Fake News, Soft Authoritarianism and Challenges to Digital Democracy in Africa

Fake News, Soft Authoritarianism and Challenges to Digital Democracy in Africa
“Binary code” by Christiaan Colen is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

On 27 December 2020, voters headed to the polls across the Central African Republic, one of the continent’s most fragile democracies. The elections were overshadowed by violence as covert disinformation campaigns, waged from Paris and Moscow, sought to inflame communal tensions across the fractured country. Facebook subsequently released a statement, claiming that the platform had removed multiple networks of ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’ traced back to the French and Russian militaries whose influence extended far beyond the Central African Republic, encompassing over a dozen African countries, from Algeria to Cameroon. However, this latest incident represents merely the tip of the iceberg of the far more pervasive and increasingly widespread challenge posed by the proliferation of digital media across the continent’s fledgling democracies.  

Africa’s Digital Dawn

Africa has long lagged behind the rest of the world when it comes to digitisation, with less than four in ten Africans lacking reliable connection to the worldwide web. Indeed, all ten countries with the lowest levels of overall internet penetration are located across Sub-Saharan Africa. However, Africa’s status as a digital backwater is eroding as the so-called ‘digital divide’ closes at an unprecedented rate, exemplified by the adoption of national digital strategies in Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, South Africa and Mauritius, countries whose forward-thinking governments see digitisation as a quick fix solution to some of the continent’s most pervasive developmental issues. More significantly, as existing emerging markets across the Middle East, Asia and Latin America rapidly approach saturation point over the coming years, several of Silicon Valley’s ‘Big Tech’ leviathans have set their sights firmly on African markets as the future. Google’s ‘Next Billion Users’ or Facebook’s ‘Free Basics’ exemplify these aggressive market entry strategies, which offer up a range of limited digital services (including Facebook itself) to new customers in frontier markets at little to no cost. Although techno-optimists have avidly jumped aboard the ‘Africa Rising’ bandwagon, portraying images of glittering  technopolises such as Kenya’s ‘Silicon Savannah’ and South Africa’s ‘Silicon Cape’, the most glaringly obvious manifestations of Africa’s digital awakening so far have come in the form of viral disinformation, fake news, violent extremism and rising digital authoritarianism, all of which threaten to derail Africa’s fourth industrial revolution before it has truly begun.

Digital Democracy Africa 1

Source: https://www.dw.com/en/who-should-bring-the-internet-to-africas-remote-regions/a-48938072

Digital Democracy or Digital Tribalism?

Ten years ago, the Arab Spring appeared to usher in a new era of digital democracy as the proliferation of social media technologies facilitated unprecedented collective mobilisation amongst transnational civil society actors which spread like wildfire across the Middle East. Retrospectively, 2011 seems to have represented the high-water mark of digital democracy, as a tsunami of socially mediated crises from the rise of ISIS’s ‘virtual caliphate’ to the high-profile Cambridge Analytica scandal have illustrated the corrosive role of digital technologies in driving political polarisation and radicalisation. The challenges posed by such digital disruption are particularly acute for Africa’s fragile democracies.  

Even prior to the advent of social media, ‘fake news’ was a persistent problem across Sub-Saharan Africa, reflecting the prevalence of political mobilisation along ethnoreligious faultlines across the continent. Such instrumentalization of identity politics inevitably serves to exacerbate mistrust and polarisation by playing into widespread fears, prejudices and stereotypes, particularly when combined with widespread distrust of traditional state-run media outlets, leading voters to seek alternative sources of information. With the proliferation of digital technologies across the content, the challenges posed by viral disinformation have multiplied, with fake news stories from the bizarre to the dangerous becoming a ubiquitous feature of Africa’s political landscape over recent years. For instance, President Muhammadu Buhari was forced to appear on live television to publicly refute claims spread via Facebook posts and WhatsApp groups that he had died and been replaced by a Sudanese clown named Jubril ahead of Nigeria’s 2019 elections. At a more sinister level, the killing of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular singer and Oromo rights activist in June 2020, engulfed Ethiopia in a spiral of ethnic conflict supercharged by online hate speech and incitements to violence which ultimately translated into real-world atrocities, culminating in an outright military offensive by the Ethiopian armed forces against ethnic separatists in the northern Tigray region. Even countries with virtually non-existent digital infrastructures have not escaped the pernicious effect of socially mediated fake news, with rumours spread via WhatsApp group chats amongst the relatively small digitally connected population trickling down through offline social networks and gaining widespread traction ahead of Malawi’s 2019 elections.

