How Digital Repression Is Changing African Politics

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Africa’s first election of 2021, featuring a presidential race in Uganda between President Yoweri Museveni and opposition leader Bobi Wine, provided a textbook example about how governments have perfected their exploitation of digital tools to manipulate elections and reinforce political control. In the weeks leading up to the election, pro-Museveni government actors used fake accounts on Facebook and Twitter to launch an online influence operation, which the social media giants subsequently removed.

The government retaliated by first banning access to social media platforms, and then instituting a total Internet blackout lasting for five days (and costing nearly $9 million in lost economic activity). As a result, the Open Observatory of Network Interference concluded that “Uganda not only experienced social media blocking (regardless of OTT tax payment), but also a 4-day internet outage” as part of an election that was “marred by violence, as authorities reportedly cracked down on opposition rallies, while opposition candidates and their supporters experienced threats and intimidation”.

Despite widespread fraud allegations and international condemnation about the ruling party’s nasty tactics, the country’s electoral commission declared Museveni the winner with 59 percent of the vote. Uganda’s behavior is hardly unique on the continent. In the past decade, governments have increasingly turned to digital tools to reinforce their political repression strategies.

Digital repression is best understood as the use of information and communications technology to surveil, coerce, or manipulate individuals or groups in order to deter specific activities or beliefs that challenge the state. I identify five tools or techniques that are central to digital repression efforts: surveillance, censorship, disinformation, Internet shutdowns, and targeted persecution of online users.

Governments deploy different combinations of these tools based on a number of factors: the nature of the political threat they face (e.g., mass protests vs. political challenges from particular individuals), how government intelligence or security forces are structured, overall technological capacity, whether the government has prior experience using certain digital techniques, and prevailing political norms (e.g., practices which are tolerated in authoritarian systems like Saudi Arabia are less acceptable in hybrid democracies like Kenya).

While Africa lags the world in terms of Internet connectivity—less than a third of its population enjoys regular Internet access – and while its governments display critical cyber deficiencies related to infrastructure and qualified personnel, this has not diminished digital repression patterns on the continent. Three trends are especially worth highlighting: the expanding use of Internet shutdowns, the rise of disinformation, and domestic sources of digital repression.

Expanding Use of Internet Shutdowns

Governments across Africa are implementing Internet shutdowns with increasing frequency for political gain. In recent years, governments in Togo, Guinea, Uganda, Tanzania, and Burundi have restricted Internet access during elections to manipulate result. Leaders in Sudan, Ethiopia, Mali, and Zimbabwe have blocked online connectivity to stem mass protests. In Ethiopia, President Abiy cut connectivity in the northern Tigray region in conjunction with major military operations. Consequently, Internet shutdowns have become increasingly common on the continent. Access Now, for example, found that occurrences of Internet shutdowns in Africa increased by 47% from 2018 to 2019.

In some instances, governments impose wholesale Internet blackouts. In other cases, authorities block specific websites or platforms. No matter the method, the intent is to deprive citizens access to crucial information communicated online during a time of unrest. Throttling the Internet stifles dissent from political critics, hinders organizational efforts from opposition groups, and shields government abuses from domestic and international scrutiny. As I have written, Internet shutdowns are inferior instruments of repression for several reasons.

First, they are expensive. They not only stifle commerce during the actual implementation period, but research shows that their negative economic effect can linger long after a shutdown concludes. Such economic loss may translate to diminished political support over time. Second, as much as Internet shutdowns inhibit protestors and opposition members from communicating with one another, they also prevent government authorities from monitoring events in the country – which groups are mobilizing or demonstrations that are being planned. Such willful blindness can be a serious obstacle to effective intelligence gathering by the state. Nonetheless, Internet shutdowns are also easy to enact, the political blowback is limited, and they bring immediate short-term results. Their use by governments in Africa will likely continue to grow.

