When Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni shut down social media sites and messaging platforms on Tuesday — two days before the elections — he said: “There is no way anybody can come around and play with our country, decide who is good, who is bad.” Of Facebook, he said: “If you want to take sides against [the ruling party], then that group will not operate in Uganda.”
Museveni is not the first president to be aware of the importance of social media. Several others have decided whether they will use its influence for their own benefit or infringe on their citizens’ use of it.
A case in point is the lies that President Donald Trump spewed hours before his supporters stormed the Capitol in Washington, DC, as Congress was certifying president-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
Trump used Twitter as his loudhailer to connect with his millions of supporters, but on the day of the rampage he was lost for words, failing to denounce his supporters’ actions, telling them instead he loved them. Trump was later banned from social media sites.
In several African countries, reports of internet shutdowns or interferences have become ubiquitous, especially over election periods. But unlike in the United States, African leaders are unlikely to have their social media licences revoked.
Before Uganda, it was Tanzania during its October elections. And it’s not only during election time. Before Tanzania, Ethiopia had an internet shutdown for almost a month when unrest surged in the Tigray region. Burundi, Chad, Guinea, Mali, Togo and Zimbabwe. All last year. All those leaders would likely claim they did it for the protection of their people. But sometimes their citizens need protection from them. Just as a “nobody” can spew falsehoods and propaganda on social media, so too can a political leader — only with more dire consequences.
Of course, freedom-attacking precedents, once set, are hard to undo. According to monitoring body Access Now, in 2019, half the countries that shut down their internet had not done so in the two years before.
Social media bolsters political campaigns, and with the pandemic rendering door-to-door canvassing obsolete, internet shutdowns can impede free and fair elections.
South Africa is due for elections at a to-be-determined date in the near future. So far, our democracy has held. We have not yet experienced the deliberate internet shutdowns of some on our continent.
But the Trump debacle shows that the right to freedom of expression rubs up against the limits of free speech — incitement to violence, hate speech — on the small global stage that is the smartphone in your hand. In the connected age, election campaigns will never be the same again.