Restricting digital media is a gamble for African leaders

COVID-19 has pushed much of the world into the digital realm for everything from school and work to religious worship and dating. At the same time, many governments were turning off data connections. Full or partial Internet and social media shutdowns are increasingly common elements of the “digital authoritarian” toolkit.

Many leaders seem threatened by the way digital media allow information to be shared and organized. 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 nearly three quarters of these closures, led by India.

Africa was the second worst affected region, with 20 closures affecting 12 countries. The disruptions lasted as little as a day or less in Burundi, Egypt and Togo, to nearly 90 days in parts of Ethiopia’s Oromia region. A recent social media blockage in Chad lasted for over a year.

And 2021 has already seen closures in Niger, Senegal and Uganda.

Governments have given various justifications for these measures. These include: combating hate speech and fake news in Chad and Ethiopia, cracking down on violence in Sudan, and preventing exam fraud in Algeria and Sudan. The disruptions in Mali in 2020 coincided with anti-government protests, while closures were timed around elections in Burundi, Guinea, Tanzania and Go.

Read more: Shutting down the internet doesn’t work, but governments keep doing it

In some cases, the official reasoning has changed over time. When Uganda shut down digital media surrounding its January 2021 election, Foreign Minister Sam Kutesa first said it was in retaliation for Facebook and Twitter’s actions against government accounts . Investigations alleged that the government was behind “coordinated inauthentic behavior” using fake accounts to spread disinformation and intimidate the opposition. After the election, however, Kutesa said the move was “a necessary step to stop vitriolic language and incitement to violence.”

Read more: Uganda election: Museveni’s social media ban ends violent campaign

Opinions on the limits of digital media

Online comments generally criticize these closings harshly. But these messages are not necessarily representative of general public opinion in the affected countries.

To get a broader idea of ​​these questions, we analyzed the data from Afrobarometer. It 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 greater proportion of respondents supported access to digital media. When given a choice between two statements, 48% agreed that “unlimited 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 divides (our country), therefore 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 were in favor of regulation in only three countries: Mali (53%), Ethiopia (53%) and Tunisia (59%).

Read more: How Internet shutdowns affected the lives of millions of Ethiopians

Guarding of freedoms

Not surprisingly, regular users of digital media were more supportive of freedoms. Of the 37% of respondents who said they used some form of digital media for their information at least a few times a week, 62% were in favor of unlimited access. Only 35% were in favor of regulation.

More than half (54%) of those surveyed said they had never used digital media for news in the past month. These non-users were more divided, with 37% in favor of regulation and 39% in favor of open access. A quarter (24%) of non-users did not share an opinion or could not choose between positions.

Factors like age, place of residence and education also made a difference. The groups most likely to use digital media were also more favorable to unrestricted access. Younger respondents (18-25) were almost twice as likely to oppose the restrictions as older respondents (over 60) (56% vs. 30%). Urban residents favored unrestricted access more than rural residents (56% vs. 43%). And those with post-secondary education were much more supportive of unrestricted access than those without formal education (60% vs. 34%). Men were only slightly more supportive of unrestricted digital media than women (50% vs. 47%).

Surprisingly perhaps, support for unrestricted digital media does not clearly fit within the political framework. Even among those who said they trusted their president “quite a bit” or “a lot”, 45% still supported unrestricted digital media, compared with 39% who supported restrictions. Those who said they only trusted their national leader “a little” or “not at all” were even more in favor of open digital media: 53% supported unrestricted access and 34% supported regulations.

Read more: Africans concerned about the evils of social media but oppose government restrictions

Cost of stops

Restricting digital media is a gamble for African leaders. On the one hand, many governments are embracing digital media shutdowns, especially around elections and protests, to limit threats. They argue that such measures are necessary to stop “the dissemination of messages inciting hatred and division,” as a spokesperson for the Chadian government put it. In some cases, such as Ethiopia and Mali, people tend to generally favor restrictions imposed by governments.

But commerce, education and social communication are increasingly online. 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 receive news from digital media almost doubled from 22% to 38% between 2014 and 2019.

Read more: Internet shutdowns in Africa threaten democracy and development

If the people of Africa are now skeptical of the limits placed on digital media, this opposition could grow as more of them enter the digital space for commerce, work, education, entertainment and social communications. . The closures will not only generate higher economic costs, but also likely greater public outrage.

Joseph Koné, associate researcher and financial manager at the Center for Research and Training on Integrated Development (CREFDI), Afrobarometer’s national partner in Côte d’Ivoire, was co-author of the research on which this article is based.

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