It is undeniable that information shared online has great power to influence and mobilize the masses within a short period of time. However, we cannot ignore the clear violation of digital rights and the freedom of expression when people experience government-mandated interferences in their online activities. Internet shutdowns deprive people of free public access to information; it interrupts economic activities and limits communication. Governments across the continent have begun using social media for surveillance and repression of citizens. This has also given the opportunity for the detection and silencing of political activists and online critics.The increasing power of the internet makes it an effective medium for enabling of civil mobilization and revolutionary action which can easily challenge poor governance.

Fear expressed over this by political leadership on the continent has resulted in internet shutdowns in specified and targeted regions or communities. Internet service providers are unable to interfere with these processes or go against government orders due to their legally binding nature. As a result, this practice has been used both effectively and ineffectively to prevent the coverage of civil unrest and human rights violations within the different sectors and communities across the continent.

Media and communication networks based online should be able to operate exclusively from the government in any given state. The lack of this independence promotes limited transparency and censorship of highly politicized issues. In multi-party states, opposition parties are disadvantaged by this censorship as they have little to no control over their voice and representation online and on social media platforms.

In order to help ensure that information circulated online is more authentic, it is important to have a frequent and consistent review of online platforms and the content they share. However, this does not mean the filtering process should include the retraction of information that reflects the truth of more unfavorable conditions and situations that people are experiencing within the continent. Freedom of the media and online communication should be encouraged as it is a key element in promoting democracy in any given state. It encourages individuals to openly address social, political, and economic issues that affect their livelihood and it facilitates dialogue between governments and state citizens. This allows them to bring important issues to the attention of decision-makers, thereby allowing government to take measures for the attainment of progressive change and development.

The internet and social media have given the modern individual a voice to influence change. Social Media has also proven itself an effective medium for political campaigning, where parties and candidates can engage with members of their communities, share ideological values and address the fundamentals of their manifestos. African countries can capitalize on the large scale and efficiency of the internet by introducing online voting systems. This can allow nationals based in the diaspora to practice their voting rights with greater ease and convenience. This will also work around COVID-19 restrictions which have posed new obstacles to traditional public voting systems.

Despite this new challenge to internet connectivity, government-mandated internet shutdowns will not silence the people. The internet and social media encompass great opportunities, promote freedom of expression and promote transparency of governments to their citizens. Internet shutdowns are only short-term mechanisms to limit communication and this practice cannot fully silence the African people. Internet-based engagement and communication should rather be used for the promotion of democracy and to aid the increase in quality of life within the continent.

Perhaps, authoritarians in Africa can learn one or two things, aimed at realizing that social media can enhance good governance which may make their stay in power more comfortable than they imagine.

Nicole Kahari & Chantelle Bakasa are students of International Relations at Africa University

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Published On: Tue, Apr 13th, 2021

Opinion: Authoritarianism in the advent of Social Media in Africa

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Nicole Kahari & Chantelle Bakasa

Africa has seen an exponential rise in the occurrence of government-ordered internet shutdowns. What was once a free and convenient medium of communication has now been weaponized and censored to benefit the minority elite albeit with power.

Modern-day communication is highly dependent on the availability and convenience of the internet. Social media has become the lifeblood of the contemporary world, from politics, economics and even religion, the proliferation of digital media technologies has altered the information and communication spaces. However, the advent of social media has ruffled feathers in the corridors of power, precisely in Africa where the neo-patrimonial versions of governance in the post colony make leaders think they are omnipotent. This explains unjustified internet shutdowns whenever African leaders feel their positions of power being threatened.

October 2020, Tanzania blocked social media access during elections. Ethiopia, Guinea, Burundi, Chad, and Zimbabwe are amongst other African countries to join the trend of social media restrictions and internet shutdowns. One of the most recent shutdowns happened in January 2021 during Uganda’s presidential election period. When the internet was restored, social media was blocked. The president justified these actions through his accusation of political bias expressed on these platforms. However, the opposition claims this was done to prevent people from sharing evidence of electoral fraud. In Zimbabwe, following the internet shutdown in 2019, Zimbabwean businessman, Strive Masiyiwa took to Twitter to explain that telecommunication companies were powerless in the event of state-ordered shutdowns.

It is undeniable that information shared online has great power to influence and mobilize the masses within a short period of time. However, we cannot ignore the clear violation of digital rights and the freedom of expression when people experience government-mandated interferences in their online activities. Internet shutdowns deprive people of free public access to information; it interrupts economic activities and limits communication. Governments across the continent have begun using social media for surveillance and repression of citizens. This has also given the opportunity for the detection and silencing of political activists and online critics.The increasing power of the internet makes it an effective medium for enabling of civil mobilization and revolutionary action which can easily challenge poor governance.

Fear expressed over this by political leadership on the continent has resulted in internet shutdowns in specified and targeted regions or communities. Internet service providers are unable to interfere with these processes or go against government orders due to their legally binding nature. As a result, this practice has been used both effectively and ineffectively to prevent the coverage of civil unrest and human rights violations within the different sectors and communities across the continent.

Media and communication networks based online should be able to operate exclusively from the government in any given state. The lack of this independence promotes limited transparency and censorship of highly politicized issues. In multi-party states, opposition parties are disadvantaged by this censorship as they have little to no control over their voice and representation online and on social media platforms.

In order to help ensure that information circulated online is more authentic, it is important to have a frequent and consistent review of online platforms and the content they share. However, this does not mean the filtering process should include the retraction of information that reflects the truth of more unfavorable conditions and situations that people are experiencing within the continent. Freedom of the media and online communication should be encouraged as it is a key element in promoting democracy in any given state. It encourages individuals to openly address social, political, and economic issues that affect their livelihood and it facilitates dialogue between governments and state citizens. This allows them to bring important issues to the attention of decision-makers, thereby allowing government to take measures for the attainment of progressive change and development.

The internet and social media have given the modern individual a voice to influence change. Social Media has also proven itself an effective medium for political campaigning, where parties and candidates can engage with members of their communities, share ideological values and address the fundamentals of their manifestos. African countries can capitalize on the large scale and efficiency of the internet by introducing online voting systems. This can allow nationals based in the diaspora to practice their voting rights with greater ease and convenience. This will also work around COVID-19 restrictions which have posed new obstacles to traditional public voting systems.

Despite this new challenge to internet connectivity, government-mandated internet shutdowns will not silence the people. The internet and social media encompass great opportunities, promote freedom of expression and promote transparency of governments to their citizens. Internet shutdowns are only short-term mechanisms to limit communication and this practice cannot fully silence the African people. Internet-based engagement and communication should rather be used for the promotion of democracy and to aid the increase in quality of life within the continent.

Perhaps, authoritarians in Africa can learn one or two things, aimed at realizing that social media can enhance good governance which may make their stay in power more comfortable than they imagine.

Nicole Kahari & Chantelle Bakasa are students of International Relations at Africa University

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Opinion: Authoritarianism in the advent of Social Media in Africa