sankara would have called it a manifestation of imperialism – a term that has largely fallen out of fashion, but whose tenets aptly describe the behavior of social media companies – acting in a way that seeks to favor the center of this power, without regard to the consequences. in the periphery.
The profitability model for social media companies is built on attracting and retaining users’ attention, even when that means promoting edgy and polarizing content. Aware of this feature, but trying to respond to waves of scandals and criticism, companies have invested in systems to remove hate speech and misinformation. But these efforts reflect deep inequalities and have been driven largely by financial incentives and disincentives.
The vast majority of content moderation focuses on wealthy markets, such as the United States or the European Union, which are in a position to compel companies to act. There are a few exceptions, such as geopolitical events that are US foreign policy priorities (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for example), or stories that stimulate global opinion, such as the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar. But in 2020, 87 percent of the time allocated to training disinformation detection algorithms focused on English content, while only 9 percent of users were English speakers. For resource-poor languages, including many across Africa, the investment of resources and time can be measured in decimals. As a result, as Haugen has emphasized, the fragile countries end up using the least secure version of the platform: one with little or no content moderation.
These double standards in dealing with core and peripheral markets are also evident in the way Big Tech companies openly interact with actors deemed powerful and resourceful. While Facebook has been forced to comply with Germany’s demanding and costly requests to remove content that violates its national laws, it has largely dismissed demands from African leaders and lawmakers. This reflects another form of imbalance, which is the very different ability of policy makers and legislators in the Global North and the Global South to understand the workings of large tech companies and the expertise and resources to both engage and challenge them. Many European countries have specialized government agencies that monitor online content and experienced lawyers ready to challenge companies. In September, the European Union opened an office in Silicon Valley with the express intention of expanding the capacity of EU regulators to engage US social media companies, an advantage few African countries can afford.
An example of the struggle of African countries to engage with the rules set and implemented in California came just before the elections in Uganda in early 2021. Uganda’s Communications Commission asked Google to remove seventeen YouTube accounts they accused of inciting violence, endangered national security, and causes economic sabotage. Google declined this request, citing the lack of a court order. Nicholas Opiyo, a human rights lawyer, argued that the Ugandan government’s approach to Google revealed a lack of understanding of how major social media companies operate and how content is judged. He noted that the government can’t just point to a statute and say the company is violating it. “Digital companies operate on the basis of legitimate court orders,” he said The Observer. “In other words, there must be due process to deal with violations of the law. No digital company will take such a letter seriously. It will be put in the bin immediately.”
Meanwhile, during this pre-election period, Facebook took down a number of government pages for engaging in “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”, despite allegations that the opposition was using similar tactics. The move was made on the recommendation of the Digital Forensic Research Lab, a non-governmental organization focused on opposition claims and concerns. The government saw Facebook’s actions as biased and an unequal application of rules, arguing that the company “took (take) sides” against the government. As Museveni argued, “We cannot tolerate the arrogance of someone who comes here to decide who is good and who is bad.” The internet was shut down during the election period and Facebook remained banned for more than six months.
These arguments are not intended to justify or condone internet shutdowns. But recognizing suspensions also as forms of contestation—rather than just abuses by despotic leaders—can open up alternative avenues for responding to them. This is where we see the possibilities that a leader like Sankara offers. While many African leaders have – in the words of the Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe – adopted and fetishized the concept of the nation-state from the colonial powers, even borrowing terms “such as ‘national interest’, ‘risks’, ‘threats’ or ‘national security’. . . (which) refers to a philosophy of movement and a philosophy of space based entirely on the existence of an enemy in a world of hostility”, this need not be the case. Rather, Mbembe suggests that African nations must abandon these concepts for “our own long-standing traditions of flexible, networked sovereignty.” Mbembe’s conclusions would agree well with Sankara’s precepts.
It is in the face of a world of hostility that internet shutdowns are invoked by leaders as legitimate and proportionate responses, but it may be through reliance on network sovereignty that internet shutdowns are rendered redundant. Networked sovereignty has its roots in pre-colonial Africa, when long-distance trade was one of the drivers of cultural and political exchange. Yet it is surprisingly related to basic ideas on the internet. Mbembe notes that at the time these networks were more important than borders and that what mattered most was the extent to which flows crossed other flows.
As decolonization took root, newly independent African states assumed a monopoly on governmental functions almost immediately, as the colonial authorities transferred power to the local ruling elites. This meant that these leaders used the media – including print, radio and television – as tools of state and nation-building, to create a type of authority that could not be achieved in previous revolutions. Control of the media in the immediate postcolonial period combined authentic community-building projects, such as large-scale language and literacy projects, with self-serving tactics to maintain power for the few.
Until recently, the ability of African governments to regulate media in a way that ensures they adhere to certain national standards seemed to be within reach via coercion, collusion or negotiation (with the possible exception of some international broadcasters). However, social networking platforms, which are immensely popular and evoke powerful images of tools for activism and contestation, have remained inaccessible to national authorities, violating this control mechanism.
Sankara’s pan-Africanism and Mbebe’s image of Africa’s networked sovereignty could offer a stronger and longer-lasting response to this loss of control and deep inequality. Facebook and Google are betting on the exponential growth of data use and production on the continent, financing two of the largest undersea cables off the coast of Africa. As a result, greater coordination and solidarity between African leaders and collectives—of users, companies, and entrepreneurs—could force powerful technological actors to a negotiating table. If the institutions for regional cooperation or the African Union could offer joint guidelines to counter online speech that incites violence, they could not only gain more leverage with the tech giants, but also push back against members who argue that internet blackouts are the only means available to to stop violent or destabilizing speech.
Carnegie’s Digital Democracy Network is a global group of leading researchers and experts who examine the relationship between technology, politics, democracy and civil society. The network is dedicated to generating original analysis and enabling cross-border knowledge sharing to fill critical research and policy gaps.
#time #review #framing #internet #shutdowns #Africa