Is social media becoming a threat to democracy on the continent?
ANALYSIS | THE INDEPENDENT | In early 2021, Facebook (Meta) deactivated more than 20 accounts linked to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party. Shortly afterward, Twitter also followed suit, closing 11% of the nearly 3,500 accounts worldwide that allegedly spread pro-government propaganda.
Thus in total, almost 440 Ugandan social media accounts close to the Ugandan government have been blocked by social media networks to date.
Twitter and Facebook accuse the Ugandan government of using social media as a tool to manipulate public opinion, spread disinformation, and intimidate the opposition. Facebook says the Ministry of Information had been using “fake and duplicate accounts” for propaganda purposes.
A new favorite tool used by autocratic leaders
According to analysis by the Oxford Internet Institute, the spread of misinformation driven by political organisations on social media has been sharply on the rise in recent years. The report states that in 2017, disinformation campaigns were carried out in 28 countries. Three years later, that figure had risen to 81 countries.
“This method is gaining ground in countries whose leaders are desperately struggling to maintain their image and reputation on social media,” said Ugandan human rights activist Nicholas Opiyo in a DW interview.
According to Opiyo, this involves using bots and trolls, computer programs, and paid users who use fake accounts to flood social media with posts favorable to the government.
Bans across Africa
In Tanzania, Uganda’s neighbour, Twitter took similar action, removing 268 accounts for spreading “malicious reports” directed at members and supporters of the Tanzanian human rights organisation Fichua Tanzania and its founder.
In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari criticised the activists of the #EndSARS movement in June and called for action to be taken against them. However, Twitter deleted this call, and in reponse, Buhari’s government banned Nigerians from accessing the micro-blogging site, Franziska Ulm-Düsterhöft, Africa expert at Amnesty International in Germany, told DW.
Back in Uganda, the government in Kampala has also been trying to make it harder for Ugandans to get independent information online by imposing taxes on mobile data. The government also doesn’t shy away from temporarily shutting down social media altogether, as was witnessed during the run-up to the presidential election a year ago.
Angelo Izama, a political consultant and journalist from Uganda, describes the move rather as an “overreaction” rooted in deeply-held patriarchal beliefs. Izama says that “(t)he political leadership, especially here in sub-Saharan Africa, comes from a generation where society was structured so that the child would not contradict the father.”
“If it did, it was punished. And that’s the relationship between the state and the citizen,” Izama told DW.
But he says that society is changing, he says, leaving such political elites in the dust. Young people in particular, he highlights, are now able with the help of the internet to react immediately to laws and bans, and make their opinions known about the performance of the government or of private institutions.