Digital Democracy Africa 2

Supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party of Nelson Chamisa sing and dance as they march on the streets of Harare, Zimbabwe, August 1, 2018 (Source: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/protests-erupt-in-zimbabwe-over-delayed-election-results)

Given the long history of fake news in the continent’s political discourse, African voters tend to be highly savvy to the perils of digital disinformation and disingenuous rumours spread via social media. Nevertheless, those propagating such fabricated narratives often deploy innovative tactics to distort and manipulate the infosphere, employing half-truths and politically motivated pseudo-experts to lend credibility to such narratives and blur the lines between fact and fiction. Another common tactic is the pairing of old videos, often filmed in completely different contexts, with breaking stories. For example, during Ethiopia’s Tigray crisis a widely circulated photo of Ethiopian jets conducting ‘airstrikes’ in Tigray was debunked as an image of military training exercise in Uzbekistan, whilst similar pictures alleging to show President Abiy Ahmed fighting on the frontlines was actually a U.S Army stock image photoshopped with the Ethiopian president’s distinctive facial hair.

More worryingly, African voters remain highly vulnerable to increasingly complex disinformation operations, with political campaigners deploying highly sophisticated psychometric profiling techniques inspired by military psychological operations to segment, microtarget and influence key sections of the electorate. Such tactics are eerily familiar to those aware of the methods used by actors such as Russia’s Internet Research Agency or the now infamous data science firm known as Cambridge Analytica against advanced democracies. However, what is often overlooked is that African elections were employed as the testing ground for such techniques, with Cambridge Analytica using electoral campaigns in Nigeria and Kenya to refine and perfect the behavioural influence operations later used upon British and American voters. The lack of widespread coverage such manipulation of African electorates has received is indicative of the relative absence of scrutiny on the part of regulators regarding electoral integrity across the continent. Despite the widespread furore surrounding social media and electoral manipulation in advanced democracies post-Cambridge Analytica, such operations by so-called ‘black PR’ firms hired on lucrative contracts to manipulate African elections continues unimpeded, as illustrated by revelations of a network of Facebook accounts engaged in ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’ in Angola, Senegal, Togo and Niger which could by traced back to the Archimedes Group, an Israeli-based private intelligence firm. Such revelations likely only represent the tip of the iceberg of a far broader network of actors seeking to distort electorates for their own ends, representing a formidable challenge for Africa’s nascent democracies.

Africa’s Creeping Digital Authoritarianism

The challenges posed by digital disruption for Africa’s fledgling democracies is complemented by another related but more insidious trend, the creeping shadow of digital authoritarianism extending its vice-like grip across the continent. Africa is no stranger to corrupt, nepotistic and authoritarian rule, with only eleven of the continent’s 54 countries classed as ‘free’ as opposed to ‘partially free’ or ‘not free’ in 2018. Historically, the tools employed by authoritarian regimes to curb the power of digital media have been relatively blunt, consisting of blanket internet shutdowns at times of heightened political tensions of ahead of elections, as most recently illustrated by Uganda’s decision to completely shutdown all internet connectivity on 14 January ahead of the East African nation’s general election in January 2021. Internet shutdowns of this variety have become increasingly common and prolonged over recent years. In July 2019, Chad finally lifted Africa’s longest lasting social media ban, sixteen months after it was first imposed in March 2018. In 2020, similar incidences of prolonged digital blackouts during times of heightened political sensitivity were recorded in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Guinea, Mali, Togo, Chad, Burundi and Zimbabwe.

