Authors: Jeffrey Conroy-Krutz
Site of publication: The Conversation
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: May 2nd, 2021
COVID-19 pushed much of the world into the digital realm for everything from schooling and work to religious worship and dating. At the same time, many governments were turning data connections off. Full or partial shutdowns of the internet and social media are increasingly common parts of the “digital authoritarian” toolkit.
Many leaders seem threatened by the way digital media make it possible to share information and organise. Research shows that 2020 saw 156 full or partial shutdowns of the internet or social media like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. South Asia accounts for almost three quarters of these shutdowns, with India leading the way.
Africa was the next most affected region, with 20 shutdowns affecting 12 countries. Disruptions lasted from as short as a day or less, in Burundi, Egypt, and Togo, to nearly 90 days in parts of Ethiopia’s Oromia Region. A recent blockage of social media in Chad lasted for more than a year.
And 2021 has already seen shutdowns in Niger, Senegal and Uganda.
Governments have given varying justifications for these moves. These include: combating hate speech and fake news in Chad and Ethiopia, suppressing violence in Sudan, and preventing exam cheating in Algeria and Sudan. Disruptions in Mali in 2020 coincided with anti-government protests, while shutdowns were timed around elections in Burundi, Guinea, Tanzania, and Togo.
In some cases, official reasoning has shifted over time. When Uganda shut down digital media surrounding its January 2021 elections, foreign affairs minister Sam Kutesa initially said the move was retaliation for Facebook’s and Twitter’s actions against government accounts. Investigations had alleged the government was behind “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” using fake accounts to spread disinformation and intimidate the opposition. After the election, however, Kutesa said the move was “a necessary step to stop the vitriolic language and incitement to violence.”
Africa was the next most affected region, with 20 shutdowns affecting 12 countries. Disruptions lasted from as short as a day or less, in Burundi, Egypt, and Togo, to nearly 90 days in parts of Ethiopia’s Oromia Region. A recent blockage of social media in Chad lasted for more than a year
Views on digital media limits
Online commentary usually harshly criticises these shutdowns. But these posts aren’t necessarily representative of general public opinion in affected countries.
To get a sense of broader opinion on these issues, we analysed data from Afrobarometer. This is an independent African research network that conducted nationally representative surveys in 18 countries in 2019/20. About 27,000 Africans participated in these surveys.
A larger share of respondents supported access to digital media. When given a choice between two statements, 48% agreed that “unrestricted access to the internet and social media helps people to be more informed and active citizens, and should be protected”. Only 36% agreed that “information shared on the internet and social media is dividing (our country), so access should be regulated by the government”.
Majorities in 10 countries supported unrestricted access. Support was highest in Cabo Verde (64%), Gabon (63%), Côte d’Ivoire (63%) and Nigeria (61%). Majorities supported regulation in only three countries: Mali (53%), Ethiopia (53%) and Tunisia (59%).
But commerce, education and social communication are increasingly online. One analysis found that digital media restrictions cost African economies some $237 million in 2020
Cost of shutdowns
Restricting digital media is a gamble for African leaders. On the one hand, many governments are embracing digital media shutdowns, particularly around elections and protests, to limit threats. They argue such moves are necessary to halt “the dissemination of messages inciting hate and division”, as a Chadian government spokesperson put it. In some cases, like Ethiopia and Mali, populations seem generally supportive of governments’ restrictions.
But commerce, education and social communication are increasingly online. One analysis found that digital media restrictions cost African economies some $237 million in 2020. And using Afrobarometer data from 16 countries, we find that the share of Africans who regularly get news from digital media almost doubled, from 22% to 38%, between 2014 and 2019.
Les Wathinotes sont soit des résumés de publications sélectionnées par WATHI, conformes aux résumés originaux, soit des versions modifiées des résumés originaux, soit des extraits choisis par WATHI compte tenu de leur pertinence par rapport au thème du Débat. Lorsque les publications et leurs résumés ne sont disponibles qu’en français ou en anglais, WATHI se charge de la traduction des extraits choisis dans l’autre langue. Toutes les Wathinotes renvoient aux publications originales et intégrales qui ne sont pas hébergées par le site de WATHI, et sont destinées à promouvoir la lecture de ces documents, fruit du travail de recherche d’universitaires et d’experts.
The Wathinotes are either original abstracts of publications selected by WATHI, modified original summaries or publication quotes selected for their relevance for the theme of the Debate. When publications and abstracts are only available either in French or in English, the translation is done by WATHI. All the Wathinotes link to the original and integral publications that are not hosted on the WATHI website. WATHI participates to the promotion of these documents that have been written by university professors and experts.