Internet and Social Media Shutdowns on the African Continent

Internet and Social Media Shutdowns on the African Continent

Internet and social media shutdowns have become an increasingly popular method employed by African leaders to stop the flow of information and repress political opinions and information available online. Commonly used during periods of civil unrest and elections, more often than not, the shutdowns do not have the desired effects. Internet and social media shutdowns rather lead to higher levels of unrest, human rights violations, lack of election credibility and great economic loss.

Not all shutdowns are created equal

The first internet shutdown in Sub-Saharan Africa was recorded in Guinea in 2007. In 2020, full or partial shutdowns were recorded in multiple countries including Algeria, Burundi, Chad, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Sudan, Togo, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. During the #endSARS protests in Nigeria, the country’s government also considered legislation that would allow them to enact an internet shutdown.  

Shutdowns can vary depending on the goal of the leader who commands them. A shutdown, according to non-profit and digital rights activists Access Now, is considered an “intentional disruption of the internet of electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable for a specific population or within a location”.  However, there are also varying degrees of shutdowns. 

An internet blackout is a complete cut off to access and can include a partial blackout for some Internet Service Providers. A social media shutdown targets social media platforms, including WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. However, journalists often get around a social media shutdown with the help of a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Finally, throttling is another method used to slow down the internet to the point where one cannot use it. 

Internet shutdowns are more common in countries that have greater government control over internet infrastructure and run state-owned internet service providers (ISP). In countries that have ISP owned privately, it is trickier, but pressure can be applied by threatening to revoke operating licenses, and this normally results in compliance. MTN in Uganda was asked to shut down their internet services during the January 2021 elections, to which they complied as they wished to keep the operating environment stable for them.

The True Costs

Internet shutdowns impact political, economic, and social issues. In 2019, across the world, over 18, 000 hours of internet shutdowns were recorded, costing the global economy $8 billion. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, it was estimated that internet shutdowns resulted in a loss of $2.2 billion in 2019.  Four years before, the economic losses worldwide from internet shutdowns sat at $2.4 billion. There were 25 cases of internet shutdowns in Africa noted in 2019 by Access Now, a rise from 20 in 2018 and 12 in 2017.

In 2016, Uganda shut down internet access during their elections and lost close to $2 million a day according to local estimates. 

The most recent shutdown further resulted in health care issues, as patients lost access to doctors who they rely on for advice over social media platforms during the Covid19 pandemic. This is a wider effect of these shutdowns.

When do these occur and why? 

An election is the most common period during which internet and social media shutdowns occur. Tanzania employed this method during their 2020 elections, and most recently Uganda during their elections in January 2021. Periods of popular protest and unrest is another event where internet shutdowns are imposed. In 2020, Ethiopia imposed an internet shutdown after the assassination of prominent singer and activist which led to widespread protests. These shutdowns have the aim of stopping the flow of information, as social media has taken over as the platform where citizens plan mass action. 

Political repression is another reason internet shutdowns have become so popular. The shutdowns are often enacted in countries that have authoritarian rulers – President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda is often referred to as the last dictator of Africa. In 2019, of the 22 countries that enacted some form of a shutdown, 17 of them are considered to be authoritarian. These countries and rulers tend to have a poor history of human rights as is.  

Shutdowns also have been known to occur during exam periods where governments hope to stop any spreading of possible leaked exam papers.

Does it get the job done?

Studies have been documented to determine if internet shutdowns do have the desired effect. A study done after the Arab Spring in 2011 focused on protest behaviour in Egypt. The study showed that the internet shutdown had the opposite effect of what it intended to do, with protestors gathering even more after the shutdown. The theory behind this is that lack of communication forced citizens outside to seek information from other people in their surroundings.

Another study completed looked at elections during 2015-2018 in Africa where internet shutdowns were implemented. It was found that levels of voting irregularities and electoral violence increased during these elections when compared to those that did not have internet shutdowns.  

These studies indicate that in many cases, internet shutdowns do not achieve the desired effect. The shutdowns violate human rights that have been enshrined by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and by the UN Human Rights Council. This has become a more serious issue during the Covid-19 pandemic. The internet has become an indispensable tool during the pandemic to spread information and advice on preventing the spread of the disease. 

Internet and social media shutdowns during elections further call into question the validity of the elections and create doubt around whether they are free and fair. The shutdowns, in whatever form they take, can also cause an increase in violence, despite the likelihood that they were implemented in order to prevent violence.

The economic impact of the internet and social media shutdowns also cannot be ignored. Countries lose millions of dollars, creating an unnecessary economic loss in countries that already suffer from debt and weak economic growth. If countries continue to employ this method, investor confidence may also decrease, especially in the tech sector. 

Despite the negative effects, the African continent will likely continue to see a rise in internet shutdowns in the next year. The African Network Information Centre, that is responsible for the IP addresses in Africa, tried to combat the shutdowns by suggesting IP addresses and numbers be restricted for a year for governments that impose shutdowns. However, the organisation went against this decision, stating that the restriction of IP addresses would, in fact, antagonize governments. This leaves penalties to come from other bodies. Social media platforms that have started playing a bigger role in providing information, like Twitter and Facebook, may also have to consider their role and how to leverage their positions to prevent shutdowns in the future.

Categories: Africa, Covid-19

About Author

Talya Parker

Talya Parker holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa and currently works as an Operations Associate for Ceravoid, a commercial intelligence and risk management firm based in Cape Town. Ms. Parker is passionate about Political Risk and Intelligence on the African continent and aims to offer an understanding of African risk from an African perspective.