Disinformation Takes Hold

As more African citizens come online and as the state monopoly on information dissipates, governments are adapting new techniques to spread false information and influence political discourse. State actors are using online disinformation campaigns and manipulation techniques, leading to electoral rigging, political and social polarization, and incitement to violence.

Data collected by the Digital Society Project illustrates the increasingly large role of disinformation in African politics. The prevalence of government and political party disinformation in Africa rose significantly from 2010-19. Violence incited by social media also increased. As Figure 1 shows, for most of the 10-year period, social media-induced violence lagged the global mean, but in 2019, its prevalence increased sharply.

Figure 1 Disinformation and Social Media Incitement to Violence Trends in Africa (2010-19)

Source: Valeriya Mechkova, Daniel Pemstein, Brigitte Seim, Steven Wilson, “Digital Society Project Dataset v2″, 2020.

Note: 0 = global mean for all country years. Figures below 0 represent below average variable measurements; figures above 0 indicate higher than average measurements. The data measures experts’ survey responses to perceptions of how prevalent each variable is in a given country for that particular year but does not represent quantitative tallies of specific incidents.

Countries with pre-existing high levels of political repression, such as Eritrea, South Sudan, Burundi, Zimbabwe, and Somalia, also saw high levels of government disseminated false information. Many of these same countries also displayed high levels of offline violence organized on social media, likely related to the quantity of false information propagated by their governments.

Using online disinformation as a politically repressive tool is a new variable that is rapidly changing and not yet fully understood. Moreover, disinformation is not limited to government actors – increasingly political parties, civil society groups, and other stakeholders are exploiting these techniques for political gain. Disinformation campaigns are likely to bring significant political consequences and unintended societal ramifications in Africa in the coming years, not unlike the political convulsions consolidated democracies like the United States are currently experiencing.

Domestic Sources of Digital Repression

A common refrain is that China is responsible for the growing prevalence of digital repression strategies in Africa (and worldwide).  While China has played an important enabling role in subsidizing hi-tech equipment to repressive regimes, this critique overstates a more complex picture. By and large, digital repression in Africa is a function of domestic factors rather than foreign influence. A useful counterfactual is to consider whether authoritarian leaders in countries such as Uganda or Zimbabwe would have found other ways to digitally repress their citizens even if they lacked access to Chinese technology – and that provided by foreign actors more generally. Given the growing availability of repressive technology (and African leaders’ corresponding commitment to use these tools), it seems clear that preexisting political repression is a much stronger predictor of digital repression than China’s export policy.

It is worth noting that liberal democracies have also played a significant role in providing intrusive digital tools to authoritarian African governments. In part, this is an outgrowth of the post-9/11 reorientation of Western foreign policy priorities toward counterterrorism and securitization. As scholars like Iginio Gagliardone have written, US counterterrorism initiatives generated “policies leading to greater surveillance and censorship” by supplying partner governments with powerful technologies to catch insurgents while turning a blind eye to their domestic repression agendas.

The future of digital repression

Digital repression in Africa will continue to evolve. As online connectivity increases and as mass protest movements continue to rely on social media and communications apps to challenge regimes, governments will seek new ways to block challengers and suppress dissent. It is unlikely that either side will gain a decisive advantage. Rather, the landscape will resemble a game of cat-and-mouse, with governments and protest movements striving in turn to adapt new capabilities in order to gain leverage over their counterparts. Some regimes may explore deploying more expensive and bespoke approaches like AI-enabled surveillance and censorship filtering. However, most governments will continue relying upon tried-and-true digital strategies – Internet shutdowns, targeted spyware attacks against political opponents, arresting online activists, and spreading disinformation – as core tools for their political survival.

Steven Feldstein is a senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s democracy, conflict, and governance program. From 2014 to 2017, he served as the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor. His new book,The Rise of Digital Repression: How Technology is Reshaping Power, Politics, and Resistance (Oxford University Press) comes out April 13.

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