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Source: https://freedomhouse.org/article/democratic-trends-africa-four-charts

Although limited connectivity has allowed Africa’s strongmen to get away with deploying such blunt instruments characteristic of ‘hard’ authoritarianism, increased digital penetration has prompted a shift in the African dictator’s playbook as incumbent regimes exploit technological advances to deploy subtler but more manipulative ‘soft’ authoritarian techniques to exert control over their populations. Several African countries, including Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe have partnered with Chinese tech firms such as Huawei and CloudWalk to install advanced facial recognition systems which facilitate mass surveillance of political opposition. Leaders in these countries, notably Tanzania’s John Magufuli and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni have supplemented such surveillance systems with extensive legislation to restrict online freedom of expression, such as prohibitive taxes on social media and decrees outlawing ‘defamatory’ remarks against authorities. More worryingly, there are indications that Africa’s would-be authoritarians are deploying increasingly sophisticated methods to covertly manipulate domestic online discourse and drown out critics. Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project has highlighted that social media bots, troll armies and other miscellaneous ‘cyber troops’ were utilised by thirteen different African governments to manipulate public opinion via ‘industrialized disinformation’ during 2020.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of digitally powered ‘soft’ authoritarianism in Africa is the capacity to enhance the perceived legitimacy of such despotic regimes. Whilst Africa’s strongmen have traditionally employed rigged elections with implausibly high vote counts for incumbent regimes to rubberstamp their continued rule, digital technologies provide an alternative means of consolidating regimes via subtle censorship, obfuscation and manipulation of the domestic public sphere. If electorates can be manipulated via digital media to such an extent that their political choices are more a function of external influence than an expression of popular will, Africa’s already fragile democratic systems will come to resemble little more than elaborate theatre.

Risk Outlook

Looking forward through the decade, current trends indicate that the geopolitical risks and disruptive potential associated with Africa’s rapid digitisation are only likely to increase during the 2020s. By 2030, Africa’s projected number of internet users is expected to grow by 260% relative to 2017, with the World Bank expressing an ambitious commitment to close the continent’s digital divide by the end of the decade. Such increased penetration is highly likely to be concentrated across Africa’s least connected and most volatile states, such as Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo, dramatically raising the stakes that fake news will trigger cycles of violence which exacerbate endemic fragility. During 2020, Africa became the focal point of global jihadism as ISIS and al-Qaeda-linked militant groups consolidated their presence across the Sahel and several new epicentres of jihadist activity rose to prominence in Uganda, Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Given that militant groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab have already proved adept at exploiting social media for propaganda and recruitment purposes, it is reasonable to speculate that increasing digital penetration will fuel future waves of transnational violent extremism across the continent.

Moreover, as deep learning algorithms facilitate exponential advances in the field of artificial intelligence, the likelihood of new disruptive technologies emerging which further blur the boundaries between fact and fiction is almost certain, allowing for increasingly subtle manipulation techniques that facilitate the shift from hard to soft authoritarianism in Africa. In December 2018, Gabonese President Bongo Ali narrowly averted being overthrown in a coup d’état after allegations emerged that he had died undergoing medical treatment and his televised addresses to the nation were ‘deepfakes’, falsified videos indistinguishable from real footage. Although relatively isolated, such incidents foreshadow a coming age of unprecedented digital disruption as malicious actors exploit new technologies to sow division and undermine faith in Africa’s electoral democracies.

On the more immediate horizon, forthcoming elections in Cote d’Ivoire, Niger and Zambia, all countries with a history of fake news impacting upon political processes, should be high on the radar for digital disinformation. Ethiopia is likely to represent a particular flashpoint, given the extensive role attributed to social media in fomenting ethnic violence in 2020. After incumbent Abiy Ahmed’s decision to delay scheduled presidential elections in August 2020 due to COVID-19 triggered widespread unrest, tensions are likely to run high ahead of rescheduled polls in June, raising the likelihood of fake news spiralling into widespread electoral violence. Overall, viral disinformation is set to remain a permanent feature of Africa’s political landscape, representing one of the most pervasive challenges for the continent’s fragile democracies throughout the coming decade.

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