The Politics of Internet Shutdowns in Africa

The Politics of Internet Shutdowns in Africa

Internet shutdowns are now commonplace in some African states, particularly those under authoritarian rule or impacted by instability and insecurity. Explanations for these – usually state-imposed – disruptions generally focus on a government’s repressive intent, and desire to restrict or neutralise critique or opposition. There is little doubt that such considerations are often key; nearly half of shutdowns in Africa in 2022 were imposed during political protests. Not all shutdowns are the same, however, and understanding what drives them requires us to look carefully at emerging practices and perspectives in particular polities and contexts.


Last year saw the highest number of Internet shutdowns in Africa in a single year, affecting populations across 35 states. Activists, analysts and scholars have tended to explain this phenomenon – in Africa, as elsewhere – as an “authoritarian practice” or part of an “ever-expanding authoritarian toolkit” by governments who aim to “exert control over information” and “shut up critics”. Certainly, in a number of states on the continent, it has become an increasingly consistent practice to disrupt or suspend Internet access during protests. The Senegalese government, for example, restricted mobile data access this summer in the context of anti-government protests, as did its counterpart in Sierra Leone in August 2022. 

Internet connectivity is also routinely switched off in some states around elections, such as in Gabon this August, or during coups or conflicts and, indeed, this has become routinised in some polities, including Burkina Faso and Ethiopia. Even in states where threatened shutdowns do not ultimately occur, the lead-up to elections is often characterised by public debate around the possibility of restrictions should the risk of hate speech and disinformation spread online pose, in the eyes of the authorities, an unacceptable risk to peace and security.

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In the latter case, social media is often singled-out by state actors as a particular threat to national unity and stability, and, indeed, a growing trend in Africa is the targeted banning of specific platforms. Facebook, for example, has been banned in Uganda since 2021 following the platform’s removal of a number of accounts and pages it claimed were fronts for government agencies engaged in “inauthentic behaviour” in the lead-up to that country’s election. A few months later, Nigeria banned Twitter for seven months after the website deleted tweets from, and temporarily suspended the account of, then president Muhammadu Buhari, who it accused of posting incendiary content regarding secessionist activities in the south-east of the country. In July 2022, Kenya’s National Cohesion and Integration Commission threatened to shut down Facebook if the social media giant did not enhance its policing of hate speech and other harmful online content in the country as the August 2022 election approached. 

The impact of such targeted bans on livelihoods, service delivery, freedom of expression, and political space, while damaging, is clearly of a different magnitude to that of Internet-wide blackouts. Indeed, some Nigerian officials mused that the lifting of that country’s Twitter ban in January 2022 came partly from a frustration on the part of the ruling party that it had “surrendered” part of the digital world to the opposition, who continued to use the platform to criticise the government via VPN (Interviews, Abuja, May 2022). Moreover, the politics of platform shutdowns underscore the entanglement of social media firms themselves in governments’ considerations and (re/)actions.

In our interviews with Ugandan and Nigerian officials involved in the 2021 bans on Facebook and Twitter respectively, many suggested that the immediate triggers mentioned above formed part of a longer-term set of grievances against the platforms and their staff around Silicon Valley’s notional political partiality, ignorance of local context, and “arrogant” approach to “diplomatic relations”. (Interviews, Abuja, May 2022/January 2023, and Kampala, August-September 2023). The platforms, they argued, had often ignored state complaints regarding hate speech but upheld government critics’ reporting of government accounts. Facebook (in Uganda) and Twitter (in Nigeria) had also, they said, made little effort to engage with government officials over their concerns until the bans were imposed. 

A central dimension of this discourse has been the notion of social media companies as distant, California-centric powers with little interest in, or understanding of, African states and contexts. “Why wouldn’t Facebook listen to us when people are saying [on Facebook] they will kill everyone in government?” asked one Ugandan official, with another explaining how their appeals against the account suspensions were curtly dismissed when they reached key decision-makers across the Atlantic (Interviews, Kampala, September 2023). Many underscored the difficulties of identifying or contacting platform representatives, with one Nigerian official suggesting that their government’s actions had been informed by “a feeling that [Twitter] don’t give a damn about us…so we should give a damn about ourselves…the purpose of the suspension was to get [Twitter’s] attention” (Interview, Abuja, May 2022).

For some African policy-makers, being ignored or dismissed by powerful and largely US-based social media firms forms part of a wider and longstanding marginalization of Africa in global politics, and disregarding of African independence and sovereignty.

 

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It is important, of course, not to approach government justifications for Internet restrictions uncritically, in Africa as elsewhere. Moreover, African judiciaries – backed by civil society groups and activists – are increasingly challenging Internet suspensions across the continent and establishing a series of legal standards and counter-norms around Internet access. Our research nonetheless demonstrates the significance of state-social media company relationships as a, largely unexplored, factor in some of these cases.

For some African policy-makers, being ignored or dismissed by powerful and largely US-based social media firms forms part of a wider and longstanding marginalization of Africa in global politics, and disregarding of African independence and sovereignty. Silicon Valley has also developed a reputation on the continent for exploitation and instrumentalization of Africans – from the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal and treatment of African content moderators, to Elon Musk’s 2022 overnight sacking of much of Twitter’s only Africa office within weeks of its establishment. Social media executives are rightly cautious about appearing to too readily accede to the demands of governments, particularly those of an authoritarian bend. Engagement and acquiescence are not, however, the same thing, and demonstrating a greater commitment to the former in Africa could help social media platforms avoid being held responsible for future platform shutdowns.

This blog is part of a larger project (“Shutdown: Understanding the Closure of Social Media Space in West Africa”) funded by Meta’s Research Awards in Misinformation and Polarization.

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